There is more than one way to finish a steer

Will the trend for local beef outlast the Covid-19 pandemic?

March 31, 2021

4 Min Read
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About a year ago, our industry buzzed with talk about finishing local beef. Our friends and neighbors found empty grocery store shelves and instead turned to their local beef producers to fill their freezers. Last year shed light on direct-to-consumer beef production. This concept of local beef is not a new one. Instead, it is more a case of what was old is new again. There was a time when small local meat lockers were a staple in many small towns. With reports of some processors booking into 2022, it appears that this trend for local beef may outlast the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recently a group of UK extension agents and specialists wrapped up a 4-week series of virtual meetings focusing on producing freezer beef in northern Kentucky. The UK beef extension team will also be launching a new program for the fall of 2021 called “Master Finisher” to provide additional resources for folks interested in finishing beef cattle here in Kentucky.

One of the things that I have come to appreciate while working with producers in small-scale finishing systems is that there is more than one right way to finish a steer (or heifer). Regardless of if you are producing beef in grass-finished, grain-finished or a hybrid grain-on grass system, what works for one operation may not be the best option for another. Answering several questions can help you narrow in on the right production system for your operation. A few examples include: Who is the customer base? What are their preferences and expectations? What are your feed and labor resources? Something that should not be overlooked in the local food sector is the product’s story. Consumers choosing local beef are not just purchasing any 1 lb package of ground beef; they are buying your 1 lb package of ground beef.

Each finishing production system has its own set of advantages and limitations:

  1. Grass-finished- Grass-finished is commonly used to refer to cattle finished without grain. However, a more appropriate name for this type of system could be “forage finished”. This production system results in low rates of gain, and cattle are typically anywhere from 24-30 months of age at harvest. Thus, regardless of when the calves were born, they will experience at least one winter while being finished. Therefore, at some point, these cattle will likely need to be fed a high-quality stored forage such as alfalfa hay or fermented forages such as baleage; hence the term “forage finished”. A key to this system is selecting and maintaining ideal forages and having a good understanding of grazing management practices. The low and slow approach needed to finish cattle with forages successfully is not a disadvantage but is a consideration when developing a timeline. If you have a processor reservation for this fall and yearling steers in the field, you could not only be leaving weight out in the pasture but also quality in terms of marbling score.

  2. Grain finished- As the name implies, this system involves feeding a concentrate or grain-based diet to cattle during the finishing period. Typically, cattle in this system are housed in confinement, which could be anything from a dry lot to a compost bedded pack barn. Depending on the ration or use of growth-promoting technologies such as implants, cattle in this system can gain 2-4+ lbs/d. Of all of the finishing systems, this system can allow for the most consistent rate of gain but also requires proper feeding management to make sure cattle don’t experience digestive upsets. Even on grain-based diets, cattle still need to consume some roughage such as grass hay to maintain rumen health.

  3. Grain on grass hybrid finishing- This system allows for the most flexibility in cattle management during the finishing period. I think of this system as more of a spectrum. Cattle can be consuming a forage-based diet with minimal grain supplementation or be receiving a predominately grain-based diet while being housed on pasture. The desired rate of gain and available feed and labor resources are things to consider when determining where to land on this spectrum. This type of system can allow cattle to take advantage of one of the cheapest feeding systems available, grazing! When weather limits grazing, cattle may consume more of their total nutrients from the grain-based supplement while consuming stored forages.

Regardless of the finishing system, it is essential to have realistic expectations when considering how long it will take to finish an animal. The length of time required to finish cattle in a specific production system can’t be ignored. Finishing cattle in any system will take time, labor, and economic inputs to get started but is one option for adding value to calves while filling a niche in the consumer market.

Source: University of Kentuckywhich is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset. 

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