Selecting Cattle For Grass Based Systems

When selecting cattle for grazing, there are several things to consider to optimize your success and hence your profits.  Having made several poor purchases myself, I’ve experienced the frustration first hand of animals that don’t perform in our grass system here at the farm.  The real downside of those bad purchases is that they can stick with you for a couple of years before the animals get (almost) big enough to butcher and allow you to recoup your investment funds!  Tying up funds in a poor choice of animal can set your business back exponentially.  And if they don’t perform well by growing quickly, then a lack of marbling can occur which can lead to customer dissatisfaction.  Oh the joys of producing grassfed beef!

When selecting cattle for a 100% grass based system, it’s best to start with cattle coming out of a 100% grass based system.  It’s really easy to get hung up on wanting a certain breed of cattle, but the best breed in the world with the greatest genetics won’t do you any good if they are coming out of a grain based feeding regimen.  Does that mean that genetics aren’t important?  No, not at all.  In fact, they are of paramount importance!  The point is that grain fed animals might fit all of the other criteria I list below and have smashing good looks and wonderful personalities.  But if those cattle have been raised on and finished on grain,  then they simply won’t perform as well as cattle with the same pedigree who come out of an all grass system.  In reality, you want to find both good genetics and a grass based herd to buy from.  My point is that if you only look at genetics or a specific breed, then you are missing the boat.

Another tip for success is that you also want to buy your cattle direct from the source if at all possible and avoid livestock auctions.  This allows you to quiz the breeder, see the operation first hand and inspect the animals carefully before making a commitment to purchase.  It’s also a great way to build a long term relationship with a supplier until you get your own cow-calf herd up and running.  Conversely, it’s near impossible to find out what the animals have been eating if you buy them at an auction.  You also can’t see the parent stock, the living conditions, nor ask questions of the person who breed them.  Auctions can be a way to get a great deal on livestock, they can also be a way to loose your shirt.  If an auction is your only option, then take an experienced cattle farmer with you when you go and be on the look out for sick animals.

So beyond the above, what are we looking for when we go shopping?  In general, we are looking for small framed, short legged, wide, fat animals.  And we want genetics, coupled with being breed to perform in a grass based system, to allow them to finish out within 2-2.5 years.  And when I say “finish out” I mean the cow is “done”.  Done is different for every animal, but the brisket needs to be filled out and the rear end fleshed out.  This takes some experience and over time you’ll gain an eye for it.  But not every animal you raise is going to be done at the same age or even the same weight.  As best as your finances allow, let the cow tell you when she’s finished out.

Notice the height to width ratio of this animal. The fence post to the left is roughly 54″ high and the top wire is 30″ high. If you look closely, a pre-drilled hole near the top of the post is at 48″. This animal weighed about 850-900lbs at the time this was taken and she is only about 4′ tall to the top of her back.

Again, notice the short legs and full body structure from neck to tail. We don’t want a skinny rear end, as that is where the choice steaks are located! This red steer is half red devon and half black angus. We find that the red devon genetics perform really well in all grass systems. Most of our animals finish around 1,000-1,100 lbs. and this guy is getting close to that mark.

In addition the physical attributes, we want to look for docile dispositions and personalities who are easy to handle.  This is especially important in a rotational grazing system where we are working with and moving the cattle everyday.  Jumpy, erratic animals with a bad temperament should be avoided at all costs, and gotten rid of as quickly as possible if they show up on your farm.  Trust me when I tell you that one heifer who is jumpy can make the entire herd unsettled.  Then they are all harder to work with and they are stressed which causes them to not perform as well.  This can really make you hate your work.  In my experience, it is best to load that one animal up and make a trip to your butchering facility, regardless of the fiscal consequences.

Lastly, we want to look for animals close to home and here is why:  micro-evolution.  No, I’m not an evolutionist.  But, animals do absolutely micro-evolve to their climates, surroundings, seasons and in the case of a cow – to the grasses, legumes and forbes she has available to eat.  If you can imagine what cattle in Indiana get to graze on vs. that of an animal in the high dessert plains of say Wyoming, you get the point.  Each animal, over time, will have been breed and evolved to perform well in that geographic region.  So, is it bad to drive 150 or 250 miles to get cattle that you really want?  No, but if you can drive 25 or 50 you will be better off due to the likelihood that the forages they are eating there will be the same as what is found in your pastures.  It may take some looking, but eventually you’ll find someone with a few extra animals to sell close to home.  And as mentioned before, if you find some nice animals in an all grass system really work hard to cultivate that relationship so that you can be a repeat customer.  Good cattle are hard to find, and 100% grassfed beef is in really high demand!

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