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Grass-Fed Beef: 10 Keys to Getting Started

By Will Winter

There are few agricultural activities more exciting these days than being able to make and sell your very own gourmet 100 percent grass-fed beef.

Likewise, there are few agricultural activities that can be as frustrating to learn. Mistakes with animals on this scale can be large and devastating so it’s not only important to plan ahead, but perhaps even more important to avoid the mistakes others have made.

Demand for grass-fed beef continues to rise, whereas the feedlot beef industry is stagnant. When you attend a conference these days, the packed classrooms are the ones explaining grass-fed beef production.

Getting off on the right foot is important. It’s a common mistake to assume that one can merely throw some mediocre sale barn cattle onto old worn-out row crop land and come back in a year or two to find glistening happy cattle that are fully fattened and ready to go to town. I’m not saying that it can’t be done, just that it’s not very likely to work that way. For one thing, most modern cattle are no longer structured in a manner to achieve this, nor is the quality of our grass what it once was. Just because it’s green doesn’t mean there is anything in it.

Good old grass, that is nutrient-dense, high-Brix and abundant, has become hard to find anywhere, but particularly in the land formerly known as the Great Plains. Take Iowa for example (please). This land, before we got here, was 70-80 percent polyculture perennial prairie loaded with millions of bison. The stocking density was incredible, and the annual “harvest” by the ruminants just made it better. Now the prairie has been reduced to less than 0.01 percent of its original size. The few remaining bison are mostly nourished, fattened anyway, from silage and grain, just like the cattle, hogs and poultry.

Southpoll cow
A Southpoll cow, bred specifically to perform well on grass in warm climates.

A few years ago, in Ankeny, Iowa, just outside Des Moines, I gave a lecture to an audience of organic farmers and ranchers about how one could become a producer for Thousand Hills Cattle Co. (Then, as now, THCC is actively recruiting new producers.)

After going through several hours of financial and nutritional data derived from producers, I asked if there were any questions. An organic corn producer raised his hand and stated, in all seriousness, “I still don’t understand why I would want to take my land out of production …” I wasn’t sure how to respond to that comment, given that I had just shown figures explaining how the top producers who finish

100 percent grass-fed cattle were pocketing $500 or more profit per acre per year. It’s even more interesting given the fact that I had shown how this is possible with virtually no heavy farm implements (or bank loans) at all, and with the assurance that the price one can receive for properly-raised beef will not have the extreme price fluctuations seen with commodity beef — or, for that matter, like prices fluctuate with commodity grains. Grass-fed beef producers could be “price-makers” not “price-takers.”

I’m kind of picking on Iowa in particular these days — not because it’s unique, in fact, most of the states in the Midwest have lost their fertility and prairie to the lure of corn, beans and factory farms — but because there is so much potential for change there.

Iowa was a state that once held 8-10 feet of deep black topsoil, one that still has adequate rainfall, as well as a wonderful growing season and climate.

But sadly, this former Garden of Eden is now a place that imports over 90 percent of the food to feed its residents.

I work a lot in Iowa. I was there recently during a sudden downpour that turned into a torrential storm. Driving the back roads, I saw almost instant flooding, the kind that occurs when the soil has virtually no ability to absorb rainwater (called infiltration when it occurs), and virtually no cover crops to protect from soil loss in runoff.

The streams during and following this torrent of rain were heartbreakingly filled with a chocolate mocha-like mixture of soil, and the water itself was headed south in the flooded rivers and streams: farmland fertility headed to the Gulf of Mexico. Several days after a multi-inch rain this kind of land is back to being in a drought!

The good news is that I am watching start-up ranchers and even old-time ranchers reverse the process. All the information one needs to restore the land is available and for some who are willing to be aggressive about it, progress can be made in as little as one year. In fact, just restoring natural grazing can bring back fertility itself, and by “natural” I mean some form of rotational grazing, mimicking the grazing habits and patterns of bison and other large ruminants, which were a critical part of the development of the rich topsoil and organic matter of grasslands everywhere. The even better news is that by using advanced techniques and technology, change can be accelerated greatly.

So, what if the only thing a person can start with is rental land? No problem!

Many of the best techniques for increasing production are so cost-effective that rental ground can become an excellent money-maker. Sure, we are “fixing up” someone else’s land, but at the end of the day, it’s all good.

Here are my top 10 methods to quickly transform worn-out row crop land, rental ground, returning CRP land, or the typical overgrazed, eroded, weed-infested and abused pasture back into profitable and sustainable production:

1. Start With a Plan

Expert consultants can help new producers decide the major factors that practically determine what your farm wants to be. It varies with your own particular geography, topography, meteorology, geology, sociology, biology and psychology. This could include which species, say sheep, goats, pigs, or cattle, or, ideally some of each. Biodiversity is the heart and soul of regenerative agriculture. Will you attempt to certify for organic, biodynamic or other designations?

Scottish highland cattle
Scottish Highland cattle can adapt very well to fattening on grass in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.

Not every farm or ranch can finish gourmet grass-fed beef; they might, however, be excellent for a cow-calf operation. Almost any grassland will work for keeping mama cows fat and happy, but the best grass fertility and nutrient density is required for the final finishing. Many small producers begin with cow-calf and then evolve into finishing.

2. Hire a Good Consultant

This is something most of us have a hard time doing. But yet, the older I get, the more I realize that I don’t know everything. It’s nothing to be ashamed of! Good advice can shorten the path to success by many years.

Good advice will almost always prevent bankruptcy and failure. Good advice is also very easy to find these days. An ideal place to start is right here within the pages of Acres U.S.A. magazine. These specialists have been honed by the editors over many decades, so the odds of success in this gene pool are very high. The main variable is to find the one(s) that are aligned with your particular style and preferences.

3. Read & Study

You have a great magazine in your hands right now! There are many. I consider the internet an invaluable resource these days. In fact, every day I can see the terrible handicaps of those who cannot access the net, and those individuals are even more implicitly urged to expand their library.

Joel Salatin told us once that the first thing he does when visiting a farm is to check out their library of books. I know for a fact that there is a book, or usually many books, that give explicit details of each of these 10 steps, and they can be found right at the largest eco-agriculture bookstore in the world, Acres U.S.A.

4. Soil Testing

Get some good soil tests done at the very beginning. It is of utmost importance to find out what elements are missing, what elements are strong and the overall picture of soil health.

You will also want to have a waypoint on your growth map showing where you began. My advice is to eschew common labs that focus on NPK fertility and what might be called “modern soil chemistry.” Most extension services are like this, but go with the labs that offer deep analysis of the soil. I send most of my soil tests to Texas Plant and Soil Lab, not only because they give me the most valuable information, but because they help landowners chart a course toward sustainable restoration. I like them because they also do not sell anything, so they are less likely to recommend expensive soil amendments. There are many other great labs. We are basically talking about finding a lab that will help access adequate information about the three basic soil principles of chemistry, structure and biology — the latter being extremely important.

5. Mapping the Land

One of the best tools for this process utilizes the most modern technology, which falls under the rubric of pasture mapping. In fact, the company

I recommend is called PastureMap. In addition to the use of satellite and drone photography, they will quickly help determine the most efficient and accurate paddock division, where to put fences and determine the best place to run water lines and lanes. If one continues with their services, they assist in helping determine stocking density, grazing patterns and moves as well as ongoing livestock management.

6. Pasture/Field Remediation

dung beetle in hand
Dung beetles are essential for the health of the soil, plants and grass-fed cattle.

If old GMO row cropland is to be used, it’s important to find tools that can mitigate and speed up the destruction of residual pesticides and chemicals that reside in the soil. In addition to the use of homemade or purchased compost tea preparations, I use biological products from several cutting-edge companies, but primarily I use the foliar sprays from Nature’s Best LLC out of Inwood, Iowa. For as little as $7-$10 per acre, I use these sprays to begin the organic destruction of glyphosate and other nasty chemicals.

They also begin the process of restoring biology to the soil itself. This soil biology, in my opinion, is the most important critical aspect of creating a fertile, nutrient-dense, non-toxic and productive farm. After establishing a policy of no poisons ever, then adding new biology, we will create a protective bio-film that covers every square inch of the property, healing the land, and protecting everyone and everything against deadly pathogens.

7. Bringing In Fertility

Now this topic will create controversy, and I’m bound to step on some toes. However, some things must be said. Having mentioned that I spend a lot of time in Iowa, I can attest to being witness to one of the most irritating and wasteful sins of agriculture, the spreading of massive quantities of feedlot or lagoon pit manure on the land. From the eye, nose and throat irritation that rural Iowans are forced to suffer, to the enormous loss of pure nitrogen (usually in the form of ammonia) going up into the air and atmosphere as well as the tremendous leaching of even more nitrogen and especially phosphorus into the aquifers and streams. Downstream pollution of nitrogen is toxic to humans and animals, and the accrual of excess phosphorus runoff causes toxic algae blooms and dead zones.

My number one choice of brought-in fertility is to purchase the absolute best composted manure available.

As one example, in Iowa I have been working with Bar K Ranch and their supply of composted manure. Their 100,000 feedlot cattle create over 100,000 tons of compost annually, and it is the cheapest form of imported fertility you will ever find. You get more than 100 percent of your expenditure back just in NPK additions alone, then the bonus is all the biology and good humus within. At a rate of 4 tons per acre per year, it’s an incredible method of accelerating fertility, organic matter, tilth, sward thickness and stocking density. Obviously, the other option is to import chemical fertility itself, such as lime, dolomite and other chemicals; however, the largest drawback is cost. Chemical fertility correction can total more than the cost of the land so it’s usually out of the question for rented land.

8. Fencing & Improvements for Livestock

Oh, yes, this will be essential. This category also tends to include gates, loading/handling facilities, water tanks, mineral feeders, shade and shelter from wind and weather.

It also goes back to our earlier steps of planning and mapping. A strong perimeter fence is a given. Double that statement for bison, sheep, or especially goats. This expenditure becomes most glaring for rental land. Greg Judy has written extensively about the methods he uses for covering the costs of the essential basics for bringing in livestock to land owned by others. Typically, row cropland will come unfenced or poorly fenced, so that must be taken into consideration.

Perimeter fencing, from scratch, begins at about $1 per running foot, on up. Once the perimeter fence is up and strong, it’s much easier to work with the dividing fences that control grazing patterns and allow for rotational or mob-and-move styles of grazing. One can safely say that electric fencing has made rotational grazing possible.

9. Stored Forages for Winter

The necessity of feeding hay may also include other periods of the year, depending upon the climate and latitude. The late Allan Nation, publisher of The Stockman Grass Farmer, said he traveled our continent from Canada to Mexico and found that basically everyone utilizes hay or other stored forages for approximately four months a year no matter where they live. In response, it prompted agronomist Jim Gerrish to write the book, Kick the Hay Habit.

Modern improvements in thinking regarding stockpiled forages, cover-cropping and in the creation of robust genetics for bovine foraging have lessened the dependence on hay. However, bringing in hay or other forages is an incredible boost toward the fertility of a farm or ranch. Todd Churchill, founder of Thousand Hills Cattle Co., estimates that there are over $90 worth of minerals in every ton of hay! This way one feeds not only the livestock but also the soil and forages.

10. Easy-Keeping Cows & Grass Genetics

Much ink has been spent on this category, and fortunes have been made and lost with good and bad decisions over genetics. One can safely say that tremendous damage has been done in the last century to dumb-down animal physiology to make them work in the feedlot. These are the animals you will most likely find, unless you know where to look and what to look for.

If the livestock originally imported by the immigrants and settlers, for example the old Aberdeen Angus, were to be used in a feedlot, they would be too good. They would quickly develop a massive layer of undesirable and excess back fat. Equally bad for the feedlot industry, they would fatten too quickly due to the fact that the basic reason we have feedlots is to find the most inefficient method of getting rid of our mountains of excess government-subsidized grain.

Grass-genetics bovine geneticist Steve Campbell says that when it comes to being easy-keepers on grass, the demographics of most herds in the United States resemble a bell-shaped curve with the best 5-10 percent being extremely desirable with the majority, which make up the hump at the top of the bell, being average to mediocre, and then another 5-10 percent or so at the bottom being the extremely undesirable slab-sided, rangy, bony ones that don’t work well on grass. He offers long- and short-term plans for the culling and selection techniques such that any herd can be shaped so as to get to the eventual goal of having the bulk of the animals be the ones that are the money-makers on grass.

Call it a blueprint for the future or just call it your grass-fed beef ranching plan, but what you have just read is not an experiment or a theory. It adds up to a time-tested plan that will work for anyone who is serious about making the leap to grass-fed animals. The fact is that the evolution from grain-fed ruminants going back to their roots as God-designed grass-munchers is as certain as the ongoing ecological switch from burning coal for energy to converting to a future fueled by alternative fuels — and someone will need to be there to produce what more and more consumers want to eat. No matter how you get there, there is gold at the end of this rainbow. Getting there as quickly and efficiently as possible only makes sense; likewise, there is no value in making the mistakes others have made if it can be avoided. As they say, experience is the best teacher, to which I would add, preferably somebody else’s! The rest is up to you.

This article appeared in the June 2017 issue of Acres U.S.Amagazine.

Will Winter is a holistic herd health consultant and livestock nutritionist as well as a traveling teacher focusing on sustainable livestock production and traditional nutrition. Reach him at willwinterdvm@gmail.com or Grass Farmer Supply.