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Finishing on grass...

Posts: 9
Location: Montrose, CO
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Hello Julius,
I know people write books about questions like this, but what is your opinion about age of cattle and time of year for finishing on grass pasture. Is 18 months too young to be marbled? Is early summer the best time to harvest beef on perennial pasture? I am reading Allan Savory's 'Grassfed to Finish' now. I have 5 cattle, 3 for beef and 2 for breeding. All are 12-14 months old, grass fed (on my perennial pasture) and organic. A farm I used to work at didn't finish the bovines (yak & buffalo) at all. I am thinking to harvest 1 steer this fall at 18 months. I'm expecting it to be tough and lean, but I want to compare it to harvesting his brother next summer after spring lush. Any thoughts or opinions? I have a few more questions but I will post them separately for easier searching.
Thank you very much,
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Hi John,

I really like that you are setting up a little experiment for yourself to test your grass finishing skills. The best grass-finishing experience I ever had was from the very first steers I ever tried to grass-finish we first started our grass-fed journey on my parents farm.

It was a complete and utter disaster. But I learned so much from it and it became the basis for everything I learned afterwards.

I slaughtered them much too young for their breed/frame size, they were both wild as all get-out, which is why they stayed behind in the first place for a longer grass-finishing experience on the farm - we couldn't round these two up when the rest of the stockers left for market (that was long before we had a grass-finishing program in place). And they were cleaning up late fall pastures that had long-since deteriorated from their prime - not on a consciously designed grass-finishing pasture rotation with daily pasture moves. You can see that in hindsight there were obvious reasons why they were destined to be shoe leather, 100% due to my own management decisions, but it wasn't obvious to me until I blew it and figured out what I had done wrong, and got that "well, how hard can it be?" out of my system. Nothing makes us sit up and take notice of all the little details like falling down. javascript:emoticon('');

In regards to your questions, starting with when to slaughter, finishing date depends on frame size, which is big-time affected by breed since breed causes the biggest variation in frame size. For example, most Angus steers finish around 1060 lbs (+/-), which can be done on pasture as young as 16-18 months. Simmentals are much larger, so they need several more months to finish growing and putting on the extra weight for their frame size (usually around the 1400 lbs mark). Tropical breeds will finish considerably heavier than that and will consequently take even longer to finish. One of the keys to good grass finishing is to know exactly what weight you need to target before you slaughter for the specific frame size of the animals that you are raising. If you have both Angus and Simmental in the same herd, the Angus will be ready much earlier and at a much lighter weight than the Simmental. neither is good or bad, it is simply about designing your grass finishing program around the frame size / breed that you are using so that each is slaughtered at its own appropriate date.

As far as when to harvest/slaughter - the key is your ability to create a high quality pasture that your cattle can keep gaining weight on. Consistently, every day. That is why a daily pasture rotation is so much better than moving every other day or even less frequently than that. Spring, summer, fall, whenever your cattle reach that weight/fatness, they are ready for slaughter. If you can create a high-quality grass-finishing pasture that retains its nutrient qualities late into the fall and into winter, you can even grass-finish at that time of year.

By learning how to create super high quality winter pastures for your grass-finishing programs, you can extend your grass-finishing program deeper and deeper into the winter. For example, alfalfa is a wonderful late fall finishing pasture - either after the frost has killed it and dried it down a bit, or in conjunction with a bloat inhibitor - because it makes such rich grazing.

The other trick is not to slaughter once the pasture quality deteriorates to the point that daily weight gains either stall or become inconsistent, because that will make the meat tough and flavorless even if the animal has reached its target weight for slaughter.

I have an article series called the Seven Unbreakable Rules of Producing Great Beef in which goes through - point-by-point - all of these little details that you need to be aware of as you design your finishing program - with particular attention to how to address each of these issues in your grass-finishing pasture rotation.

As you'll see, grass-finishing does not require a vastly different grazing strategy than the one you use every day for your daily pasture rotation, but rather just meticulous fine-tuning that pasture rotation (pasture quality, water, weight, mineral supplements, etc, etc) so that all these little details are taken care of and that the time/weight you pick to slaughter matches the frame size of the cattle you are raising.

I hope that gives you a good overview of what to look for in your first grass-finishing attempt. You can find more information about how to structure your grass finishing strategy in the Grass-Finished Beef chapter of my book and in the Grass Finishing section of my website. Good luck and if you feel like sharing your results when you slaughter this fall, please get in touch to share your experience. The more experiences are openly shared about what worked, and what didn't, and why, the sooner that grass-finishing will become mainstream common knowledge and not such a mystery.
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