HOW GRASS MAKES BEEF
I am often asked how it is possible to raise quality beef on grass without feeding heavily concentrated rations full of processed grains. The short answer, without digging into the science, is simple; ruminants, like cattle, were designed to get nearly everything they need from just grasses and legumes. The higher the quality of the grasses and legumes they have access to the better the quality of the beef and the faster they will grow.
First you have to understand how the ruminant’s digestive system works. Unlike humans (monogastrics) ruminants do not digest their food using enzymes and emulsifying agents. Their ever present and essential companions in the rumen, bacteria, carry out a ruminant’s digestion. The rumen is a large fermentation vat full of bacteria that are hard at work breaking down the feed consumed by the animal. The rumen of a full-grown cow can hold up to 250 pounds of fermenting slurry at any time. Therefore, the science of feeding a cow is better explained as the science of feeding and maintaining healthy bacteria. The cow just provides the feed and a nice warm vat were the bacteria can do their job. When the cow chews it’s cud it helps the bacteria do a more complete job by creating more surface area for a faster and more complete digestion. The bacteria break down the proteins into essential amino acids and the carbohydrates into starches and simple sugars that can be absorbed into the cow’s blood stream and then used for maintenance and growth. It can be as complicated as you want it to be but this is really the nuts and bolts of how it works.
This fact that feeding a cow is really feeding bacteria was a boon to the scientists and the beef industry. It suddenly became much more efficient and economical for us to raise beef in confinement by manufacturing rations using products that are discarded from other industries like human food processing and fertilizer. As long as the bacteria were provided with the carbohydrates and proteins they need they would adapt to the diet, we could push them to their maximum efficiency and we’ve created a four-legged laboratory of profit. Feedlots also did away with the need to have these unruly beasts running around in wide-open spaces, at the mercy of Mother Nature, burning the valuable calories the beef producer would rather turn into profits.
As you may know, this style of raising beef has led to some health and quality problems for both the cattle and the humans who consume them. It still remains that the healthiest rumens, the healthiest cattle and the best beef for humans come from the original source, grass.
As simple as it all sounds there is still some science and management that must be applied to make quality beef. You really can’t just let your steer go in the spring, then round him up in the fall and expect it will be much more pleasurable than eating shoe leather when it hits your plate! The last few generations of Americans have clear expectations for tender beef. Western feedlot beef is usually tender if nothing else and that is what most of us are used to. Most American consumers put texture ahead of flavor when choosing their beef and that is one of the challenges in raising good grass fed beef. Bear in mind, that grazing animals are always using their muscles to move about, making the possibility of texture variation a concern. One of the reasons beef jerky came about many years ago was not only to preserve the meat but believe it or not, the jerky was more tender than the prairie raised steak that was fried in a pan!
Here in the Northeast, grasses have a very short but aggressive growing season. We are blessed with the sun and rain needed to sustain this massive flourish. Even on the poorest land during the month of May our grasses and legumes grow fast taking all the nutrients available from the soil and any beef animal would be in it’s glory during that month. The difficulties in grassland management grow as the summer develops. By the end of June and then July and August the sun is more intense, moisture may or may not be plentiful and the plants are trying their best to mature. A mature grass or legume plant is not desirable for the grazing cattle. As the plant reaches maturity it’s sugar and protein content decrease dramatically and fiber or lignin content grows. Fiber does not hurt the cow but too much just dilutes the nutrient concentration in the rumen and the cow’s growth will slow. Plants grow with a singular purpose, to mature and produce seed so they can reproduce. When that quest is interrupted by a grazing cow eating the top half of the plant, the plant again pushes skyward trying to reach it’s reproductive goal. The genetic programming of that particular plant species is a factor in its’ success as well as soil fertility, soil pH, moisture availability and how often it gets chewed down by the foraging beasts. In May the grasses generally grow so fast that the animals can’t keep up and a percentage of the plants are lucky enough to start to mature. That is why, during the first week in June, I mechanically mow the pasture immediately after the cattle have grazed and been ushered into a new paddock. This puts all the plants in that pasture back to the same place in their growth and in just a couple of weeks of rest, this mowed pasture will regenerate back to lush green growth, much like what happens when you mow your lawn. The other benefit of mechanical mowing is that the undesirable weeds have to start over as well and are not allowed to reproduce. This process is the essence of rotational grazing. Moving cattle from one pasture paddock to another, giving each pasture a rest of 2 to 4 weeks depending on the weather, gets the most out of the land and provides the cattle with a continuous supply of lush, green forage.
It is also very important to have a wide variety of grass species throughout the pasture paddocks. In late spring, the cool season grasses, like orchard grass and canary grass, will flourish and dominate the volume of plant growth as these grasses mature very quickly. By mid-summer, the heat and longer day length slows, or even in dry conditions will stop the cool season grasses growth. Then, the much deeper-rooted legumes, like clover and alfalfa, will begin to dominate and thrive through the hot summer. Fescues are one of the few grasses that will grow into the hotter season and hold a high nutritional value longer with more drought tolerance. If there is a diversity of plant species throughout a pasture it will help to sustain ample, high quality, forage through the whole growing season. We can’t forget weeds. The so-called, undesirables, like thistle and burdock can be controlled with mowing but there are many weeds that are actually palatable and nutritious for cattle. They just have to be accepted as part of the natural ecosystem. As long as they don’t compete so heavily with the more desirable grass and legume species, they are not a problem. The most suitable plants will survive through natural selection. Those species that cannot withstand the grazing pressure will die out and those that can will thrive. Grazing pressure can be changed to destroy or foster the growth of a particular species.
As the grass feeds the beef, so the soil feeds the grass. People often show some anxiety when I talk about using fertilizer. With the exception of urea (nitrogen) most fertilizers are simply minerals mined from the earth and distributed on the soil to feed plant life. Just imagine if I were to raise 75 beef animals on 100 acres of grassland each year. The average animal will gain 550 pounds of body weight over the course of one pasture season. Not including the animal’s maintenance needs, that is over 20 tons of nutrient- dense beef taken from the land each year. If this were done year after year, never replenishing these nutrients, the land would become baron and unable to support plant life. As the years went by, the growth and well being of the animals would suffer and eventually become unsustainable. The manure, urine and dead plant life all provide hummus and texture for healthy soil and soil bugs but they do not manufacture major nutrients. Nitrogen is the only macronutrient that can be manufactured naturally and only legumes do that. Remember that the nutrients from my farm end up in your freezer or on your plate each fall. Careful consideration is needed for the timing and quantities of fertilizers applied but they are a much-needed part of this cycle.
All the fertilizers in the world won’t work if the plants cannot access them. If the pH of the soil is too acidic or too basic the plants cannot absorb the needed nutrients. Therefore, pH is the first and most important thing to address regarding the soil. Some grasses will survive in a pH around 6.0 but legumes require a pH of 6.5 or slightly higher. Generally, the soils in the northeast tend to be acid and require the application of a soil amendment, which is typically ground limestone. Wood ashes can be used to raise the pH and also provide a natural source of potassium. Once the proper soil pH is achieved, all plants will grow more vigorously and be less susceptible to poor performance from stresses like drought.
The Champlain Valley here in Vermont has some very unique characteristics. The weather here is much milder than the rest of Vermont. If you were to look at a National Climate Map you would notice a long sliver on the west side of Vermont where the climate is paired with the climate of southern New York and northern Pennsylvania. Even though my farm is just a 40-minute drive from Killington, fortunately it is a world away in terms of weather. There are species of trees and plant that thrive in the Champlain Valley that are not seen anywhere else in the state.
We also have very different soil then the rest of Vermont. Our soils are made up of heavy clay and clay loams. Clay is very difficult to work with from an agricultural standpoint. When it is dry, clay is as hard as concrete and when it is wet clay is like sticky grease and becomes totally unmanageable. Any tillage of the clay has to take place during the in between stage when the soil has just enough moisture to crumble but not enough to stick. If we had a climate like the state of Georgia our agriculture would be severely diminished. The top layer of our soil would be baked and tend to shed water. This is why the winter season here is our friend when it comes to the viability of the soil. After the ground here has soaked up the fall rains it then freezes hard during the winter. This freezing acts like a mortar and pestle when the spring thaw comes, breaking up the tiny particles of clay so the water can settle and the soil can be tilled and planted for the next season. On the land that is not planted, it allows the soil bugs a renewed medium to rebuild and the plants can send down new roots through the softened ground. Even with it’s challenges, clay tends to be very fertile soil. Because it is so dense there is very little leaching of nutrients and the pH changes very slowly as compared to lighter soils like sand, silt and more organically rich topsoils of the mid west.
Like everything else, there is an element of experience needed to monitor and manage the system. Mother Nature will do a lot of the work for you but she can also create many problems. One of the biggest challenges is to have the discipline to understand that you can’t control everything. You can control the pH, soil fertility and which field the cattle are in on a given day. You cannot control the sunlight, wind, rain and temperature. It is best to always have a plan for the worst-case scenario so you, the customer, won’t be disappointed when your beef arrives in the fall.