By DOUG WARNOCK
For the Capital Press
Forage finishing beef cattle is a current research focus on Clemson University's Simpson Ranch. This agricultural research facility was one of several places I visited on a tour of livestock operations hosted by South Carolina Extension Educators and Clemson University. Research is being conducted to help producers forage finish cattle efficiently and profitably.
"The natural and forage-fed beef market is growing at a rate of 20 percent per year and Southeastern producers have an opportunity to capture value and retain some of the margin instead of sending cattle to the Midwest to finish them on corn," said John Andrae, Clemson University forage specialist. "With good management and improved forages, beef cattle can graze on Southeastern pastures year-round."
While most Northwest producers have dormant pasture during the winter, they can rely on stockpiled forage or crop aftermath for grazing during that time.
Beef from cattle finished on pasture has a certain nutritional advantage. It is leaner than grain fed beef and contains higher amounts of desirable fatty acids and antioxidants, Andrae reported.
Clemson research has shown that beef cattle naturally produce a potent anti-carcinogen, conjugated linoleic acid. Beef from cattle finished on pasture contains about twice the amount of this anti-carcinogen as beef from cattle fed on traditional grain diets.
A recent study at Clemson explored the effect of forage species on animal performance, carcass quality and fatty acid composition for cattle finished on pasture. Animal performance was measured as average daily gain. Carcass quality included fat thickness, internal fat, dressing percentage, USDA quality grade and USDA yield grade.
The study compared legumes, alfalfa and soybeans, to grass, tall fescue and sudangrass. It also tested the influence during forage finishing of limited corn supplementation and how it influenced performance and fatty acid composition.
Based on the first year's study there was little impact of forage species on animal performance. Those animals receiving corn supplementation had higher gains, more fat deposition, higher dressing percentage and achieved a higher quality grade. Corn supplementation increased the Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acid ratio, but it was still in the healthy range.
Cool season forages, much like we use in the Pacific Northwest, are used for finishing in cooler seasons, but alternative forages are needed for finishing during the South's summer months. Another study is comparing chicory, cowpea, alfalfa, pearl millet and bermudagrass as viable forages for summer finishing in that climate.
"We're studying which forage crops are best suited to produce forage fed beef and how these forages interact with meat quality. We're helping producers meet the need for naturally produced beef and hopefully turn a better profit," Andrae said.
Given that we in the Northwest have a different climate and different adapted forages than the Southeast, we can still make use of ideas and concepts learned from their research and experiences. Sharing information can help us all improve our efficiency and the bottom line.
Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley where he consults and writes on ranch management.