Fourth and final in a series
Grass-fed livestock producers first had an advantage in the meat marketplace, because they positioned their product as a sustainable and healthier alternative to an industry that was battling with BSE outcries.
Today, the niche market continues to thrive as one of the only agricultural sectors not directly affected by rising grain costs.
Allen Williams, president of Livestock Management Consultants, LLC, has monitored the evolution of the grass-fed industry as the lead technical and operations consultant for the nationally recognized Tallgrass Beef Company.
The agency’s research estimates that in 1998, the United States was home to about 100 serious grass-fed beef producers. Their market share was approximately $2 million. By 2009, the niche market had grown to over 2,000 producers, nationally, with a domestic market of over $380 million. After adding in imported beef, the small alliance has catapulted to over a $1 billion industry in just over a decade.
“Grass-fed beef production really has gone from a miniscule industry in the ‘90s to a thriving billion dollar industry now,” Williams states.
With high acceptance rates and dedicated buyers, he only sees the demand for the product growing. Most surprisingly, grass-fed beef has been able to recapture non-beef eaters.
“I strongly suspect that the industry will top $2 billion this year,” he says. “A big draw is that people not eating beef have begun eating grass-fed beef. I’m not arguing about the reason, we’ll gladly accept the business. It’s not taking away market share from grain-fed; it’s adding market share to the entire beef industry. That’s very good for us all.”
The growing demand creates a simple entry into a value-added agriculture market. In fact, the demand of 2010 was not able to be met domestically. A large contingency of grass-fed products were imported from South American countries, like Paraguay and Uruguay, as well as Australia and New Zealand.
“The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is only able to conduct principle inspections on about 2 percent of the imported products,” says Williams. “They are probably not held to the same standard as those in the U.S.”
Federal standards create authenticity to the domestically-produced product. Moreover, as illustrated in previous parts of this series, consumers are often more likely to purchase local products.
Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s standards created by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the marketing claim standard for grass-fed producers is voluntary.
Kerry Smith, livestock marketing and meat specialist for AMS, says that the regulations are fairly straightforward.
Basically, the diet of the cattle shall be derived solely from forage. Forage is defined as grass, forbs, browse or cereal grain crops in the vegetative, or pre-grain, state. The livestock cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and shall have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. The full standards are available at http://www.ams.usda.gov/SAT.
“For AMS, grass-fed is all about the diet,” says Smith. “Producers or companies making grass-fed (100 percent) claims should meet the AMS Grass (Forage) Fed Standard. However, FSIS does not restrict companies to only being 100 percent grass-fed.”
Lesser percentages can be listed on labels based on documentation supplied with the label application, she says. For instance, a product can be marketed as being 50 or 75 percent grass-fed.
“Percentages get difficult,” she admits. “I only recommend listing it on the label if the livestock were raised on a 100 percent grass-fed ration, but you can list ‘number of days on grass,’ ‘with minor supplementation’ or ‘except for…’”
Whichever claim the label states, Smith says that it is important to avoid uncertainty between other assertions, including pasture raised and organic.
“There is confusion between all three of these in the market today,” she says. “They are completely stand-alone standards that do not mean the same thing. Grass-fed is all about the diet, while pasture-raised and organic depend on living conditions.”
Much of the confusion has resulted from the new organic pasture rule. The added stipulation for organic producers states that livestock must be actively grazing pasture during the grazing season with year-round access for all animals to the outdoors. Contrarily, grass-fed cattle can be raised in winter confinement.
Williams agrees that grass-fed operations need to focus primarily on ration formulations. Though there is no specific grass recipe for success, quality is the most important ingredient.
“In the final 120 days of finishing, we need to supply grasses that are high in sugar or brix content and lower in protein,” he recommends. “High protein supplies off-flavor and does a poor job of finishing. A higher maturity level is better.”
Because Holstein cattle have been bred to be larger framed, grass feeding works best for moderately-framed British breeds. Crossbred cattle should only include up to 25 percent genetics from Continental beef breeds, he says.
Even with smaller frames, finishing cattle on grass can take much longer than maturing a steer on corn.
“Most of the cattle are being finished between 20 to 26 months of age, with some pushing 30,” he estimates compared to a grain fed steer finishing around 16 months of age. “When we see really good grazing systems coupled with stored forage, we can get these cattle finished with 60 percent choice.”
Stored forage is the main factor in quality cattle. Stockpiling feeds can maintain cattle without grain while grass is covered with snow and the weather is harsh.
“High quality dry hay, baylages and haylages do a very good job of maintaining winter gain,” he says. “It’s important to try to get as much gain before the winter. Then we can still maintain gains of 1.5 to 2 pounds per day in the winter.”
The herds that Williams consults have seen average carcass weights of 650 to 750 pounds and live weights between 1,200 and 1,300 pounds for steers. Quality levels are parallel with grain rations.
“As long as we’re providing the energy, the cattle will finish and marble quite well,” he says. “The industry average is 3 percent prime for grass-fed and only 2 percent in grain fed cattle.”
Because the demand is there, producers with grass-fed cattle are receiving premiums between $1.70 and $1.95 on a dress weight basis compared to a $1.58-$1.62 range on grain fed steers. Grass-fed prices are relatively stable in comparison.
Ultimately, Williams has found the decision between grain or grass depends on fluctuating input costs and the security of a steady marketplace.
“It is much more expensive now to produce grain fed cattle than it was prior,” he says. “It’s putting a premium price on grain fed cattle, but grain fed meat is also growing in cost, maintaining the same amount of difference in overall margins. When you market locally, the margins can continue to grow.”
For producers seeking or selling grass-fed cattle, Fennimore Livestock Exchange is hosting a feeder calf and breeding stock sale at their auction barn in Fennimore on Feb. 19.