Linda Benedict, Scaglia, Guillermo | 11/12/2014 2:59:43 AM
Much of the beef produced and sold in the U.S. before World War II was from grass- or limited-grain-fed cattle. Development of the modern large-scale cattle feeding industry in the 1950s and 1960s increased supplies of grain-fed beef. By the early 1970s, many American consumers found beef in supermarkets from only heavy, grain-fed cattle. Consumers soon became conditioned to the flavor, juiciness and tenderness of well-marbled beef. Proponents of forage- or limited-grain-finishing systems found little support at any marketing level. Corporate consolidation in the beef industry has narrowed the marketing options for small-scale producers. It is increasingly hard for the family ranch at the bottom of the food processing chain to maintain acceptable profit as evidenced by annual cost and returns estimates for cow-calf production. These have pushed many ranchers out of business and inspired others to bypass the industry and market their own products.
In recent years, consumer demand has grown for products produced through more natural and holistic production systems. Included in this class of less industrialized animal production systems are forage-finished beef programs.
The economic sustainability of the forage-fed beef systems must be evaluated in controlled conditions. The definition of forage-fed beef published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Marketing Service in the 2007 Federal Register indicates that it is considered such “when grass and forage are the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.” Additional labeling claims are usually made that forage-fed beef is produced without using growth promoters, ionophores – a type of antibiotic that improves gain efficiency – or sub-therapeutic antibiotics. It is important then to follow these or any other established guidelines in producing forage-fed beef so that production information can be transmitted to consumers. Most importantly, variation in forage-fed beef prices and palatability may add to consumer confusion and negatively affect consumer confidence. Product attributes are the basis for willingness to pay a premium for forage-fed beef.
Several of Louisiana’s forage-fed beef producers are selling their product directly to consumers and to restaurants in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. A large influx of immigrants from Central America and Asia into Louisiana has expanded the marketing potential to ethnic groups. There is also proximity to large Texas ethnic markets in Houston and Dallas. If preferences are known for forage-fed beef, such as willingness to pay for specific attributes – leanness, color and flavor – then producers will have the marketing information necessary to sell forage-fed beef in these communities.
Environmental and health concerns, food safety recalls, and changing domestic demographics have encouraged beef producers to look for alternative production systems like forage-fed beef. Consumer interest in the benefits of forage-finished beef and the increasing demand for locally produced products have had a multiplicative effect on this niche market. If managed properly, Louisiana has solid opportunities to produce forage year-round. Locally produced forage-finished beef offers high value, while enhancing economic, environmental and social sustainability. Forage-finished animals produce leaner meat compared with that from the higher-marbled, grain-finished animals. In addition, forage-finished beef is a healthier product that can be beneficial in the human diet because of greater concentrations of conjugated linoleic acid and omega- 3 fatty acids.
Several aspects that must be considered in developing a sustainable forage-beef system include appropriate cattle types, forage systems, production and economic factors of existing forage-beef operations, demand for forage-fed beef among different consumer groups, and the influences of cookery type on forage-beef palatability. With this in mind an interdisciplinary team was formed in 2010 with scientists from the LSU AgCenter and Southern University with the common goal of seeking external funding to support research. The proposal was presented to the USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) for funding through a grant from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). NIFA is charged with funding integrated research, extension and education grants that address key problems of national, regional and multi-state importance in sustaining all components of agriculture, including farm efficiency and profitability, ranching, renewable energy, forestry, aquaculture, rural communities and entrepreneurship, human nutrition, food safety, biotechnology and conventional breeding. By the beginning of 2011, the Louisiana project was funded for a total of $500,000 for four years (USDA-AFRI 2011-67023-30098). Some of the findings are summarized in this issue of Louisiana Agriculture.
Guillermo Scaglia is an associate professor at the Iberia Research Station in Jeanerette.
This article was published in the fall 2014 Louisiana Agriculture.