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What is the difference between grass fed and grass finished?

Grass fed means the animal was fed solely on grass and hay. Grass finished is a term used to indicate that a beef animal has grown fast enough on the pasture to create inter-muscular marbling. This marbling makes the meat more juicy and flavorful but not more tender. Grass finished animals will typically grade High Select or Low Choice under the USDA Grading System. This finish can be determined with an ultra-sound scan while the animal is still alive.

Grass finishing is generally not a problem with lambs as they fatten easily on pasture.

Grass finishing is very difficult with bison as wild animals do not tend to produce inter-muscular fat. Bison is typically sold as grass fed.

Is grass finishing beef cattle difficult?

A grass finish is a combination of the age of the beef animal and its rate of growth. An animal must gain over 1.7 pounds per day to create inter-muscular fat. Achieving this is typically very easy in the spring and early summer. However, summer and fall normally require specialist annual forages.

Heifers can finish as early as 14 to 15 months of age but most steers will not marble on grass before 18 months of age and two years of age is more common.

Medium sized English breeds such as Shorthorn, Murray Grey, White Park, Red Devon, Angus and Hereford are typically used for grass finished beef.

Can you finish beef cattle on high quality alfalfa hay?

There have been some reports of miniature cattle finishing on hay but for medium-sized cattle, the answer is generally no.

So, how do you finish cattle in the winter?

Through the use of early fall planted winter annuals like cereal rye, wheat, oats and annual ryegrass.

Actually, in most of the United States finishing cattle on these grasses in winter is much easier than on perennial pasture in the summer. Cattle can be fed up to 50% of their diet in alfalfa hay and still finish on these very high quality forages.

How much more do grass finished cattle bring than grain fed?

Current prices are at least 20% higher for non-organic grass finished and considerably more than this for organic grass finished. Direct cash gain costs for grass finishing are approximately half those of grain feeding.

Can dairy cows be 100% grass fed?

Yes, but this typically requires a non-Holstein breed and sesonal breeding. Dual-purpose breeds such as the Milking Shorthorn, Milking Red Devon and the French dairy breeds are growing in popularity for this 100% grass feeding. The male calves from these breeds finish well on grass and are very tender.

In addition, pigs and poultry can get a significant amount of their nutrition from leguminous pasture. All of these species are covered in The Stockman GrassFarmer.

Why is initial pasture subdivision so important?

A grass plant's roots grow as deep as the grass grows high. If a grass plant is constantly subjected to close, continuous grazing it cannot develop the root mass needed to become a healthy, drought resistant grass plant. In high rainfall climates the amount of subdivision needed to accomplish this is relatively small, say eight to ten paddocks.

What grasses should I plant?

If you are starting out with clean tilled land, your local extension service will be able to provide you with a list of the most reliable grass species for your area. Do not plant a large acreage in the latest "Wonder Grass" you see advertised. These grasses all need superior grazing management and soil fertility to perform as promised. Save them for later when both your skills and soils have improved. However, try to plant the most improved species of the grasses and legumes common to your area when you plant.

Should I plow up all of my existing pastures?

Definitely not. Apparently many farmers find something therapeutic in the "starting over" sense clean tillage gives them, but it will set you back many years. Pasture subdivision and, in most cases, a program of annual liming should be your starting point. There is a saying, "Plant nothing but fence posts for your first three years." I recommend you heed to it. Most areas of the country will require a small acreage in brassicas or annuals to balance the forage flow. By moving these areas around your farm you can gradually shift your pasture to newer more improved species.

What if my pastures are sod bound? Do I plow them then?

Pastures become sod bound due to close continuous grazing and the lack of earthworms and soil life. Pasture subdivision and lime (or gypsum) will get you a lot farther, faster than plowing.

Is there anything I can do to instantly create quality pasture?

No. In high rainfall areas it will take the soil a minimum of three to four years to regenerate itself. In lower rainfall areas this will stretch to seven to ten years. You must have patience. There is no other way.

Do I need to drag (harrow) my pastures after each rotation to speed the manure breakdown?

No. Slow manure breakdown is caused by poor soil life which is usually caused by inadequate liming (or gypsum in high pH areas). The dragging spreads the maure smell over the whole pasture and makes selective grazing impossible. The ability to selectively graze is necessary to maximize dry matter intake. Pasture dragging can also increase internal parasitism if done during cool, wet weather. Research at the University of Vermont found no increase in dry matter production from routinely dragging pastures.

Do I need to mow after each rotation to even up the pastures?

No. Under heavily stocked fast pasture rotations on lush green pastures, mature clumps of grass can provide needed dry matter supplementation and can help increase animal performance. If your pastures are extremely clumpy, it indicates your stocking rate is too low or your rotation is too long. Maintaining a fast, 10 to 14 day rotation until mid-summer will help keep pastures from clumping excessively.

Excess production should be removed from the pasture as hay or silage. Mowing and leaving it on the surface of the pasture can smother grasses and legumes and promotes the build up of a highly acid, soil-surface thatch. This surface thatch will prevent successful pasture overseeding and legume reseeding.

Where can I find unique tools and products designed specifically for grass farming?

The Stockman Grass Farmer magazine is written by its readers for its readers. You can get a subscription online by going to SUBSCRIBE. Each month "The Grass Farmer's Network...Your Letters" serves as an exchange of tips, ideas and personal experiences for our readers to learn from and help one another. If you're a new subscriber, chances are your question has been answered by an article or letter in a previous issue.

Back issues are available for purchase online at Back Issues or from "The Grass Farmer's Bookshelf" in the magazine. If you can't find the answer to your question there, we invite you to submit it as a letter or email. Due to the volume of mail we receive, we can't respond personally to individual letters.

We also offer very informative BOOKS and AUDIO TAPES and CD'S for purchase which are available online, in our magazine or by calling our office at 1-800-748-9808.

If you are interested in grassfed meat and milk production and would like to try a FREE SAMPLE MAGAZINE, CLICK HERE.


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