Consumer interest in grass-fed cattle continues to grow, in no small part due to the perception that grass-fed beef is a higher quality product. This perception covers both the animals’ quality of life as well as the quality of the product purchased.
Despite this interest, the overwhelming majority of cattle in the United States are still finished on grain, meaning that the animals are fed grain in addition to or instead of their grazing stock for the last 160 to 180 days of life (roughly 25-30 percent of their life). The pervasiveness of this practice is likely traceable to research dating back nearly 200 years, which indicates that, as cattle mature, they become less able to convert grass feed into muscle as they age. Cattle are finished on grain to help counteract this effect and continue the animal’s growth throughout their life.
However, for those who would prefer their cattle consuming exclusively grass and forage, there
is some guidance to help maintain adequate gains (approximately 2.0-2.5 pounds per day) until the animals reach maturity.
The greatest average daily gains in grass-finished cattle can be expected when the forage provided is more than 65% digestible and supplies:
- between 14 to 18% crude protein (CP),
- more than 20% dry matter (DM), and
- more than 20% water-soluble carbohydrates (WSC).
Forages grown for livestock production can vary greatly in nutritive values, depending upon factors such as field management, and when the forage is grazed or harvested. For example, forage has the highest nutritive value while still in the vegetative stage. If the forage progresses to the reproductive stage and begins to seed, the quality of the forage declines rapidly.
Additionally, at no point should the cattle be restricted in their intake of forage. Overgrazed forage fields will not only limit the daily gains of the animals, but also could lead to decreased long term productivity for the pasture as well.
With all of this in mind, know that grass-finishing beef if possible, with sufficient effort and oversight. And with growing consumer demand and proven health benefits of grass-fed beef, this is a worthwhile investment for ranchers.