This time of year in the Northeast the grass is growing like crazy. For me it means mowing but for cattle it means fresh high energy food. Grass can contain all the natural nutrients beef cattle need, especially this time of year, and depending on the type of grass and its protein value cattle can gain significant weight on grass. So why do farmers feed cattle grain, primarily corn? Isn't it more expensive than simply feeding grass? There are many reasons. First cattle will gain weight faster when they are finished on grain. They will put on more weight and will be ready for market faster when they eat a high energy carbohydrate ration. Grass fed cattle will take longer to get to the same market weight. Realize no cattle are fed just plain grain, they all get a mixture of grains and roughage of some sort, typically hay or fermented silage.
Second a larger percentage of customers tend to prefer grain fed beef over grass fed. The difference is about 4 to 1 depending on the demographic. An interesting review of grass fed beef ran in the times union this spring http://www.timesunion.com/ASPStories/Story.asp?StoryID=802219&LinkFrom=RSS&TextPage=1
Another reason is the grain fed farm to market system is in place and commodity animal futures can be traded on the open markets. In other words there is no standard price or commodity structure for quality grass fed beef. Non-grain finished cattle are typically priced by small niche market processors and these prices can vary widely. Some prices are at least forty cents more per lb. for the whole carcass which is significant. Basically grass fed is often more expensive than prime beef.
So why all the talk of grass fed? Many customers feel that the health and environmental issues can easily outweigh the extra cost and stronger flavor. There is much more of a seasonality to grass fed and this time of year the cattle are just starting to reap the benifits of new grass. When is grass fed best? That all depends on where you are in the country but for most grass fed beef is best in mid to late summer into the fall. Winter time is when grass fed cattle are fed stored hay and the quality tends to dip. Much of the quality of the grass fed beef depends on the grass quality and the genetics of the beef. High quality alphalfa grass, clover and many others are important when feeding cattle. The soil also has something to do with it. Some soils are lacking in Selenium which cattle need for health. supposedly the best grass pastures are found in Kansas...go figure!
Breeds such as the Belted Galloway and the better known Angus do very well as grass fed cattle. The french Limousin has a very fine fiber and is lean normally. Grass feeders are trying to build a stock of animals that will perform well on grass but this takes time and a gauranteed market for the animals to be sold at a higher price.
The question remains if 20% of customers say they might consider grass fed beef as an alternative to grain fed, why aren't any large producers creating a brand name grass fed beef? Its not an easy answer. The beef industry runs on a very tight profit margin and in these times it is very difficult to make a major shift. But with corn prices high due to ethanol production and the grass growing in full swing you can bet on niche market producers to capitalize on grass fed. I look at it like microbrewing, there will always be the large producers like Budweiser, Miller and Coors but there are thousands of small brewers that produce high quality uniquely flavored beers. What I suspect will happen for is the Sam Adams of beef to come along, not too big, not too small, very honest and in every supermarket.