How to Create a Cattle Pasture for Optimum Flavor and Fat Cover in Grass-fed Beef

Raising Cattle for Profit on a Small Farm can be a Meaningful Enterprise for the Farm Family

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With Spencer Smith – Creating the right blend of forages and grasses in a pasture to finish (fatten for slaughter) cattle is not as simple as turning the cattle out to grass. It requires timing the “finishing season” for maximum flavor and health benefits. Everything the animal eats will impact the flavor of the meat. The plants the animal eats will impact flavor differently depending on the age of the plant. Is it a young, new grass? Is it old and lignified? Once this delicate balance of plant type and age is figured out, and can consistently produce high-quality beef, word will spread about the flavor of the grass-fed beef.

Grass-fed beef and grass finished are sometimes used interchangeably as terms to describe cattle who only ate grass their whole lives. To finish cattle means to grow them to a certain age and fat cover to be ready to slaughter. A grass-finished product means that the animal ate only grass their whole lives. Grass-fed generally means this too, but some companies are advertising grass-fed beef when really the animal was fed grass most of their lives but supplemented with corn or other high-concentrate feeds at the end of their life. When purchasing grass-fed beef, it is important to ask about the finishing process to understand the health benefits, environmental impact and other factors that are important to most consumers.

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Dr. Jason Rowntree, an Associate Professor of Animal Science at Michigan State University and a Savory Global Network Hub leader, explains that the most critical factor in finishing grass-fed beef for flavor and health is getting enough fat cover on the animal leading up to slaughter.

“Energy intake during the last 60 days of finishing and adequate subcutaneous fat at slaughter are two important factors. First, we want to see steers gaining a minimum of two pounds per day (even better three pounds average daily gain) in the last 60 days of finishing. This ensures an increasing plane of weight gain and hopefully a more marbled carcass. Our steers average around 1250 pounds with a 650-pound carcass.”

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Grass-finished beef should be finished. This is a rib steak out of a beef we harvested this fall and the flavor is fantastic due to adequate fat cover and intramuscular fat, also called marbling. Photo by Spencer Smith

The health benefits of grass-fed beef are in the fat. In a truly grass-finished animal, the fat is a super food. This is due to the proper ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and other vital fatty acids present in grass-fed beef fat.  In a conventionally finished, or high-energy concentrate finished animal (fed grain or corn), it is full of pro-inflammatory fatty acids. It is very high in omega-6 fatty acids. The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is unbalanced in grain-finished beef.

Why Some Grass-Fed Beef Tastes “Gamey”

Common complaints of grass-finished beef are that it has a gamey flavor, is tough and dry. Just as important as selecting the best cattle breeds for grass-fed beef for the local environment, also select for the best grass to finish cattle. Time the grazing so that optimum fat and flavor can be part of the beef product. The benefit of finishing on pasture applies to other species. Monogastric animals, such as hogs, produce a superior tasting flavor when the hogs are pastured. Raising pigs on pasture can create a superior flavor in the meat. The focus of this post is finishing ruminants, such as cattle, on pasture.

“My opinion is that a majority of the off flavors found in grass-fed beef is a result of not having a minimum of 3/10ths of an inch of fat at the last rib on the carcass as they go from slaughter into chill. Having carcasses the are too trim leads to cooler shrink and cold shortening. The carcasses do not have enough fat to protect against drying out. Likewise, if the carcass is chilled too quickly, muscle fibers seize up causing toughness among other issues,” said Dr. Rowntree.

“Ensure the cattle are smooth looking at slaughter, have adequate fat deposited in the brisket, cod and tail head and are properly handled, slaughtered and chilled,” he said.

“Gameyness” of the beef can be prevented. It is caused by the age of the plants the animal eats. A forage ration that is too young and lush (higher in protein and lower in total carbohydrates) or that is too old and declining in “total digestible nutrients” or TDN’s will create gaminess in grass finished beef.

The flavor of grass-fed beef is influenced by how it cooks. Joe and Teri Bertotti own and operate Hole-In-One Ranch with their family in Janesville, California. They produce grass-fed beef and lamb for customers in Northern California and Nevada.

“People generally don’t recognize that grass fed beef needs to be cooked a certain way. “Low and slow” is out motto. Grain-fed beef can be seared and cooked at a moderately high temperature and the meat turns out fine.  With grass fed, that technique almost always results in a meal that is unsatisfactory.  We realized early on that if we want to reach more customers, we need to be sure the customers we have are enjoying our product and that starts with them knowing or learning how to best prepare it,” Joe Bertotti said.

The Age of Plants Influences the Flavor of Beef

Fattening on cattle pastures takes the same principle as grain finishers in the feedlots: more carbohydrates/energy in the cattle’s diet allows them to put on enough fat to actually finish. Protein builds muscle and frame, while carbs increase fat deposits.  This principle is the same when finishing on cattle pastures. When finishing on forage, make sure that the animals get enough energy (carbs) compared to protein.

Chad Lemke, Production Manager for Grassfed Livestock Alliance, director of the Savory Global Network Hub called Grassfed Sustainability Group, and a grass-fed beef producer in Central Texas, said, that grass-finished cattle need a diverse diet. Age of the animal matters too. It matters a lot.

“Animals must have sufficient age in order to produce a well-marbled carcass with adequate back fat.  Most bad grass-fed beef eating experiences are due to the fact that an animal is not truly finished. As with the human diet, animals must have high quality, nutritious and a diverse offering of forage including grasses, legumes, and forbs,” Lemke said.

The genetics of cattle influence their ability to gain enough fat to finish on grass.

“One of the biggest mistakes producers make is believing that any animal can be forage finished on any forage in the cattle pasture,” Lemke said.

The time to start fattening genetically appropriate cattle is when forages are starting to move more carbs/energy up into the leaves rather than growing more leaf. When grasses are lush, dark green and growing fast, the plant is higher in protein. A cattle pasture with high-protein plants will add frame and muscle on calves, but it will not get them to a finished body condition. This is a common problem for grass finishers as they will allow their cattle to re-graze plants as the plants re-grow leaves. Instead, get a cattle pasture that is at maximum forage growth, but prior to “heading out,” which means the plants are creating a seed head.  This timing will ensure the proper balance for a fat-packing diet. By concentrating on TDNs and the best time for grazing,  the cattle pasture will maximize the fat on the calves’ back.

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This grass-fed steer is gaining well on pasture. When harvested, he will supply us with a nutrient-dense, well-marbled, delicious product for our customers. Photo by Spencer Smith

“Not having enough high-quality forage to ensure a two-pound average daily gain going into slaughter is a common mistake. The cattle are not appreciating in weight gain, and at proper carcass maturity, do not have enough marbling to ensure a quality tasting product,” said Dr. Rowntree.

Another way that producers can manage for the best tasting product is selecting what forage mixes the cattle will have access to during the last few weeks of their life.  Different climates and environments support different native grasses in the cattle pasture, thus finishing times vary throughout the country and the world. Some climates require providing structures such as cattle sheds. Design cattle production cycles: calving times, weaning times, finishing times to complement the grass production cycle. Some ranchers plant a pasture of annual plants for finishing cattle.  This is effective because annual crops such as wheat, rye, and oats can be planted early in the year. They provide ample energy to the grazing animal as soon as the fourth leaf is mature.  Later in the year, if cattle are finishing in the height of summer, consider planting warm season annuals such as grazing corn, sorghum, sudangrass or legumes that will maintain throughout the summer heat.  Another option is feeding stockpiled feed such as high-quality hay or haylage.  

Monitor how well the stock is metabolizing feed.  This can be checked (not scientifically) by learning to read manure in the cattle pasture.  Cattle eating a balanced ration that their stomach biology is adapted to will produce manure that is moist and well-digested. Look for round patties with hollowed out centers. If they manure is loose and runny, then the cattle are getting too much protein in their diet. This can be corrected with supplementing high-energy hay. If the manure is blocky and hard, carbohydrates in the diet are too high. Adjust the diet by supplementing with high-protein feed, such as alfalfa hay. Manure indicates how cattle are gaining and if they are utilizing all forage. Manure texture can also indicate beef flavor. If it is runny (protein is too high) the beef will tend to be gamier in flavor. If it is too hard and clumpy, cattle are losing condition and the harvested meat from these animals will tend to be tougher. Learning how livestock is utilizing the feed provided in cattle pastures helps maximize fat and flavor in grass-fed and finished beef.

Are you considering raising grass-fed and finished beef? What is the main reason you want to produce this product?

Abbey and Spencer Smith own and operate the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, a Savory Global Network Hub serving Northern California and Nevada. As a Savory Institute Field Professional, Spencer works with land managers, ranchers and farmers in the hub region and beyond. Abbey also serves as the Savory Global Network Coordinator for the Savory Institute. They live in Fort Bidwell, California. The Springs Ranch, the demonstration site for the Jefferson Center, is holistically managed and enjoyed by three generations of Smiths: Steve and Pati Smith, Abbey and Spencer Smith and the main boss of the whole operation, Maezy Smith. Learn more at jeffersonhub.com and savory.global/network.

Originally published in Countryside July/August 2017 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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How to Create a Cattle Pasture for Optimum Flavor and Fat Cover in Grass-fed Beef

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