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Turning a Profit on Grass-Fed Beef

By Ridge Shinn and Lynne Pledger

The following excerpt is from Ridge Shinn and Lynne Pledger’s new book Grass-Fed Beef for a Post-Pandemic World (Chelsea Green Publishing, October 2022) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Turning a Profit

Every businessperson wants to make a profit, but for people who raise livestock, profit margins are often very small; a bad year can jeopardize the whole enterprise. Furthermore, people who have no inherited assets or access to capital may  feel that raising beef cattle is entirely out of reach. But raising grass-fed beef offers some new opportunities for livestock producers to succeed.

Because regenerative grazing is based on working with natural systems (and  not against them), it is possible to start raising grass-fed beef with minimal capital. A farmer or rancher can achieve net profitability by fostering biological activity, these practices will improve the soil’s  health and keep the costs of production low. Profit will come from the health and productivity of the fields and the cattle. Producers will know they are on  track for profitability when the organic matter in their soil increases, their paddocks support more cattle, and those cattle are healthy. Improved soil fertility and structure will nourish the pasture plants and the cattle, and improve the bottom line.

cows in a field at sunset

Minimal Capital Investment

If you can afford to purchase land, build a barn, and buy a tractor and hay ing equipment—and you want to own these things—then go ahead and buy them. But consider this: You don’t need to own all of them—or any of them—to raise grass-fed beef.

Renting Pasture

Of course, you’ll need pasture for grazing. But that doesn’t mean you have  to buy it. Depending on your community, pasture land might be available to rent with a low-cost or free lease.

Conservation Land

A great deal of acreage is owned by conservation groups, states, and other public entities. Sometimes these land stewards find that once grassland has  been saved from development, the effort to keep it from growing up to brush is a maintenance headache; if you leave land alone, brush becomes trees. To keep farm fields open, some commonly employed methods are burning (which costs thousands of dollars per acre) and spraying with poisons—most likely glyphosate—with risk to health and the environment. Some conservationists simply hire a Bush Hog (rotary mower), at considerable expense, to cut down the grass, and then simply leave it lying in the field.

But one farmland stewardship option is win-win: regenerative grazing.

Getting a long-term lease to graze conservation land requires some  conversation with decision makers about their expectations for how the  property will look. They need to understand that healthy, diverse grassland  might include a diversity of “weeds.” And the tall grass that is perfect for  grazing might look to some like hay gone to waste. Be proactive: provide  the community with information about the importance of letting the grass  grow tall and the roots grow deep so that soil life can perform its functions. The National Audubon Society has initiated a program called Conservation Ranching to certify land that is used for grazing cattle in a way that  protects birds and other wildlife. This program may help to inform the public about the compatibility of grazing and wildlife conservation.

Leasing from Homeowners

Many homeowners love a pastoral landscape and would like to keep their fields from filling in with brush. But like the conservation groups, they, too, might have some unrealistic expectations of how a pasture looks at different times in the growing season and before and after grazing; so when you make an agreement, let the landowners know that the pasture will be managed to  ensure its long-term health and good nutrition for the cattle—and what that  management will look like.

Dairy Land

Because the price of milk remains low but the costs of production have risen, many dairy farmers are looking for other ways to earn income from their land; some are willing to rent pastures for grazing.

Single Wire Fences

With grass-fed beef, the need for permanent fencing is minimal. You do need  a sturdy perimeter fence to keep the animals off the road and off the neighbor’s farm, but interior fencing can be temporary: a single electrified wire that can be easily moved, perhaps with the aid of a device like a tumble wheel  if the terrain allows. Remember, with regenerative grazing the fence is more to designate a new area for grazing than to confine animals; if cattle always have grass in front of them or are comfortably full, there is no pressure on the fence. Having flexible fencing allows you to apply animal impact differently at different times. For example, you can create a new lane for the cattle to walk to their water supply if the route they have been using gets muddy.

No Barn

Grass-fed beef cattle have no need of a barn and will stay outside if given  a choice. One problem with a barn is that it tends to accumulate manure and urine, concentrating the nutrients that are produced in a space with an  impervious floor, which leads to runoff and groundwater pollution. Beef cattle are healthier outside where the sun shines. Do provide a sheltered spot where they can get out of the wind, be it in a valley or by the woods, a stone wall, or a building. Given good grass and all the water they need (a backup  supply of water is especially important for a large finishing herd), the cattle  will flourish, even in a northern climate.

Of course, not all breeds of cattle are this robust. For example, most conventional dairy cattle have been bred to a large size, but they lack the capacity to  maintain their body condition while they produce milk, unless they are in some kind of shelter. In contrast, the recommended beef breeds are rugged animals, much like their wild ancestors. Their bodies are very different from human bodies. Whereas a person without proper gear might not survive a stormy winter night in New England, one of our grass-fed cows, with her heat-generating rumen, insulating blanket of fat, and warm hair coat that retains body heat, is perfectly content to lie down in a snowy field on a ten-degree night. She gets up in the morning, shakes off the snow, and carries on with her day.

Some producers do provide a covered feed bunk in winter, perhaps not so much to cover the cattle as to keep hay from getting soaked. Such a structure does not need to be a fully enclosed building.

Tractor? Haymaking Equipment?

It’s helpful to enumerate the specific tasks throughout the year that call for a trac tor and consider whether those jobs justify the considerable expense of buying, maintaining, and running one. If the need is minimal, it may be more economical to rent a neighbor’s tractor or hire the neighbor to spread bales around the farm in the fall before winter weather makes it challenging to move bales.

Likewise, do the math on your costs for hay. Whether it is homemade, made on your land by someone else, or purchased, this expense might be the difference between a profitable operation or not. Where we live it costs  about $50 a bale to buy hay and $40 a bale to make hay if you include fuel, equipment, depreciation, and labor.

When deciding on the best use of the fields available to you, consider this information. A study of ten livestock operations in four states in the Southeastern United States compared adaptive multi-paddock grazing to conventional grazing: the regenerative approach increased the biomass generated per acre threefold. The regeneratively managed acres were able to carry more livestock, and even with the higher stocking rate, these  operations had better water infiltration, more plant diversity, and higher soil carbon levels than neighboring operations that were managed conventionally with continuous grazing. More livestock means more income. Also, the water infiltration, diversity, and carbon levels indicate land that is functioning  better and so needs fewer purchased inputs to be profitable.

What if you sold your haymaking equipment, grazed cattle regeneratively  on the land that was previously hayed, reaped the benefits of increased forage in your pastures—including raising more animals on the same land base—and focused on extending the grazing season? You wouldn’t need to buy much hay.

Find your copy of Grass-Fed Beef for a Post-Pandemic World at the Acres U.S.A. Bookstore online here.

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