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Grass-fed cattle provide niche market for farmers

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

The cattle on Bob Woodall's Sparta, Ga., farm may not look different from any other cattle. But their meat may be more healthful because they do one simple thing: eat a lot of grass.

Woodall's cattle are what are known as grass-finished or grass- fed cattle. After weaning, his calves primarily feed on grass, with no added antibiotics or growth implants.

Studies have shown that the meat from grass-finished cattle can be healthier than meat from cattle fed corn in feedlots, which is the standard practice.

Susan Duckett is a meat specialist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. She studies the meat of grass-finished cattle and has started the Georgia Grass-fed Beef Initiative.

The initiative has helped small-scale farmers like Woodall with start-up information.

Lean, healthy

The beef of grass-fed cattle is as much as 42 percent leaner than corn-fed cattle. "Certain cuts are as lean as poultry," she said. "And it's as tender or more tender than grain-fed cattle."

It has higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, too. Meat products with high Omega-3 fatty acid levels have been shown to reduce heart disease and certain cancers. Fish oil is considered healthful because it's high in this fatty acid.

But the meat of grass-fed cattle tastes different. It's gamey, like venison and lamb, Duckett said. Some consumers accustomed to grain-fed beef may not like it.

Niche

But Woodall has found a healthy niche market for his beef.

His business has grown by word of mouth. Most of his customers are "upper-end, health-conscious, metro people," he said.

"We can directly market our beef to these customers for more than what we could get at the sale barn," he said.

Woodall began his operation three years ago with 15 mother cows. He sold three animals the first year and nine the second. He expects to sell 12 this year. Now he's increasing his herd size.

"Our customers are loyal and can't get enough of the meat," Woodall said.

One repeat customer is allergic to grains and can't eat anything exposed to corn. The customer can eat grass-fed beef with no problems, he said.

Cattlemen like Woodall have to be very customer-oriented and willing to put in a lot of time and money to develop niche markets, said Curt Lacy, a livestock economist with the UGA Extension Service.

It takes more land to raise grass-fed cattle, too. And they have to be managed longer.

It generally takes grass-fed calves about two years to reach a sellable weight of around 1,000 pounds, Lacy said. Corn-fed feedlot calves reach it in about 18 months.

Grassy

A grass-fed cattle farmer has to be able to grow high-quality grasses, too, said John Andrae, a forage specialist with the UGA Extension Service. But the Georgia climate works in his favor.

"We can grow the right types of forage," Andrae said. "And we have a long growing season."

Wintertime is a challenge. But it's hard for any cattleman. Stockpiles of grass or hay can supplement cattle during winter when grass is dormant or less lush. Annual winter grass can be planted for the cattle to eat then, too.

Because farmers with grass-fed cattle are limited on what they can feed their stock, times of prolonged drought would hurt them more than conventional cattlemen.

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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