Creating a profitable grassfed operation |

Creating a profitable grassfed operation

Photo by Loretta SorensenA variety of cattle breeds and sizes were on display and sold at auction during The Grassfed Exchange Seminar held at Stockmen's Livestock Auction Feb. 26 and 27. A host of presenters on Friday included Bill Kurtis of Tallgrass Beef Co. and Todd Churchill of Thousand Hills Cattle Co.
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Is demand for grassfed beef growing? How can beef producers take advantage of what could be an “exploding grassfed market?” What kind of genetics does it take to develop a profitable grassfed operation?

Those are just a few of the questions that were discussed at The Grassfed Exchange Seminar titled “Live Evaluation of Grassfed Genetics” held at Yankton’s Stockmen’s Livestock Market Feb. 26 and 27.

Cattlemen from across the midwest gathered for the event, which was sponsored by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Thousand Hills Cattle Company; Wayne Rasmussen; Tallgrass Beef Company; US Wellness Meats and the Grassfed Exchange.

A host of speakers offered presentations throughout Friday, Feb. 26, addressing topics that included ultrasound process and data use, finishability traits, cow efficiency and cow functionality.

Among the criteria Thousand Hills Cattle Co. of Cannon Falls, MN uses to select animals that fit their need for quality grassfed beef are carcasses that yield a minimum of 65 percent meat-to-meat and bone ratio; yield a greater precentage of high value cuts; have gained weight consistently throughout their lives, especially the last 90 days; are third-party verified as being raised according to rigorous standards, allowing label and marketing claims that are meaningful to consumers; and can fatten to mid-select USDA grade without needing concentrated carbohydrates (grain) at a mature live weight of 1,100 to 1,200 pounds.

“In order to meet those requirements, you have to start with the right kind of cattle,” Todd Churchill, Thousand Hills co-owner said.

Churchill’s company recommends that beef producers develop extremely easy-fleshing genetics and employ intensive grazing techniques, such as mob grazing, which results in better quality forage.

Kit Pharo, longtime Colorado rancher, said smaller cows have proven to be more efficient in any type of beef production, grass or grain fed.

“For most ranchers, the optimum cow is the cow that can do the most for the least,” Pharo said. “Smaller cows do more for less. So, how small can you go? You can’t go so small that what you’re selling at a sale barn or taking to a feedlot or the commodity buyer doesn’t work in the system.”

Pharo noted that his most efficient animals are easy fleshing and early maturing.

“Any cow can be made fat if it’s allowed to eat long enough,” Pharo said. “What impresses me is a cow that maintains good body condition on low quality forage. My best cows are frame score between 2 and 4. That’s a scary thing for many audiences to hear because they don’t really understand frame scores. I have some thick, easy fleshing frame 4 cows that weigh 1,400 pounds. Some of my frame 4 bulls weigh over a ton.”

John Cotton of Volga, SD spoke about the Aberdeen Angus bloodlines his father developed in 1966 and that he’s maintained in his present operation.

“In the 1980s I was John Cotton with the wimpy little cows,” Cotton told the audience. “Now everybody wants to dip into my semen tank.”

Cotton’s consistent strategy has been to cull out the cows that were weaning over 50 percent of the dam’s weight, maintaining moderate-framed cows that required little input in order to thrive.

“My cows are frame score 3 to 4.5,” Cotton said. “They weigh between 1,320 and 1,380 pounds. I’ve been very unforgiving with them when they come open or don’t perform well for any reason.”

Southwest Montana rancher, Larry Mehlhoff, stressed that reproductive efficiency was one of the most important traits an efficient cow offers.

“Efficient cows don’t have to the biggest or the smallest, most or the least,” Mehlhoff said. “They should be intermediate for many traits. They have to be adaptable to changes in production and environment and market demands. If your herd has a lot of uniformity, they’ll be easier to manage and outcomes will be more predictable.”

Mark DeBoo of Diamond D Angus in Montana encouraged breeders not to focus on any one trait and develop it to the extreme.

“Most genetics traits are like a chapter in a book,” DeBoo said. “Longevity is the entire book. In order to be profitable, cows should still be producing calves when they’re 22. When you’re selecting replacements, select them from cows that are at least 10 years old. Same with bulls. Select a bull from an older cow so you’re maintaining longevity in your genetics.”

Sam Wylie, a Pennsylvania breeder, encouraged cattlemen to monitor results of line breeding and cull cattle with any type of trait that require extra inputs, such as poor feet.

“Fertility is probably the most important trait you want to select for,” Wylie said. “If you don’t have that, everything else goes downhill.”

Wylie explained that cattle of a certain phenotype were likely to be the most productive animals in a herd. He used a Styrofoam coffee cup to demonstrate his point.

“We used to say that bulls should be broad at the shoulder, narrow at the hip,” Wylie said. “Cows are just the opposite. A good cow is refined at the head and neck and ideally has between five and seven inches greater girth around her flank than her heart.”

Teddy Gentry, a member of the country music group “Alabama,” noted that he’s gathered contrasting data on large and small cows and found smaller animals to be more efficient on his Alabama ranch.

“A linebred gene pool is the only way to stabilize size and quality,” Gentry said. “If you have 30 different animals in the genetic background it’s like shooting a shotgun blast. You’re liable to get anything back.”

No specific plans have been made for a subsequent seminar, but organizers are optimistic about an annual event. More information about The Grassfed Exchange and related events and online resources is available at

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