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BeefTalk: Grass or Grain Fed?

June 10, 2014
BT Stocker Red Steer

As a producer, when successful with placing the appropriate product with the appropriate program, the reward is financially satisfying. If not, a new program will be sought.
By: Kris Ringwall, Beef Specialist, NDSU Extension Service

There is a "Y" in our road. If we go one way, we are sending the spayed heifers to harvest as grass finished. If we go the other way, we are sending the heifers to the feedlot for more pounds. Which direction to take was last fall’s question.

The answer was the feedlot. Why? The spayed heifers were valued at $1,281 per head off grass. After 108 days on feed, the spayed heifers were valued at $1,688 per head. Per-head value back to the ranch after feeding was $1,454 per head.

A simple concept, but how often has one had to try to explain a concept to someone else? Why do we do what we do?

The other day, much to my surprise, a student asked me to explain grain-fed beef because the sign on the restaurant wall took pride in noting all the beef menu selections were grain-fed beef.

At the same time, the news media was discussing the need for grass-fed beef. This probably was the source of the question and, if one ponders, one can see why future generations will get confused. As producers, the word beef conjures up images of cattle and associated production and marketing scenarios. As a consumer, the word beef means food, more specifically meat.

These two concepts, one of production and one of food, often overlap in the media. As a result, there is a clamor of ideas and thoughts that are related to products, programs, economics and marketing. The latter, marketing, often drives economics.

Economics essentially drives programs and programs drive the products. As a producer, when successful with placing the appropriate product with the appropriate program, the reward is financially satisfying. If not, a new program will be sought.

The failure of financial success, although not immediately evident, is linked to long-term supply- and-demand economics and front-end marketing programs. Marketing commonly known as advertising, is much like fishing: Bait the hook and see what can be caught. In this case, it’s finding the right price consumers will pay and then evaluating supply.

The beef industry has an excellent market analysis system for that very reason. The ability to read, interpret and develop a plan of action is key to fiscal success. These comments may seem somewhat academic, but they come to mind as grass beef and grain-fed beef battle for the marketplace. The student was certainly right in asking.

The traditions that ultimately become production programs often are steeped in history. In this case, it’s decades of grain production that needed to be marketed. Livestock were and still are the obvious choice. The student pursued the thought further and asked, on a positive note, if the feeding of grain to other types of livestock and poultry was similar and was the end result a more palatable source of meat?

With some chagrin, the student quickly ascertained the need to confine livestock and poultry to encourage grain consumption, so there was the beginning of an understanding of modern livestock and poultry feeding. Having a brief discussion on the economics of scale, the student went away with a better understanding of why the beef industry does what it does. Thus, the note on the wall says grain-fed beef.

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