Practices and Systems Used in Southeastern U.S. Grass-Fed Beef Production

Linda Benedict, Gillespie, Jeffrey M., Bhandari, Basu, Sitienei, Isaac, Scaglia, Guillermo  |  11/15/2014 2:12:12 AM

Jeffrey M. Gillespie, Isaac Sitienei, Basu D. Bhandari and Guillermo Scaglia 

Prior to what has become standard practice of feeding grain to beef cattle for finishing, grass finishing was the conventional method for producing cattle for beef. Recent years have seen an upsurge in interest in grass-fed beef production by both consumers and producers. This article reports on the production practices and systems currently used by grass-fed beef producers in the Southeastern United States. Data for this report were collected from a nationwide U.S. survey of 1,052 grassfed beef producers who were identified via a Web search using sites such as Eatwild.com and MarketMaker. A total of 384 useful surveys were received, which constitute an overall return rate of 41 percent.

Of the 384 surveys received, 65 respondents were located in the Southeast, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Of these, 13 were in Virginia, 12 in Louisiana, eight in Kentucky and six in Florida with five or fewer in each of the remaining eight states. These 65 farms are the basis for the results presented in this article.

Of the 65 farms surveyed, the average number of animals finished per farm was 105; the average number of acres on the farm was 278; the average number of acres devoted to the grass-fed beef enterprise was 205.

British breeds were by far the most common for grass finishing, with 66 percent of the farms using British breeds and 88 percent of the total finished animals being British breeds. The second- most common breed type used was the British-Continental cross, which was used by 9 percent of the producers and constituted 4 percent of the total finished animals.

Of the reproductive management practices, 29 percent of the producers used artificial insemination, 7 percent used embryo transfer and 2 percent used sexed semen. Compared with available national data for cow-calf producers, these are higher rates of usage. Breeding management practices used by at least 50 percent of the producers included keeping breeding records, checking pregnancy and using a defined breeding season. Other usage included 10 percent for DNA marker-assisted selection, 44 percent for bull testing and 25 percent for expected progeny differences.

General animal management practices used by more than 50 percent of the producers included:
• 64 percent used vaccinations.
• 65 percent used an animal identification system.
• 73 percent used deworming.
• 54 percent used insect control.
• 91 percent used castration.
• 86 percent kept individual animal records.
• 82 percent accessed the internet for grass-fed beef information.
• 97 percent used rotational grazing.

Compared with available national cow-calf farm data estimates, the use of animal identification is lower for the grass-fed beef producer population, possibly because many of the animals remain on the same operation throughout their lives. However, keeping individual animal records, accessing the Internet for beef information and using rotational grazing are higher for grass-fed beef producers. Moderate usage of 10-50 percent included scoring body condition, dehorning, consulting a veterinarian regularly, testing forage quality and negotiating price discounts with dealers or input suppliers. Compared with available national data for cow-calf producers, the use of regular veterinary services and forage quality testing are higher for grass-fed beef producers. Only 9 percent of the producers used forward purchasing, and 8 percent operated farms that were either certified organic or transitioning to certified organic production.

Almost all grass-fed beef producers (97 percent) sold at least some of their animals and meat by direct sale to consumers. Of the marketing channels identified, 47 percent used farmers markets, 38 percent sold to restaurants, 31 percent marketed online, 25 percent marketed through wholesalers and retailers, and 20 percent sold to grocery stores. Cooperatives accounted for 10 percent of the markets used. Dealers, brokers and meat packers together accounted for 10 percent of the markets used.

Summary
Survey results suggest that in the Southeast, British breeds are by far the most popular animals raised for grassfed beef. Comparing grass-fed beef producers’ use of reproductive management practices with those of the general cow-calf producer, grass-fed beef producers tended to be greater adopters of advanced reproductive management practices in general. General animal management practices were moderately used except for 9 percent of this group being certified organic or transitioning to certified organic beef production. This is higher than the general cow-calf producer, as are estimates for several other general animal management practices.

Grass-fed beef is sold through a number of different marketing outlets, but the vast majority of producers appear to be using direct sales to consumers for at least one of their outlets. Farmers markets and restaurants are also used by substantial portions of the group. Given the nature of these marketing outlets, their high percentage of use suggests close attention and substantial effort afforded to marketing are important aspects of grass-fed beef production.

Jeffrey M. Gillespie is Martin D. Woodin Endowed Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness. His co-authors are Isaac Sitienei and Basu D. Bhandari, both graduate research assistants in the department, and Guillermo Scaglia, associate professor at the Iberia Research Station in Jeanerette.

This article was published in the fall 2014 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.

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