Different ‘grass-fed’ beef categories require differing strategies

By Tom Wrchota, Omro, Wisconsin — Ever since living and working in Costa Rica back in the early 1970s, I have greatly enjoyed the taste, smell, and texture of “properly” raised and prepared grass-fed beef. Once back in Wisconsin, it was one of my crusades to develop a beef herd and a grass management system that could service my acquired beef appetite … along with making a living selling it to other prospective affectionatos.

After 11 years of being part of this emerging sector, I’ve come to a few conclusions about what represents grass-fed beef quality, and how a northern grazier might be able to produce a relatively consistent product. They’re based on laboratory tests, blind taste panels, and my own, on-ranch observations.

It might help me to explain these thoughts by breaking down grass-fed beef into three categories: grass-fed baby beef, lean grass-fed beef, and grass-fat beef. I’m sure there might be more categories developing, but these are the three forms of grass beef production that I think will have market potential in North America. The market for each one of these grass-fed categories is very different, and each demands a different production method. Without clearly defining your production methods and targeting the correct audience you will fail, or at least waste valuable time cleaning up the marketing and production mess you created.

Grass-fed “baby beef”

Using my definition, there are quite a few grass-fed baby beef (possibly veal-no traces of marbling) producers around. These folks often don’t advertise their meat as “baby beef,” but often sell medium- and large-framed dairy and beef calves at live weights less than 700 lbs. The prospective clients in this very specialized market often need considerable education about meat preparation and cooking. The meat is often very tender, but it is extremely lean (very slight traces of marbling), with an extremely mild beef taste. I know of various “grass” producers (all augment their calves with medicines and grain starter feeds) who have loyal baby beef buyers, so one can acquire a taste and a strong sense of enjoyment in eating it.

Between late-1996 and late-1997, we (my wife, Susan and I) processed and tested a number of our medium-framed, Black Galloway grass animals. None would have qualified as baby beef (more likely, very lean-grass fed beef), but the two youngest animals averaged 16 months of age and weighed 915 lbs. Average hanging weight was 503 pounds; dress-out was 54%; meat yield was 65%; back fat averaged just 0.125 inches with traces (only 2 grams) of intra-muscular (marbled) fat, and the ribeyes averaged slightly over 10 square inches. At seven days of aging, the cooked meats had an average shear force of 3.49 kilograms and a 28-day shear force of 3.25 kilograms. A mechanically tenderized, low-choice piece of meat was 2.45 kilograms after being aged for 28 days.

That sounds like a big difference, but most folks would notice only a very slight difference in tenderness when sampling these meats. So, contrary to currently popular postulations, lengthening the meat-aging period really didn’t have any effect on tenderness in our experience.

The biggest challenge with this form of grass beef is the unforgiving nature of the meat if you over-cook it, which is very easy to do. Folks who like their meat prepared well- or medium-done, wanting a stronger beef taste, and/or preferring juicy beef over very tender meat should not be encouraged to buy most of these meats – especially the steaks.

With grass-fed baby beef and very lean grass beef you’re foregoing the last acquired marbling in the animal. In this category, graziers must raise or buy cattle that consistently have tender meat traits, have docile characteristics for shipping and handling purposes, be no more than 20 months of age when processed, and have a very defined cold-storage protocol that minimizes cold shortening (muscles contracting in the coolers).

In short, grass-raised baby beef and very lean grass-fed beef needs to be aimed at the “tenderness market.” However, to avoid lots of unhappy customers, you really need to ask each buying prospect about their cooking habits and taste preferences, plus offer no-fat or very low-fat recipes with cooking instructions that can be handed out with each sale.

“Lean” grass-fed beef

During the previously mentioned testing period, we also measured two Black Galloways that averaged 20 months of age, weighing 1,015 pounds with 662-lbs. hanging weights. These were the most tender of all our scrutinized animals, needing only 2.84 kg. of shear force after seven days of aging (again, virtually no difference in tenderness when aged for 28 days). They dressed out at 61.65% with good meat yields of 69.5%, had back fat of only 0.15 inches with about 4.8 grams of fat, and the ribeye steaks averaged 10.3 square inches.

The professionally done “blind” taste panels we conducted on our ranch ranked this lean, grass-fed beef slightly better than the store-bought choice (over 8 grams of marbled fat, vs. our 4.8 grams) loin in tenderness, juiciness, and meat flavor intensity. (Actually, one of the “very lean” 16 month-old beef loins with 2 grams of fat was put up against a store-bought select loin with over 6.5 grams of fat, and fared just as well.) Obviously one would have liked to have more data points in this particular sampling, but it pretty much confirms some more extensive work done with our beef at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The on-ranch testing group members were not the type of folks who went to McDonald’s much, and most of them did have a history of eating homegrown, grain-fattened meats. Even so, they noticed very few off-flavor characteristics in our grass meats. On the other hand, quite a few University of Wisconsin students who live on Big Macs definitely thought our meat had some “strange” flavorings. We nevertheless have developed lots of clients who enjoy all of the qualities of this lean beef.

For us, producing meat for this category is more of a challenge. Our climate, feeding systems, avoidance of augmentation and medication regimes, and the timing of birthing work against our efforts to consistently have this product available from our cow-calf herd. Since most of our calving is from early May through mid-July, which is in sync with good grass/legume growth in our part of the world, the offspring reach 20 months of age during the tough months of January, February, and March. Obviously, we want to finish this beef category on high-quality, living sward to maximize meat qualities and health-related nutritional benefits. I have bought in naturally raised cattle to fill this void, but we have paid a price for this by losing some customers and money due to a higher frequency of sickness, inconsistent rates of both gain and inconsistent meat quality.

Another attractive alternative is to birth our cattle in August and September. By doing this the beef animals will go through the first winter consuming very little feed while staying on their mamas for added nutrition, and get their growth spurt during the growing months. They can then winter-over on mediocre grass hay, and finish (gorging with well-developed rumens) after a couple of good months on grass. I do have a few cows consistently doing this.

But birthing at this time is a challenge in our climate with the heat and flies, plus a growing season that can end as early as late September. Without having a precise birthing regime and a sophisticated grass stockpiling program, along with a late-fall grazing of annual green crops, the cows might go through winter in pretty poor body condition, setting up a possible breeding wreck the following growing season. Our particular breed of animals has reduced winter energy needs because they have a hair coat similar to bison (double hair layers with a spring shedding). Still, the newborn September calves have to grow and develop quickly in a very short period of time in order to be healthy throughout our winters with nothing more than a haystack and winter hay pack for shelter and bedding. So, we have some work to do if we want to improve our performance with lean beef.

“Grass-fat” beef

My production and sales experience, plus my personal taste enjoyment, is at the low end of this category: USDA Select to Low Choice. This is where the traces of fat marbling are slight, small, or modest. This grass product will have an adequate quantity of intra-muscular fat and age to give the taste and texture that the majority of North Americans enjoy. These “grass” meats may taste and cook slightly different than grain-fattened beef, but the majority of folks can easily adjust to those differences.

If you believe the relatively new research showing increased quantities of essential fatty acids and vitamins in grass beef compared to grain-fed, more fat is good health-wise since most of it occurs in the fat of the beef. The challenge on this end of the spectrum is to keep the meat tender enough. (Note that I didn’t say “most tender.”) The goal is to balance (or optimize) the key components of meat “quality” in order to have great-eating product.

However, fat contains double the amount of energy of muscle tissue. Unfortunately, even with very good swards it is very difficult to match the energy levels that can be garnered from the same amount of grain. It takes very good grass cattle genetics and above-average grass management skills to achieve grain-fed fattening standards within a narrow time frame.

Why is there a time challenge? It’s because cattle don’t start putting on marbled fat, or have a large enough rumen capacity, until they reach about 65% of their mature weight, or about 14 months of age. They’re too busy building frame and maintaining themselves up to that point. On the other end, I’ve found that our grass-fat meats sometimes start toughening to an unacceptable level by 26 months of age. So, a consistently good grass-fat beef product demands many variables falling into the right alignment within a limited time frame. It basically comes down to good cattle genetics, timing, and nutritional energy intake management – all from grass, hay, or haylage.

The 1997 cattle test results clearly showed that I failed in my first attempts to provide a good grass-fat beef product. In short, the two animals had not gained enough weight when butchered at 26 months, averaging only 1,084 pounds live weight, with only traces of marbled fat. To add insult to injury, they had tougher meat than the other animals, with a shear force of 4.44 kilograms for the loin aged seven days, and 3.80 kilograms of force for the 28-day loin. (Again, there wasn’t a great benefit for the added aging period of the grass beef relative to the typical change in tenderness noted in grain-fattened beef.)

Our grass-fat Black Galloway carcasses have dramatically changed since 1997, even though I’m finishing them in about the same time frame (over the last four years they’re averaging almost exactly 24 months). Now, their average liveweight is at 1,236 lbs. -152 more than the tested animals – with a 713-lb. hanging weight average. Average daily gain is about 1.7 pounds from start to finish, which includes a second winter of feeding at a maintenance nutrient level. From genetics to timing to pastures, we’ve been doing a better job of managing the operation to achieve these results.

While we haven’t had the meat professionally tested lately, we have evaluated it by the eye, and by personally tasting each animal’s meat in a systematic manner. The results are good; in our evaluation, meat marbling is almost always USDA Select, and it’s not uncommon to have Low Choice. Tenderness has not been a problem, and the taste and juiciness factors are much better than they were in 1997.

So we think we are doing some things right in those last, critical months of finishing. Animals designated for our grass-fat market are emerging from physiological adolescence and entering adulthood just at the point the second winter arrives. Contrary to what many pundits advise, we rough them through that winter using mediocre grass hay for minimum costs – with no ill effects on meat quality!

Next growing season, the cheap legumes and grasses, along with compensatory gains, offset the second year’s winter costs, and allow the mature grass animals to gain an average of 3 lbs. a day until they are sent to slaughter at 22 to 25 months of age. We feel it is critical to provide high-quality forage for at least three months prior to slaughter.

Tom Wrchota and his wife, Susan, graze cattle and direct-market beef and other products from their farm near Omro, Wisconsin.