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How to choose the grass-fed niche cattle market

By Staff | Oct 29, 2010

Livestock producers are becoming more interested in switching to grass-fed feeding system. Advisors caution, however, that producers need to research the industry thoroughly before making the switch.

Producers who are considering switching to grass-only or grass-finishing their cattle, need to know the technology behind the method, as well as the niche market they would be trying to sell into.

In a webinar produced by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, or ATTRA, specialists Jeff Schahczenski, an expert in agricultural public policy and alternative livestock marketing and economics, and Lee Rinehart, a former Extension agent and beef cattle ranch manager, offered their thoughts on the marketing and production methods in raising grass-fed beef.

Rinehart covered the production side of this niche market.

He said it’s important that producers understand grass-fed production methods, before they get started, especially in deciding if they’ll be raising completely grass-fed, or grass-finished animals.

There are three niche markets for grass-fed cattle – cow/calf, stock animals and pasture finishing, Rinehart said.

Many grass fed producers are finding success with dual breed types, he said, including Angus, Shorthorn, Dexter, Hereford, Devon and American Lowlines or a cross of these breeds. “You want a medium-framed animal that’s early maturing and low maintenance,” Rinehart told his audience. “Good mothering skills with a good milk supply are also important.”

End weights should be 900-1,100 pounds and the meat of the animal must be tender. Grass-fed animals will take 60 to 80 days longer to finish than when finishing conventionally.

“One of the main problems we’ve heard from slaughter facilities is that grass-fed animals have often not finished growing when brought in for slaughter. We want to see a back fat of .3 percent” Rinehart said.

Ruminants are adapted to use forage so this system is natural to them, but the producer needs to be sure he can provide enough good forage.

Pasture rotation is needed, sectioning off these paddocks with electric fencing. The watering needs of cattle must also be considered.

Marketing grass-fed animals

Grass fed animals do not go through conventional processing so the producer needs to sell into what ever market is available, Jeff Schahczenski said. Having a USDA processing plant nearby can be a definite plus.

“The bottom line here is understanding your consumers and their willingness to pay” Schahczenski said. “Will your consumers pay enough for this product to cover the cost of raising it? Know your market before you begin.”

Even with the current economic downturn, the organic and grass-fed markets are increasing. Some grass-fed producers are diversifying, combining their niche market with other niche livestock methods or community supported agriculture programs.

Schahczenski and Rinehart suggested several websites containing tools for would be producers considering venturing into grass-fed market. These include:

Contact Robyn Kruger by e-mail at rangerob@hickorytech.net.

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