Grass finishing cattle adds value

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by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

If you want to finish your beef cattle on grass, Jamie Hostetler of Rolling Meadows Farm in Bellevue, Iowa, offered some expert insights during “The Art of Grass Finishing Cattle,” a recent shared learning call hosted by Practical Farmers of Iowa. Hostetler profits $500 per acre from selling his beef cattle.

Hostetler moves his cattle to fresh paddocks for grazing every 12 hours, not the standard three days.

“In order to optimize cattle gains, we have to recognize what we’re trying to achieve,” Hostetler said. “In a grass finishing operation, our energy is our limitation. We’ve never struggled with protein. Our energy is our limiting factor.”

He grazes his cattle in forage when it’s at its highest energy level and about eight to 10 inches high. He moves them once the energy-filled tips have been eaten.

“We move rapidly through the paddocks the first time around to take the highest energy,” Hostetler said. “From that point forward, when we come around the second time, we possibly have forage that’s heading out and becoming more mature. Once the plant heads out, the energy goes down and the quality goes down.”

To optimize the forage, he never lets the cattle go hungry for an hour. He said it’s not about a pretty landscape but focusing on cattle gains.

Hostetler said he observes the manure patties the second time a paddock is grazed.

“If we see a lot of loose stools, we’re too high for protein,” Hostetler said. “If they’re stacked up, it’s too mature of an area. The grass finishers are the trump card. If we get into paddocks that have been grazed already and they’re getting rank, we pull them off and put them in an area where we optimize the forage quality for that area.”

By day seven of the rotation, the herd has moved down the forage considerably.

“It’s a yo-yo of forage quality and therefore gains as well,” Hostetler said. “By moving twice a day, they get a fresh paddock every 12 hours. Their forage quality is much more consistent. We can get two pounds a day on our finishers with a 12-hour move.”

He plants perennial forages along with summer annuals or winter annuals.

“About the first of June, whether grazing or a cutting for hay for winter needs, we go right back in the following day to interseed a summer annuals blend. The key to making that work is putting down some fertility with it,” he said.

That lasts his operation through the rest of the grazing season – a big plus during the hottest part of the summer when forage is down.

“We wanted to create the healthiest beef we could raise and we wanted to create the tastiest, so those buying conventional beef who wanted something healthier but weren’t necessarily willing to give up a great eating experience had grass-fed beef,” Hostetler said. “Several things that contribute to meat quality or taste is if you’re running on paddocks too rich in protein or the protein-to-energy ratio is off. That will cause an off flavor in the meat.”

Hostetler said he bases it on both the animal’s age and a few key markers of a finished animal.

“By harvesting those animals on a given age – let’s say 21 months as your timeframe – if that animal isn’t finished properly, that will cause a gamey or a strong flavor in that meat,” Hostetler said. “We’ve seen over the years that if you have a properly marbled animal that has the age on him to address the flavor factor, you can have some of the best eating experience.”

He looks for a rounded rump between the tail and the hocks. The back should appear smooth and flat and the brisket should have some degree of fullness.

When Hostetler first started out, he marketed animals at 21.5 months and 1,204 pounds. He discovered that they lacked the marbling he preferred. Now, he waits until 24 months or longer to optimize that flavor.

He likes to see his cattle gain a pound and a half each day or more, especially during the last three to four months “so they’re not in a stagnant area where potentially more connective tissue and more factors will make that tenderness go away,” he said.

His operation does spring and autumn calving to leverage more “bull power,” he said, instead of only once a year.

He also keeps calves on their mothers’ milk eight to nine months. Hostetler said calves with sufficient nursing time are better grazers later in life than a calf weaned earlier. His goal finishing weight for his cattle is 1,250 pounds.

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