Grass fed beef spells efficiency for Wyoming ranchers
October 13, 2009
Watching the black dots of cattle grazing the Wyoming prairie, ranchers Frank and Terry Henderson of Cougar Valley Ranch in Shawnee, WY, feel they are contributing a healthier product to the nation’s beef supply. The grass fed beef have also helped them make their family ranch more efficient.
The couple switched to raising grass fed beef about six years ago after both of them were diagnosed with cancer.
“It’s not that beef would ever cause cancer,” Terry explains. “It’s basically that the cancer caused us to start looking for healthier foods, and all-natural grass fed beef was the best we could find.”
Grass fed beef is also a great fit to the couple’s existing beef operation north of Douglas. “Prior to raising grass fed beef, we would market our calves through the sale barn or sell them directly to a feedlot,” Terry explains. “We live in a dry land area. There are no grains raised around here. Grass is all we have. Through our research, we found that the grass fed beef are higher in Omega 3 and 6 than grain fed cattle are. Financially, it made sense to us to utilize what we have, so we have made some adjustments in our management and are raising grass fed beef.”
When they decided to try grass feeding their cattle, the Hendersons looked at what they could do from a management standpoint to make their operation more efficient. One change they made was moving their calving date from April to May to cut back their feed expenses.
“We also have longer daylight hours in May and it is a lot nicer weather for calving,” Terry notes, laughing. “Checking cows at midnight in May isn’t quite like checking them at midnight during the winter.”
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The couple, who raise black Angus, have also been involved with a program to DNA test their cattle to determine which ones have markers to be the most feed efficient. “If they have the feed efficiency genes, the cow will gain better than the other cows and pass that on to her offspring. We have been told for years that we should produce for the consumer, instead of what we want to produce, so that’s what we are trying to do,” she said. “By doing this testing, the cattle should produce a better carcass with more marbling and tenderness that is desirable to the consumer.
“We are trying to create a better eating experience for the consumer,” she continues. “If you have the right genetics and feed efficiency genes, that cow will be more feed efficient than one that doesn’t have the right kind of genes.”
The process of changing their operation to grass fed cattle has been a series of adjustments for the couple.
“Feeding grain to cattle is like feeding cupcakes to children – it will make them fatter, faster,” Terry says. Grass fed calves will take longer to finish, but they will be healthier because they don’t get liver problems or develop other health issues from getting fat too quickly.
The most difficult problem of raising grass fed beef, Terry said, is establishing a reliable market. “Most ranchers don’t want to market their beef, they just want to raise cattle,” she says.
When the couple started raising grass fed beef, they tried farmers markets and direct sales, but met with little success.
“The farmers market was just too labor intensive,” she says. “We would drive 85 miles to Casper to a population center and it took us about four weeks just to sell from a half to a whole carcass selling individually-wrapped packages. Most people are looking for enough meat for three or four days of meals. We have found they just don’t have enough freezer space to store more meat than that.”
Terry said they also found how they labeled their packages was important.
“We sold out of our top end cuts and some jerky we had made right away,” she said. “But we had labeled some cuts differently and people didn’t know what it was, so they wouldn’t buy it. They didn’t know what to do with it.”
Terry said she has spoke with many ranchers who have gone independent and marketed their grass fed beef through the internet or advertising. “I don’t really know how successful that has been for them,” she said. “For us, we just want to raise the product and sell it. We don’t want to keep a bunch of inventory around and send it out in packages.”
The Henderson’s send their yearlings down to Double J Feeders in Ault, CO at about 1,000 pounds. “They are long yearlings when they leave the ranch,” says Terry.
Double J Feeders finishes the yearlings with a forage-base ration containing no grain. The cattle are fed to about 1,250 pounds before they are processed.
“This has worked out pretty well for us,” Terry says. “We are able to take any number down there. We don’t have a set number we have to take. But, the disadvantage is that they feed for a select market, and we have to wait longer before we are paid. The producers are having to bankroll the marketers and we have to wait longer – sometimes 60-180 days – for payment of that animal. It is pretty hard for some cow-calf producers to be able to do this.”
On the upside, Terry said they were able to contract their cattle last year for $1.85 a pound hot carcass weight, which was well above the market price. “We get more money for grass fed beef,” she says. “We just have to wait longer to get paid.”
Terry said the cutability of the carcass also differs between grass fed and grain fed animals. “Grass fed cattle are about 57 percent cutability,” she says. “Grain fed animals can be as high as 64 percent.
“The key to grass fed is the finish,” the rancher explains. “Just like grain-fed cattle need to be finished, grass fed cattle do, too. As long as they are finished, they are every bit as good and tender as grain finished cattle. They can still grade prime with a grass finish. We had several carcasses in our last group that graded prime or choice.”