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A Comparison of Pasture-fed and Feedlot Beef

By Rupert W. Jannasch1, Tracey Stewart 2, Alan H. Fredeen1 and Ralph C. Martin1

Beef cattle production systems based on perennial pastures are potentially more sustainable than those based on annual crops and stored feeds. Poor carcass grades of pasture-finished cattle compared with feedlot cattle has discouraged the practice of pasture finishing in the Atlantic region. The downgrading can be attributed to poor pasture management leading to low slaughter weights, more mature animals at slaughter and yellow carcass fat.

Information is needed to determine whether with good management beef cattle can be finished on pasture at carcass grades similar to those derived under feedlot management. Twenty-four yearling purebred Angus and Angus/Maine-Anjou cross cattle (12 heifers, 12 steers) were allocated randomly to two treatment groups -pasture and feedlot- balanced for breed and sex on a commercial Prince Edward Island beef farm that had not previously finished cattle on pasture. Pastured cattle were rotated daily among clover, timothy and orchardgrass paddocks and received no supplement while feedlot cattle were fed barley and grass/clover hay and silage ad libitum. Clover in pastures averaged 30.4% over the growing season. Cattle gained 0.2 kg less per day on pasture than in the feedlot. Feedlot cattle finished heavier and with a greater dressing percentage compared with pastured cattle. Grade or visual appearance of the cattle was not different and there was no indication of yellow fat. The cost of production was $0.26/kg in the feedlot compared to $0.10/kg on pasture. Pastured cattle netted $0.13/kg of gain, or $68.00 per head, while feedlot cattle broke even.

Beef was a commodity raised primarily on grazed forage until surpluses of more energy-rich feeds such as cereals, corn and soybean allowed for cattle to be increasingly fed in feedlots. Declining world grain supplies and increasing energy costs (Brown, 1997, Ch.2) threaten the viability of many feedlot systems. Soil erosion associated with growing grains and oilseeds and water pollution stemming from feedlot run-off (NRC, 1989) and the ethics of feeding grains to cattle underscore the need to evaluate the viability of pasture-fed beef (Griebenow et al., 1997).

A major obstacle to more utilization of pasture in beef production is low animal performance and consequently a high cost per unit of gain (Turner and Raleigh, 1977). North American beef production, however, is concentrated in the West and mid-West regions where semi-arid climates limit pasture productivity. Cattle grazing well managed, grass/clover pastures have been reported to gain approximately 1 kg/day in the more humid region of Atlantic Canada (Winter and Kunelius, 1986; Papadopoulos et al.,1993; Boyd, 1996; Martin et al., 1997).

There is grade discrimination against forage-finished beef with regard to colour (muscle or fat) and palatability (flavour or tenderness) (Bowling et al., 1977), but also increasing consumer preferance for low fat foods. Cattle finished on forage do not normally attain the United States "Choice" or "Canadian A" quality grades because lower fat deposition reduces marbling - a characteristic which commonly increases tenderness and sometimes flavour (Dinius and Cross, 1978). Packers perceive that food buyers also discriminate against subcutaneous yellow fat, a characteristic commonly associated with feeding forages due to their high beta-carotene content (Forrest, 1981), despite recent evidence to the contrary (Charmley, 1995).

Perennial pastures protect against soil degradation caused by annual cultivation and intensive cropping (Harris et al., 1966) and are a key component of sustainable agriculture (Heitschmidt, 1994, Ch.2). Developing economic alternatives to feedlot-fed beef would help overcome environmental costs associated with concentrated livestock husbandry and allow farmers to benefit from the natural advantages that well distributed rainfall and moderate temperatures (Papadopoulos et al., 1993) provide for forage production in Atlantic Canada and the north-eastern United States.

This study compares a pasture-based beef production system with a feedlot system and tests the hypotheses that: 1) the Average Daily Gain (ADG) of animals on pasture and in a feedlot are not different, 2) the cost per kg of gain is lower for pastured animals than for animals raised in a feedlot, and 3) the carcass quality in feedlot and pasture-fed animals is similar.

This study was conducted on the farm of Temple and Gail Stewart in Hampshire, Prince Edward Island, between May and October, 1995. The soil type is a sandy-loam and the land was permanent pasture for thirty years prior to the experiment. The dominant forage species were timothy (Phleum pratense, red clover (Trifolium pratense), white clover (Trifolium repens) and orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata). The pasture was frost seeded with a 60:20:20 mixture of timothy and red and white clover (8.8 kg/ha) in March 1995.

Twenty-four purebred Angus and Angus/Maine-Anjou cross cattle (12 heifers, 12 steers), approximately twelve months old, were allocated randomly to two treatments: pasture or feedlot. One heifer was removed from the pasture treatment because of injury. The pasture was divided into 13, 2500 m2 paddocks. Animals were moved to a fresh paddock after sunrise each day. The grazing cyle was repeated 10 times before October 12. Cattle had free access to water with the furthest paddock about 200 m from the water source.

Swards were monitored every two weeks to assess pre and post-grazing heights. The target pre-grazing height was 20-25 cm and target post-grazing height was 10-15 cm. To monitor sward height, twenty measurements were taken immediately before and after grazing by walking in a zig zig pattern and planting a meter stick at six pace intervals. Eight 0.2 x 0.5 m samples were harvested to estimate dry matter (DM) yield. All samples were oven-dried at 80 degrees C for at least 48 hours. Within each quadrat, forage in a smaller 0.15 X 0.15 m2 quadrat was harvested and separated (prior to drying) to assess botanical composition (percent clover, grass and weeds).

Feedlot animals were fed barley, silage (clover/grass) and hay ad libitum. Animals were weighed bi-weekly, beginning on May 21. The experiment ended on Oct. 12 when the last animals were sent to slaughter. The frequent weighings were designed to monitor Averge Daily Gains (ADGs) throughout the pasture season. Animals were sold when judged to have optimum finish (backfat). Eighteen animals were shipped on August 12 and the remaining five steers (on pasture) were not shipped until October 13 to allow more time for developing adequate finish.

The animals were sold to Garden Province Meats in Charlottetown, P.E.I., and each carcass was graded according to the Canadian beef grading system by Agriculture and Agrifood Canada inspectors. Criteria included carcass maturity, muscling, meat colour, fat thickness, fat distribution, and fat colour. A two-tiered grading system is used in Canada where marbling -small white flecks of fat in the lean meat- is graded as either trace (A), slight (AA) or small (AAA) which are equivalent to the minimum requirements for the USDA Standard, Select and Choice grades, respectively. A second grade measures the percent lean yield of the carcass based on the proportion of muscle and fat. The top score (range from A to D) is A1. The numbers 1-4 refer to the amount of fat and can also be an indicator of fat colour. A B1 grade indicates inadequate finish. Animals grading less than A are usually docked $0.14/kg.

Fencing costs were calculated at $0.01/head/day, grazing costs $0.48/head/day, frost seeding $0.03/head/day, and labour $0.03/head/day. Feedlot costs were calculated at $1.15/head/day for feed, cost of straw $0.03/head/day, labour $0.08/head/day, equipment $0.10/head/day and barn $0.03/head/day. The cost per kilogram of gain was calculated by dividing feeding costs by kg of gain and the profit per kg of gain was calculated by subtracting the total expenses (per animal) from the animal's final market value divided by kg of gain. Total profit per animal was taken as the difference between income and expenses.

T-tests (P<0.05) on Statistical Analysis Systems (SAS, 1985) were used to assess treatment differences between steers and heifers, and feedlot and pasture-fed cattle.

Pastured cattle had ample forage available throughout the grazing season. Clover content averaged 30.4% and grass and weeds averaged 58.6% and 11.0%, respectively. The target pre-and post-grazing sward heights were met throughout the season except in early June when pre-grazing heights exceeded 25 cm in some paddocks. Maximum forage growth occurs in late spring/early summer (Papadopoulos et al. 1993) and swards were undergrazed at this time. To compensate, the stocking rate could probably be increased in future trials.

Pastured cattle lost weight for about two weeks after turnout as they adjusted to grazing (Table 1). Feedlot cattle experienced no weight loss. Weight differences between pasture-fed and feedlot-fed cattle, however, were not different until the August 12 weighing when the feedlot cattle weighed more. A decrease in animal performance on pasture in August is consistent with reports of lower forage digestibility and palatability during late summer (Pearson and Ison, 1987, Ch.6). Accumulation of dead and over-mature forage in the undergrazed sward early in the season probably decreased late season forage quality and animal performance in this experiment.

Steers weighed more than heifers throughout the experiment (Table 1), but all heifers finished by August 12 whereas 5 pastured steers remained on pasture until Oct. 12 before reaching slaughter condition. Because of their smaller frame size, heifers are probably more suited to finishing on pasture than steers.

Tatum et al. (1988) found cattle on pasture gained 0.50 kg/day compared to 0.97 kg/day by grain-fed cattle in a feedlot. In this experiment, however, feedlot cattle gained only 0.2 kg/day more than pastured cattle (Table 1). Turner and Raleigh (1977), showed that supplementing the diets of pasture-fed cattle in arid conditions increased ADG from 1.00 kg/day on pasture to 1.32 kg/day compared to 1.45 kg/day in the feedlot. Charmley (1996) reports that supplementing yearling Hereford or Hereford cross steers on early spring pasture with grass silage can prevent weight loss. More research is needed to determine whether supplementation on pasture during the early season transition to pasture and the late summer forage slump can improve animal performance and profit margins.

Although ADG is a common measure of gross productivity, profitability is of concern to cattlemen. Based on expenses for fencing (amortized over 20 years), grazing, seeding and labour it cost $0.55/day (Table 2) to feed an animal on pasture whereas feedlot expenses were $1.39/day. Alternatively, the cost of production was $0.10/kg on pasture and $0.26/kg in the feedlot (data not shown). McCaughey (1993) reported production costs of $0.44-0.66/kg on pasture compared to $1.10/kg in the feedlot. Notably, total profit in current experiment (the difference between the total cost per animal and the final value per animal) was $0.13/kg of gain or $68.00/head while feedlot animals broke even, indicating that grass/legume pasture can be an economical alternative to feedlot beef under prevailing economic conditions.

The stocking rate in this experiment was equivalent to 48 head/ha/day, a relatively modest density under temperate pasture conditions. Presumably, per hectare profits could be improved by increasing the stocking rate (although management factors would have to be considered) and lower land costs. Farmland in the vicinity of the Stewart property rents for $245/ha because of competition for potato production while pasture land commonly rents for about $122/ha. A 50% reduction in rental costs would decrease pasture costs by about 50%.

The dressing percentage (the ratio of carcass weight to live weight) was higher for steers than heifers and greater for feedlot cattle compared to pastured cattle (Table 2). The lean yield percentage was not different. Despite a lower dressing percentage, carcasses of pastured cattle received similar grades. Oltjen et al. (1971), Turner and Raleigh (1977) and Dinius and Cross 1978) claim cattle fed concentrate produce carcasses with better grades than forage-fed animals. However, in this experiment, carcass grade and visual appearance were not different as only three animals (1 feedlot, 2 pasture) of 23 animals failed to grade A1 and marbling was essentially equivalent between treatments. Others have observed that cattle finished on pasture can grade as well as feedlot cattle, too (Bowling et al., 1977).

Despite reports indicating that grain-fed cattle have less yellow colouration of adipose tissues than grass-fed beef (Craig et al., 1959; Dinius and Cross, 1978; Harrison et al., 1978), carcass fat of animals in this study bore no evidence of yellowness. In fact, of 64 other cattle finished on pasture in studies at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in 1995 and 1996 none were docked for yellow fat (Martin et al., 1997). Carcass grade is known to improve with increasing rates of gain (Charmley, 1995) and there is some indication that youthful animals on high quality forage are less susceptible to yellow colouration of fat than animals that finish more slowly and are older at slaughter.

The ADG of pastured cattle in this study was 0.2 kg/day less than feedlot cattle, but total profit was $0.13/kg of gain on pasture compared to none on cattle finished in the feedlot. Weight loss occurred during the transition from winter feed to pasture and during the late summer forage slump. Profit margins could be increased further by reducing transitional loss, adjusting stocking rates to match seasonal variation in forage growth and by using less valauable land for pasture.

Carcass grades from pastured and feedlot cattle were similar. Although the risk of yellow fat cannot be ignored, carcass quality is high when cattle gain rapidly on grass/legume pastures. Based on the conditions in this experiment, pasture-fed beef raised on good quality, grass/legume pastures is a viable alternative to feedlot beef and can be promoted to consumers as a food choice supporting sustainable agroecosystems and the environment.

Table 1

Table 2

Anonymous. 1985. SAS Users guide. Statistical Analysis Institute, Inc., Carey, N.C. pp.957.

Bowling, R. A., G.C. Smith, Z.L. Carpenter, T.R. Dutson, and W.M. Oliver. 1977. Comparison of forage-finished beef and grain-finished beef carcasses. Journal of Animal Science 45(2): 209-215.

Boyd, N. 1996. The effects of one and six day period of stay in a rotational grazing system. Honours thesis, Dept. of Biology,
Dalhousie University, Halifax.

Brown, L.R. 1997. State of the world, 1997: a Worldwatch Institute report on progress toward a sustainable society. W.W. Norton and Co., New York. pp.35-41.

Charmley, E. 1995. Does green feed always produce yellow fat? Atlantic Beef Quarterly 6(4):31-32.

Charmley, E. 1996. Finish your cattle on Maritime pasture. Atlantic Beef Quarterly 7(4):21-22.

Craig, H. B., T.N. Blumer, and E.R. Barrick. 1959. Effect of several combinations of grass and grain in the ration of beef steers on the colour characteristics of lean and fat. Journal of Animal Science 18:241-248.

Dinius, D. A. and H.R. Cross. 1978. Feedlot performance, carcass characteristics and meat palatability of steers fed concentrate for short periods. Journal of Animal Science

Forrest, R. J. 1981. Effect of high concentrate feeding on the carcass quality and fat coloration of grass-reared steers. Canadian Journal of Animal Science 61:575-580.

Griebenow, R.L, F.A. Martz and R.E. Morrow. 1997. Forage-based beef finishing systems: a review. Journal of Production Agriculture
10 (1):84-91.

Harris, R.F., G. Chesters, and O.N. Allen. 1966.Dynamics of soil
aggregation. Advances in Agronomy 18:107-169.

Harrison, A. R., M.E. Smith, D.M. Allen, M.C. Hunt, C.L. Kastner, and D.H. Kropf. 1978. National regime effects on quality and yield characteristics of beef. Journal of Animal Science 47(2):383-388.

Heitschmidt, R.K. 1994. Rangeland management and livestock production in the 21st century. In: P.A. Thacker (ed). Livestock production for the 21st century: priorities and research needs. Univ. of Saskatoon. pp. 25-40.

Martin, R.C., A.H. Fredeen, N. Boyd, and T. Stewart. 1997. Pasture finishing without yello fat. Plant Industry Newsletter, 45:4, Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture and Marketing.

McCaughey, W.P. 1993. Cattle production on alfalfa/grass pastures. Agriculture and Agri-food Canada Research Centre, Brandon, Manitoba.

National Research Council, 1989. Alternative agriculture. National
Academy Press, Washington, D.C. pp.448.

Oltjen, R. R., T.S. Rumsey, and P.A. Putnam. 1971. All forage diets for finishing beef cattle. Journal of Animal Science 32(2): 327-333.

Papadopoulos, Y, H.T. Kunelius, and A.H. Fredeen. 1993. Factors influencing pasture productivity in Atlantic Canada. Canadian Journal of Animal Science 73:699-713.

Pearson, C.J. and R.L. Ison. 1987. Agronomy of grassland systems. Cambridge University Press, New York. pp.169. 16
Tatum, J. D., B.J. Klein, F.L. Williams, and R.A. Bowling. 1988. Influence of diet on growth-rate and carcass composition of steers differing in frame size and muscle thickness. Journal of Animal Science 66:1942-1954.

Turner, H. A. and R.J. Raleigh. 1977. Production of slaughter steers from forages in the arid West. Journal of Animal Science 44: 901-907.

Winter, K.A. and H.T. Kunelius. 1986. The growth of Holstein steers on pasture. Research Summary, 1986, Agriculture Canada Research Station, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. p.48.

Author Locations and Affiliations
(1) Department of Plant Science,Nova Scotia Agricultural College, P.O. Box 550, Truro, Nova Scotia B2N-5E3.
R.W. Jannasch is research coordinator for the Atlantic Pasture Research Group based at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.
A.H. Fredeen is Professor of Nutrition and Dairy Systems, Department of Plant and Animal Sciences, and
R.C. Martin is Director of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada.

(2)T. Stewart is Credit Advisor with the Farm Credit Corporation, P.O. Box 1180, 125 Queen St., Woodstock, New Brunswick, E7M-2M8.

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Posted in 2002


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