In this second article of a three-part series on producing grass-fed beef, we discuss selecting the right cattle and then managing them in a manner to produce a tasty and appealing product. Most of the information was taken from a presentation made by Joe Paschal, livestock specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, during the May 2017 Grass-fed Beef Conference at Texas A&M.

Desirable traits

Before selecting cattle for a grass-fed operation, list traits associated with the ideal grass-fed beef animal. For instance, early-maturing calves are desirable because they will begin building muscle (meat) more quickly than later-maturing animals.

In addition to early maturing, they should gain quickly so they can reach weights of 800 to 1,000 pounds at ages between 16 and 24 months. Animals that have mature weights under 1,000 pounds will probably finish at the proper time to produce good carcass quality.

High cutability and moderate marbling are desirable traits for grass-fed animals. Cutability is the lean yield of a carcass. The carcass with the highest cutability or yield has the largest proportion of lean meat within its grade. Marbling is intramuscular fat and is responsible for juiciness, tenderness, and flavor; however, too much marbling can give meat a fatty appearance.

Small to moderate-sized cattle, in both weight and height, work well in grass-fed beef operations because they require less forage to reach finish weights than large cattle. Breeds like Angus, Hereford, and other British origin cattle are usually good choices, but it depends on the genetics.

The ideal cow probably doesn’t exist, but the prepared list of desirable traits can help select animals that have the greatest potential for economically producing grass-fed beef with good carcass qualities. In addition to selection of the right cattle, a breeding system needs to be adopted.

Straight breeding is the system where only cattle of the same breed are used in the herd. When initiating a straight breeding program, select the breed with the most desirable traits for grass-fed beef. Remember, however, that no breed has every wanted trait. Straight breeding is an easy system to manage and the herd produces its own replacements. The disadvantages for straight breeding are that there is no hybrid vigor and the cattle may be less adaptable to environmental conditions and system changes.

The other option, crossbreeding, allows blending characteristics from different breeds to complement one another. Keep crossbreeding simple by using no more than three breeds. For a successful program, animals of the different breeds must be similar in size and maturing rate. Crossbreeding allows for hybrid vigor, which can improve both fertility and maternal traits by 10 to 20 percent and growth by 5 to 10 percent. Crossbred cattle are also more adaptable to changes in the environment than straight-bred. The disadvantage is that a source is needed for herd replacements.

Keep them healthy

The next step is managing the herd in a manner to produce tasty beef. Genetics, health, and nutrition are the three primary requirements for producing good beef. Putting the right genetics into the herd is accomplished through animal selection. Cattle are kept well by designing and implementing a herd health plan with the help of a large animal veterinarian.

Sample grass and other forages for nutrient content to ensure that it contains what the animals need. Cattle may need supplementation with hay or silage when soil moisture stress occurs and grass productivity wanes from dormancy.

Using proper injection sites for vaccines and medications avoids bruising the muscle, which causes that area of the carcass to be unusable. Regardless of the animal’s age, administer all intramuscular and subcutaneous injections in the neck region, never in the rump or back leg. When administering more than one injection on the same side of the neck, place the sites at least 4 inches apart (one hand width between the two sites). Spacing medications and vaccines in this manner allows better absorption and less interaction between products.

Animal stress can lower meat quality, so handle cattle in a low-stress manner. Low-stress livestock handling means the animal does not see the handler as a predator forcing them to move. Force is replaced by using actions or pressure that allow cattle handlers to get a desired response. Once handlers get their desired response, the coaxing action is stopped or released.

When livestock see that human application of pressure is always accompanied by release of pressure when the animal responds, the cattle relax and comply with what the handlers want.

A large amount of bruising can occur during cattle transport and this is prevented by close attention to details. Balance the cattle weight in the trailer to get the best towing performance and smoothest ride.

Drive in a manner to prevent cattle from jostling or slipping and avoid sudden accelerations, stops, and turns. Don’t overload trailers, leaving enough space between animals to allow them to balance their weight on all four legs. Safe transportation of cattle starts with proper maintenance of the truck and trailer.

End product options

“Postmortem handling methods also have an effect on meat quality,” Paschal said. “Large beef processing facilities electrically stimulate carcass muscles soon after slaughter, primarily to improve tenderness.”

Paschal added, “There are three schools of thought on why the process is effective. The most accepted theory is that muscle contraction, caused by electrical simulation, burns up the source of energy for the muscle fibers. This causes the animal to pass through rigor mortis more quickly, and the fibers are relaxed rather than bunched.”

Another benefit of electrical stimulation is the lowering of pH, which enhances flavor. Color and appearance of the meat is improved, but there is more cooking loss or shrink.

An option for small processors is blade or needle tenderization. A set of needles or blades are utilized to pierce the meat cutting through muscle fibers and connective tissue. Blade tenderization is often used on wholesale cuts.

“Some beef is aged by one of two methods — wet or dry. Wet aging is putting the meat in a refrigerated vacuum sealed bag,” Paschal said. “Shrink loss is reduced because of the meat drying, but wet aging often gives meat an off color in the bag until its contents are subjected to oxygen.

“Dry aging allows the meat to dry, causing weight loss and some reduction of mold and bacteria. This aging process tends to give meat a metallic taste, according to some people. Wet aging is the best process to use, if tenderness is an issue,” he added.

Proper temperature, relative humidity, and air movement are essential for successful aging of beef. Maintain temperature of the aging room at 34°F to 36°F, relative humidity at 85 to 90 percent, and airflow at 15 to 20 linear feet per minute at the product surface.

Proper cattle selection and management are essential for producing a grass-fed product that consumers will continue to purchase and enjoy.

This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 30 and 31.

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