The Art of Finishing Grass Fed Beef
The Art of Finishing Grass Fed Beef
By Will Winter, DVM
As quarterbacks are to football, and as pitchers are to baseball, the producers that can finish high-quality, tender, delicious 100% grass-fed beef are essential to our movement. In previous e-blasts we have focused on other issues that are more related to bull and cow fertility, calving, weaning and other critical factors related to reproduction and growth of frame, so I wanted to spend some time specifically on finishing.
It takes the absolute best grass and forage to finish cattle within a reasonable amount of time. By reasonable, I mean we can all agree that 30 months would be the longest we like to see anyone go. However, we know that every month that can be clipped off, means that all that grass can go into the next batch of cattle. We have finishers that can get the job done in 18-20 months, and a few people that can do it in even less.
But not everyone can achieve the average 12+ Brix forages that it takes to make fat, which is true even if the herd does have the proper genetics. From pre-birth until the skeletal frame has mostly filled out, both for bull calves and heifers, we are always focused on “grow foods”. Which, in a nutshell, means feeds that have higher levels of quality protein (meaning all the correct amino acids and the correct ratios of them). Additionally, to build strong bodies, we need vitamins and minerals. This certainly applies to growing children as well. Young people who had the misfortune to grow up in bad times of starvation, drought, war or famine will become permanently stunted, a feature that can never be reversed. The same is true for all livestock. While no ingredient for health and growth can be left out, we are most often focused on calcium, phosphorus, iodine, and the rest of the 19 essential minerals. For vitamins, the list-toppers include A, D3, E and the full roster of the B’s.
After the frame size is 80-90% filled out, the nutritional focus turns to “go foods”, which is a euphemism for energy foods, that mostly contain starches and sugars, foods that are easily digestible by almost every animal, and that make, for the most part, FAT. This fat not only coats the organs and along the back providing emergency energy sources, but later in the game, intramuscular fat (IMF) and butterfat in the milk (also used to make rich egg yolks). There are many reasons why grass-finished livestock are vastly superior to grain fed, but one of the strongest is that a starch-dominant ration (grain and by-products) builds the wrong kind of fatty acids, namely Omega 6, which, when eaten, is the inflammatory fat that sets on fire skin, lungs, brains, guts, arteries and veins! Sugars found in the green leafy grasses and forbs, builds the opposite essential fatty acid, Omega 3, which is anti-inflammatory and that which builds healthy meat. In the rumen, sugar from grasses build the better essential fatty acids, especially acetic acid (vinegar), and propionic and buteric, whilst starch starts building d-lactic acid, the dangerous one that tends to lead to lactic acidosis and death. One of the biggest killers of grain-based dairy cattle is acidosis. Feedlot cattle quite often have devastated livers also primarily due to acidosis.
Ruminants are the exclusive species in the entire animal kingdom that house uncountable numbers of digestive microbes in their gut that can go further to breaking down food, primarily cellulose and hemicellulose (i.e. “wood”), that has been lignified by the plant into structural carbohydrates and other complex chemicals. If a rumen cannot break down enough wood, one sees stacked up manure (like a horse since horses do not have a rumen) or runny manure with bubbles in it, indicative of hind gut fermentation, a poor state of affairs that leads ultimately to trouble.
Savvy producers save money by making sure everything needed for both growth and finishing are present at every stage of life. This also, as sort of a reward, creates full genetic potential (nutrition and management are the essential aspects of EPIGENETICS). This nutritional availability also creates a physiological environment that repels parasites and pathogens, leading to less disease on every front, which also means that the crutches such as antibiotics, vaccines and chemical wormers can be removed. And lastly, all this creates the life conditions that lead to successful finishing!
When we need energy in cases where there is not enough available, which is the case of low Brix forages, we need to add it in the form that is “legal” for 100% grass-fed, that is non-toxic and that is tasty.
This is also true for animals that may be on high energy forages but do not have “grass genes”. That is, those with an inefficient rumen for breaking down hemicellulose and cellulose. The most commonly added energy booster is raw Apple Cider Vinegar. It’s inexpensive, tasty and power packed. The power comes both from extensive microbes and enzymes. Only raw vinegar does this. ACV can be enhanced with other sugars, our preferred sugars include cane molasses, and, ultimately fermented molasses which is sold under the name "Lassahol". Since all these products stimulate the cellulosic bacteria in the rumen, a tiny quantity can perform over and over thousands of times. The best news of all? Every one of these energy supplements have a tremendous return on investment (ROI), which means we actually “get paid” for using them.
By properly using these rather simple tools and techniques almost any attentive beef producer can create the kind of finished animals that will drive the movement further away from the feedlot experience and towards one of the most exciting developments in all of agriculture!