Grain-fed cattle have a reputation for producing the most palatable and consistent cuts of fresh beef, but taking grain-fed beef to slaughter weight also leaves many beef producers in the Southeast dependent on feed lots west of the Mississippi River.
If growers keep their cattle closer to home and feed them on the one thing of which they have plenty — pasture forage, will it make their operations more profitable?
Thus far, a viable forage-fed beef industry in the Southeastern states is only a concept, but after three strategy meetings and some researched-based “what if” scenarios, the concept could be headed to reality.
The first strategy session was in Grenada, Miss., in conjunction with groundbreaking ceremonies for Mississippi's new 150,000-square-foot cattle or cull-cow processing plant. The new plant could play a key role in the success of a forage-fed industry.
From that first meeting in June, producers, researchers, economists and industry representatives identified possible benefits and deterrents to establishing a forage-fed industry in the Southeast.
One of the most promising benefits is the Southeast is abundant in forages and in many cases can provide enough pasture or hay to feed cattle year-round.
Among deterrents are the concerns that forage-fed beef isn't as tasty as grain-fed beef and that finishing cattle on forage could be more expensive than a grain-fed program.
The first concern put to rest at the third Forage-Fed Initiative meeting Oct. 21 in Jackson, Miss., was the general concern over market supply and demand.
Richard Hall, owner of the new livestock processing plant at Oakland, Miss., said he's visited European countries where forage-fed beef is flourishing and sees great potential for a similar industry in the Southeastern United States. He said forage-fed beef in Europe are often put on pasture six months of the year and then fed silage in barns the other six months.
“All the cattle are uniform,” said Hall. “And, in every region they grow these cattle they use a different grass, so each region's cattle has a different taste to it, but it's all good flavor. I think there is potential to do that here. We grow the right grasses, and we have the silage to feed the cattle.”
Hall also assured the close to 50 participants of the October meeting, which was hosted by the Mississippi Cattlemen's Association and the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, that the new processing plant could be set up to handle forage-fed beef products and to separate forage-fed and grain-fed beef for end products.
Ned Ellis, a long-time beef producer and leader in Alabama's beef industry, said he sees potential in developing a grass-fed industry, and, he added, “The time is right to do this today…. What is missing is entrepreneurship.
“As we think outside of the box, we need to be aware what we are talking about is starting a new production enterprise that at the beginning will involve only a small percentage of our producers,” said Ellis. “But at the same time, we must think big enough to design a system that could become a major factor in the rebirth of the cattle industry in the Southeast.”
David Morrison, assistant vice chancellor with the LSU Agricultural Center, headed up a working group to determine if the Southeastern states could supply forage-fed beef on a year-round basis.
Morrison and his group, which included beef researchers and specialists from seven Southeastern states, looked at a 400-mile radius of the new Mississippi plant to see if the area could supply enough finished beef on a year-round basis to commit to forage-fed specific products. According to numbers they crunched based on annual cow/calf crop estimates, 4 percent of the Southeastern supply would meet the demand.
“There is not really a shortage of cattle in any given month in the surrounding 400-mile radius,” said Morrison. “Some months are lower than others, but none would create a shortage.
“The bottom line is we have plenty of feeder cattle available on a monthly basis. What we need to know is what months of the year can a 1,050-pound, harvest-ready animal be produced efficiently on forage?”
Morrison referred to some research conducted in Louisiana in the early 1980s, which took a closer look at the feasibility of finishing cattle on forages. In the Louisiana study, cool-season annuals and winter forages were frequently used, but grain on grass was used the highest percent of the time in stocker and finishing phases.
“What we need to know now is what forage-based systems are available in each of the eight Southeastern states,” said Morrison. “Some things weren't available then that are now, such as alfalfa, that may give us some opportunities now that we didn't have then.
“I think some coordination and sharing of information will be needed so we will know who is doing what during each season of the year, and more intensive management and application of the latest beef/forage technologies will be required for success.”
Terry Kiser, head of the Animal and Dairy Sciences department at Mississippi State University, said taking advantage of the best months for producing forage would be a key to making this system work.
“I know of producers who've struggled over the years to get enough hay for their cattle, so they have purchased a baylage system,” said Kiser. “These producers, during times of opportunities, are wrapping this baylage. We may need to take a hard look at baylage as a system that might get us through shortages.”
Keith Lusby, head of the Animal Science department at the University of Arkansas, headed another working group to project cost of production estimates for forage-fed beef. The projections Lusby presented showed some extreme variance with possible costs being as low $53.53 per hundredweight for a 500-pound calf started in November and finished at 1,005 pounds in June to $89.65 per hundredweight for a 500-pound calf started in late March and finished at 980 pounds on Dec. 1.
The group assumed a 2-pound-per-day gain and calculated that some backgrounding would be required in some months. Their estimated costs of production included factors such as pasture rent and operating interest, which might not be applicable to all producers. Other operating costs were fertilizer, seed, tillage, and health maintenance and were based on a 2 percent death loss.
The forage program used for the cost of production example was bermudagrass or a similar warm-season grass in summer months and annual small grains such as wheat, rye and ryegrass during winter and spring months.
“The best opportunities for profit appear to be for cattle finished in the second or third quarters off the high-quality winter small grain forages and best-quality bermuda pastures,” he said, “but the cost of production budgets suggests year-round production of 1,000-pound cattle is feasible. It could be a challenge to some producers, but it is feasible. I think our best opportunities are for calves started in the fall months and finished from March to August.
Bob Rogers, professor of food science and technology with MSU's Animal and Dairy Sciences department, spoke at the June meeting on ways to alter or camouflage any variation in the tastes of forage-fed beef by marinating and providing consumers with ready-to-eat products.
At the October meeting, he demonstrated a computer program available to producers that will calculate the difference in potential animal value if further processing occurs as opposed to just selling wholesale cuts of fresh beef. Growers can request copies of the pricing matrix by e-mail at email@example.com or call 662-325-2802.
“The purpose is getting to the point of giving producers and industry a system where you can establish the value of an animal. The price of meat is not determined by the producer or packer; it is decided by the consumer,” said Rogers. “It is a supply and demand theory, Packers don't go out and buy cattle and then sell them. They sell the meat or products and then go buy the cattle.
“The profit potential from producing forage-fed beef to producers is receiving higher prices for their animals, if the processor (packer) can make more money from the processed products produced from acceptable animals,” he said.
Several producers expressed interest in the concept but also asked for more research and a more clearly defined end product.
“This is a business we are trying to pass on to our children and stop from planting all our land in trees or leasing it to hunters,” said Mississippi producer Henry Darden. “We can't afford, as producers, to take too many gambles on programs that aren't proven. Before I jump off into some direction, I am going to really have to look at it long and hard.”
Cattle producer Ted Kendall IV from Bolton, Miss., said while it's exciting to see all the research and opportunities for something that could be in the Southeast, he has some concerns about consistency and time frames.
“The longer you stretch it out, the more difficult it will be for the producers. A 2-pound average over a long period of time will be difficult to pay the bills, and it will be difficult on some of these systems to maintain the 2-pound-gain average.”
Eva Ann Dorris is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant from Pontotoc, Miss. She can be reached at 662-419-9176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.