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What breed for grass fed beef and how many?

 
Mark Krohn
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We are planning to grow some grass fed beef using MIG here in south west Wisconsin

We are planning to start with about 4 acres of land that has been in grass CRP for 25 years.

My question is: do you have a preferred breed for grass fed beef.

We are considering these

Piedmontese, Galloway, Scottish Highland, or perhaps you have a favorite?

Question 2

What would be a good number of cattle to start with for these 4 acres ? (we have an additional 40 that is available later)
 
Josh Ritchey
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Julius,

Have you found any breeds to do particularly well on specific type of field? I'm curious if you've had the opportunity to experiment enough or research and determine specific breeds that do particularly well on a particular plant species indigenous to specific regions.

Everybody will be in different places and I would assume certain breeds perform better in varying regions, is this a correct assumption or has the domesticated cow been pretty well evened out on most U.S. regions?

Does your experience bring you to agree with Joel Salatin's opinion of sterility dropping the farther from pure bred you get? He says he likes a pure bred bull and a specific mixture for the rest of his stock.

 
John Mercer
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Location: Montrose, CO
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Hi Mark,
Here is a bit of info based on my experiences. However I am no expert, I'm livin' and learnin'.

I have 7 acres of irrigated grass pasture in SW Colorado. Right now I have five 14 month cattle; 2 jersey steers and 3 hereford cows. (off topic, I bought the jerseys at 2 weeks old for $100 each, bought the herefords at 12 months for $1150 each!) Anyway, I do MIG with daily moves, it's the best part of the day. I make hay on the pasture that was grazed last year, and I'm grazing the side I made hay on last year. I flip flop like that every year to keep the soil nutrients up. Anyway, I could probably get away with 2 more head and not overgraze. That's not scientific, it's just based on how things look out there.

Also, you'd have to have a winter feeding plan. Are you planning to buy hay in for the winter? So you can graze all 4 acres all season long? If that's the case, my guess would be 3-4 cattle on your 4 acres. Better to start with fewer and grow as you get more familiar with it all.
Enjoy!
John
 
Julius Ruechel
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Hi Mark,

do you have a preferred breed for grass fed beef.


No, I don't. Breed MUST be matched to your production goal, your environment, your cattle farming strategy and your marketing goals. Identify exactly what you expect from your beef program and then set out to find the genetics that make this possible. It will be different for everyone, not just from region to region, but even between neighbors, because everyone has different strategies, goals, and personal biases to account for, in addition to climate, environment and so on.

I've discussed breed choice in this and this thread, and you can find out more in the Genetics and Breeding chapter of my book as well as in the article on my website about picking the right beef cattle breed.

And always remember that your selection and culling practices are even more important than your breed choice - picking the breed is just the very first step - the real difference in picking the right cattle for your program is having a rigorous selection and culling program.

What would be a good number of cattle to start with ...?


So many variables to consider - that is something you will need to figure out for your situation. Do you produce your own hay from this land also, or buy feed from off farm, are you doing cow/calf, or buying calves for a stocker program, will you grass-finish them yourself? What kind of grazing program do you have designed? All that affects how many mouths you will have grazing and how long each animal will spend on your land. What is your soil like? Is the land irrigated, fertilized, how productive is it, etc? Stocking rates will very greatly depending on all these factors - it's important to talk to neighboring farms to get a sense of their stocking capacities in your area, but also take that with a grain of salt because your farming strategies may be very different even if the soil is the same - a well-managed soil fertility program and/or irrigation program can produce multiple times the forage yield of a dryland acreage that has not had its soil fertility managed.

Stocking rates will be very different on different farms using different farming strategies, herd management styles, herd structures, etc, so in reality stocking capacity is something you have to figure out through experience by making a conservative best guesstimate for your specific situation, then cut that stocking rate in half once more just to be safe, and begin with a small number of cattle just to begin building experience and to get a sense of what your land and your production strategy is capable of supporting.
 
Julius Ruechel
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Hi Josh,

Have you found any breeds to do particularly well on specific type of field? I'm curious if you've had the opportunity to experiment enough or research and determine specific breeds that do particularly well on a particular plant species indigenous to specific regions.

Everybody will be in different places and I would assume certain breeds perform better in varying regions, is this a correct assumption or has the domesticated cow been pretty well evened out on most U.S. regions?


There are definitely different breeds that do better or worse in different conditions. No the domesticated cow is NOT the same across all breeds - it goes well beyond physical appearance but includes everything from heat and/or cold tolerance, to parasite resistance, resistance to eye diseases in different conditions, vulnerability or resistance to solar glare when there is no shade in the pasture. There is also differences in how readily different breeds browse on tree shrubs - all will do some browsing, but some breeds will go to great lengths to mow down a tree. Also there is differences in foot hardness - some of the breeds that originated in mountainous rocky regions have hard feet that grow back quite aggressively due to the wear they got from walking on rocks all the time - great if you have abrasive soils but not so good if your soils are really soft so that the fast growing toenails don't get worn off and begin to curl over and crack, which is painful for the cattle and means you need to spend extra time figuring out how to trim their hooves.

So breed choice matters a lot, but at the same time I do believe that too much concern is made over breed at the expense of learning how to set up a proper selection and culling program in your cattle herd. Regardless of what breed you choose, if you don't cull bad feet, sickly individuals, individuals with calving difficulties, individuals with parasite issues, and so on, then the advantageous characteristics of the breed will be completely overshadowed by the genetic problems cropping up in the cattle herd - which are then often unfairly blamed on the breed rather than being attributed to bad management practices. It's always easier to point elsewhere than at oneself javascript:emoticon(':)');

Does your experience bring you to agree with Joel Salatin's opinion of sterility dropping the farther from pure bred you get?


I am not aware of this phenomenon. I feel that the biggest variations in fertility are because of the selection and culling practices of individual farmers - which all boils down to herd management. There are fantastic and there are awful breeders regardless of whether the animal is purebred or crossbred. Is the breeder picking animals based on fertility and maintenance characteristics, or because of the appearance or single trait selection, or because they have a particular attachment to the animal? Price, cuteness, pedigree, show-ring ribbons, or a love for "Daisy" because she was bottle raised are all NOT the right reasons for picking an individual heifer or bull calf for your breeding herd. Breeders - regardless of whether they are commercial or hobby farmers, purebred or crossbred - need to understand this, those that do generally produce good cattle, those that don't won't. Most bad genetics are not produced by bad people, just people who have learned to focus on the wrong traits or have poor genetic selection and culling habits, despite the very best of intentions. In the end, the responsibility rests with the cattle buyer, not the cattle seller, to be very clear about what they are looking for for their herd and how to recognize the genetic traits that will reveal low maintenance and high fertility, and not passing that responsibility to the salesman.

He says he likes a pure bred bull and a specific mixture for the rest of his stock.


A lot of commercial beef producers like this strategy because it gives them more control over the genetic mixture of their cattle herd, which in turn gives them greater predictability over the size and growth rates, and consequently the finishing times required when raising their cattle. When a beef marketing program depends on having cattle finished by a certain date and then one year 30% of the herd needs an extra 3 months time to finish because these crossbred cattle happened to have a larger frame size, that has devastating consequences to the marking program and can lead to feed shortages if the animals don't head to the butcher by the anticipated date. The only way to have consistency in frame size (and thus the time it takes to finish for slaughter) is to use purebred, or a terminal crossbreeding program. The greater the difference between breeds, the greater the unpredictability.

As an example, let's say you breed Angus. You can pretty much expect all your calves to finish around 1060 lbs (+ or -), and with the right grazing program this could occur in as little as 16-18 months. A terminal cross between an Angus and a Galloway (which is a very similar sized breed) would likely produce a similar sized animal, but a terminal cross between an Angus and a Simmental (which finish several months an around 320 lbs heavier) will produce something in between. So far, as long as only the terminal cross from two pure-bred parents is used, the results are still predictable.

But now imagine rebreeding the crossbred Simmental-Angus heifer to an Angus bull, or a Simmental-Angus crossbred bull. Now the genetic mix is no longer predictable - the calves born can be anywhere on the spectrum - some will display predominantly Angus characteristics, some will display predominantly Simmental characteristics, and the rest will be anywhere along the scale. Consequently, as a beef producer, it becomes impossible to predict at what age and size your calves will finish - it will vary from year to year and every calf will need to be assessed individually. That's why cross-bred programs become more difficult to manage for smaller-scale producers. When an operation has thousands of cattle, like the feedlots, they can afford to sort the cattle by frame size as they come in. They will even buy calves based on their frame size in order to keep a steady supply of cattle finishing on the date required for their marketing program. Smaller-scale producers don't have this luxury and are therefore better off with a purebred or a terminal-cross cattle herd if they are looking for predictable results for their grass-finishing program. The Genetics and Breeding: Selecting the Right Animals for Your Herd chapter of my book goes into this topic in detail, including learning how to structure your selection process and what characteristics to look for in both bulls and heifers/cows when putting together your breeding herd.
 
Josh Ritchey
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Julius,

Thank you, that was an excellent series of answers. Very detailed, I really appreciate it.

Does your book go from John Q to up and running Farmer Dan or do you focus on more specifics in the middle and end of that process. I'm curious because I have no experience with anything sustainable or cows for that matter. If you run your own operation, not bringing in any new cows beyond your initial lot, can you reasonably get them to butchering weight from birth in 1 year or are they 2 years as I've heard from many conventional farmers? If they take 2 years, do you pull the smaller, younger animals come fall and only keep a number you can feed that look to be growing the best?

Obviously we need to choose how many to keep based upon what our fields can produce. I'm curious if all breeds then require a similar amount of time or is there a large gap between certain breeds finish weight, say a year difference?

Thanks again, I'm looking forward to reading your book. I've obviously got a lot to learn.
 
Julius Ruechel
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Hi Josh,

Thanks for the feedback! I'm so happy that I've been able to help explain a few things - it's a pleasure getting a chance to interact with everyone here at the forums.

Does your book go from John Q to up and running Farmer Dan or do you focus on more specifics in the middle and end of that process.

I set it up so that whether you are entirely new to cattle farming or an established cattle farmer wanting to transition to grass-fed production you will have a framework to follow - from education to planning to setup and finally to the day-to-day operation of your business. My goal is to show how to tie all the diverse aspects of raising cattle as a business - (pasture production, genetics, health, nutrition, soil fertility, finishing, slaughter, marketing, etc) - into a single cohesive cattle farming strategy - essentially how to weave all the threads together.

can you reasonably get them to butchering weight from birth in 1 year or are they 2 years

The time it takes from birth to finished varies by the frame size - bigger boned animals simply need extra time to put on the extra pounds. For example, a smaller framed breed like Angus might take as little at 16-18 months to reach their ideal slaughter weight or around 1060 lbs, whereas a larger-framed breed like Simmental would need some extra months to put on the extra 300+ pounds to reach their ideal slaughter weight of 1400 lbs. Tropical breeds take even longer because they are even bigger boned.

It's WEIGHT, not age, that matters. The time it takes simply depends on how long it takes to put on that weight. So, in a seasonal climate, calves born about a month after the start of the growing season (i.e. mid June), will be weaned sometime during their first winter, and spend the next summer on grass. If the grazing strategy is efficiently-designed, smaller-framed breeds like Angus may be ready to slaughter by mid- to late-fall (before their second winter) if the fall pasture quality is good enough. But those that do not reach their ideal slaughter weight before the pasture quality drops off in winter will have to be overwintered again and can then be grass-finished the following growing season.

So, the time it takes to finish depends on the frame size of the cattle you choose AND how efficient you are at creating high quality pastures for both summer AND winter grazing - which is why I put so much emphasis on learning how to extend the length of your grazing season AFTER the growing season ends - it is the key to speeding up the time it takes to reach slaughter-readiness in a pasture-based cattle farming program while minimizing production costs.


I'm curious if all breeds then require a similar amount of time or is there a large gap between certain breeds finish weight, say a year difference?

There is up to a year's difference between the smallest-framed breeds and the largest-framed breeds - which is a function of how much longer it takes to put on all the extra pounds to sufficiently cover all those bigger bones.

In other words, the time from birth to finish depends on differences in frame (bone) size, not genetically-predetermined differences in growth rates. (caveat - some breeds do have a reputation for being slower growing, although I have personally seen examples from some of these supposed 'slow-growing' breeds being raised commercially and performing just as efficiently as other breeds.)
 
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