Grass Fed Cattle Production
In some ways Grass Fed Beef production today is a return to our ranch’s late 1800’s roots in the Blackfoot valley and throughout the country. Before the days when cattle were shipped by railcar to Chicago, or via semi-truck to Mid-western feedlots as is the norm today, they were harvested directly out of the pasture. Since confinement grain feeding and other modern-day technologies such as growth hormone implants, antibiotics, and custom feed supplements had not yet come into use, the general pattern of raising beef cattle in late 1800’s Montana would have loosely resembled present-day Grass fed beef production.
However, there are many ways in which 21st century Grass fed production represents something new and exciting within the industry. It is an attempt to adapt to a set of present-day challenges that could not have been anticipated by our grandmothers and grandfathers, and that require the application of traditional agricultural wisdom in today’s context. Read on to learn a bit about the differences between Grain Fed and modern day Grass Fed production, and how Mannix Grass Finished Beef represents part of our family ranch’s effort to adapt and thrive.
Grass Fed Beef
Beef is correctly called “Grass Fed” when the cattle from which it was harvested were raised and finished entirely on grass. Instead of being shipped at 6-8 months to feedlots, these cattle are managed on pasture until they are sufficiently fat to be slaughtered, usually between 20-28 months of age. On the surface, this is the main difference for the producer in terms of the annual cycle of cattle production. However, that explanation is really just the beginning.
Grass Fed beef is not a commodity, and this means that there are very few large scale buyers for this type of animal. Therefore, for a rancher who wishes to produce Grass Fed cattle, the big question is: “where is the market for my product?” In most cases, the market must be created from scratch. So a rancher whose expertise may have included the areas of land management and producing the “raw commodity” of 8 month-old calves must now add a few more skills to the repertoire: learn how to finish cattle properly, learn about the many different beef products and how meat processing works, learn about food safety, arrange for proper labeling, storage, and distribution, coordinate supply and demand, produce marketing materials—and find a buyer for their product! On occasion, such producers have even been known to sleep.
In recent years, a few Grass Fed beef programs (i.e. Brands) have developed, such as US Wellness and Thousand Hills Grass Fed Beef, as well as various regional branded cooperatives. For producers who sell cattle through such programs, the burden of marketing is made much lighter. However, the management of on-ranch production is still more intensive. For example, usually buyers for Grass Fed Beef are concerned that the cattle have never been given growth hormones, and have never been medicated with antibiotics. Commodity beef does not offer these “added values” to consumers, and so these management concerns add logistical complexity for producers who are accustomed to raising cattle for the commodity system.
Since grain is not on the menu for Grass Fed cattle, the “commodifying power” of fat is not as available to level out differences in meat flavor and tenderness as it is in the commodity system. This means that Grass Fed producers must work hard to ensure that the genetics they are choosing for their herd are directly linked to a flavorful and tender beef product. Meat quality is the ultimate focus. By contrast, the genetics programs of commodity cattle producers are ultimately aimed at optimizing the efficiency of their herd in terms of its ability to produce pounds of beef. In this case, meat quantity ends up being the goal.