Grass-finished meat presents challenges
Consumer confusion 'complicates development of the market,' expert says
By STEVE BROWN
Labeling is a significant challenge in producing grass-finished beef, a livestock expert says.
Jeff Schahczenski, an agricultural specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology, described challenges to making such a venture profitable.
Experienced in alternative livestock marketing and economics, Schahczenski called the grass-finished niche "small, but rapidly growing."
During a recent webinar sponsored by NCAT, he said the terminology for alternative meat is far from specific.
"'Natural' has no formal, legal definition," he said. "The USDA itself is confused. The Agricultural Marketing System has developed (a) voluntary system you apply for and utilize. FSIS (the Food Safety and Inspection Service) allows labeling as '40 percent grass-finished,' for example."
The American Grassfed Association, a group of producers, food service industry personnel and consumer interest representatives, also has a labeling system.
"Confusion for the consumer complicates development of the market," he said.
When it comes time to process the meat, a rancher has to make his own connection, Schahczenski said. If that processor is far away, it adds to the producer's cost and cuts into the bottom line.
Lee Rinehart, a former extension agent and beef cattle ranch manager, directed producers to the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network as a source for locating processors.
Rinehart said there's a difference between "grass fed" and "grass finished." Grass fed refers to animals that have eaten only grass or forage all their lives.
However, some producers call their animals grass fed, but finish them on grain the last 90 to 160 days before slaughter.
"Grass finishing takes the place of the feedlot," he said.
The key to getting a positive economic return depends on a high-density grazing system.
"You've got to maintain high-quality forage throughout the whole grazing season," Rinehart said. "You need diverse plant species, both forbs and grasses, and the range must have sufficient animal impact and adequate rest."
The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service website has case studies available.
Other keys to success in the grass-finished niche are a good marketing plan and animal selection, he said.
Without a marketing plan in place, "it's probably not going to work," Rinehart said.
"It costs more to produce grass-finished beef because of the length of time and difference in weight," Schahczenski said.
Small to medium producers who have a processor nearby, especially if they're diversified into lamb, swine and eggs, can make it work, Rinehart said. Larger producers can find a cooperative to realize higher returns.
Online tools -- also available at the ATTRA website -- can help a producer determine break-even prices.
In selecting a breed, Rinehart said, growers should select animals adapted to climate and habitat, with specific attention to maternal traits, early maturity and meat tenderness.
"A medium frame is biggest you want to get -- say 1,100 pounds at 24 months," he said. "Carcass quality will make or break the system."
In marketing the finished product, Schahczenski said, taste is the No. 1 preference of consumers, but that's not objective. "People of a certain age have become accustomed to corn-finished beef. Younger people enjoy the variation of flavor, the fresh experience."
National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service website: www.ATTRA.org
Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network: www.nichemeatprocessing.org