Genetics Matter, Why we raise the type of livestock we raise - Part 2 - Beef Cattle
As we covered last week, in the post industrialization age of agriculture for beef we have developed CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) or feed lots where we bring yearling cattle to fatten them in a hundred days or less on large amounts of carbohydrates. In this drive we have selectively bred cattle for this purpose. We have seen the drive forward of the Black Angus breed. The Black Angus Breed Association has done a masterful job of marketing to the general public that Angus is the breed to eat. But actually they never considered flavor while developing and promoting the breed to farmers and ranchers. It is all about feedlot efficiency.
The Angus is a breed that can reach 900-1000 lbs in its first 12 months on pasture and grain. They typically need to grain them right out of the chute, so their rumens will be accustomed to digesting grain when they get to the feed lot. First to the auction then the feed lot. Feed lot operators wanted an animal that can gain 400 lbs in 100 days on feed. When an animal gains that much weight that fast most of that weight will be fat. Instead of going into great detail of why I believe grass-fed beef is far superior to grain-fed please read my blog posts from last year on the subject. The first one is Introduction to Grass-fed Beef .
So the beef we typically have has been developed for a) grain feeding and b) confinement feeding. Both of these preform poorly under grass-fed operations. So to successfully bring grass-fed beef to market you want beef selectively bred for grass only production. Typically grass production takes a little longer, so raising a breed that gets to market sooner is an advantage because in grass production you need a lot of real estate so you need to be efficient with your resources. If they finish faster your land can carry more head year over year.
Smaller is the key, some of the advantages of smaller cattle are: a) cattle don't fatten until they reach their adult height. Animals that are superior grass harvesting machines and are smaller give you an efficiency advantage, b) Weaning percentage is the next advantage of smaller cattle. When you have a 1400-1500 pound mama cow and she weans a 500 lb calf she has a weaning percentage of about 30% (500/1500) when you have a 1000 lb cow weaning the same 500 lb calf you have a weaning percentage of 50% (500/1000). This is a big deal. A mama cow that weighs 1500 lbs will eat about 20 large round bales of hay (hay or grass equivalent) annually where a 1000 lb cow will eat 14 round bales. That is 6 round bales difference and at $50/bale value its $300/year cheaper per calf per year to have smaller mama cows.
There are several breeds that are good forage or grass eaters, Red Angus, Red Devons and South Polls, to name a few. I raised Devon cattle for 10 years and was just having a hard time making it profitable. They took a long time to mature (get to market weight and fatten) and the cows I owned ranged from a small of 1300 to a large of 1700. These are very expensive animals to own. They made a good grass-fed product but I was getting killed in production expenses. Then I found the South Poll breed which is a 4 breed hybrid that maintains their own registry. This is a US developed breed originally from the south but has adapted to our latitude quite well. They build the breed around 1) grass feeding only, 2)small efficient mama cows and 3) easy fleshing for quick time to market.
I have been raising South Polls for 4 years now and have seen a big difference. 1)My average cow size went from the 1300-1500 lb range to the 900-1100 lb range. This is a huge difference in the cost and acreage need to support these girls. My average time to market (age to get a beef ready to harvest) went from 38 months with Devons to 30 months with South Polls and this is only after a few years. As we hope to get better with the breed in our own breeding program we are hoping to pull that down to the 24-28 month time frame. That time frame will allow us to grow by 30-40% with needing zero more acreage to graze. This is a huge cost savings.
Take a look at the South Poll Breed Introduction Video if you want to know more. But as far as selective breeding, we went back to the drawing board to look for a cattle breed not bred for feedlot and grain finishing but for a breed that finished well on grass and is efficient and economical. Next week we will continue to discuss more breeds we raise at Tierra Verde Farms.