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Notice the height to width ratio of this animal. The fence post to the left is roughly 54″ high and the top wire is 30″ high. If you look closely, a pre-drilled hole near the top of the post is at 48″. This animal weighed about 850-900lbs at the time this was taken and she is only about 4′ tall to the top of her back.

Selecting Cattle For Grass Based Systems

When selecting cattle for grazing, there are several things to consider to optimize your success and, hence, your profits.  Having made several poor purchases myself, I’ve experienced the frustration first hand of animals that don’t perform in our grass system here at the farm.  The real downside of those bad purchases is that they can stick with you for a couple of years before the animals get (almost) big enough to butcher and allow you to recoup your investment funds!  Tying up funds in a poor choice of animal can set your business back exponentially.  And if they don’t perform well by growing quickly, then a lack of marbling can occur which can lead to customer dissatisfaction.  Oh the joys of producing grass-fed beef!

When selecting cattle for a 100% grass based system, it’s best to start with cattle coming out of a 100% grass based system.  It’s really easy to get hung up on wanting a certain breed of cattle, but the best breed in the world with the greatest genetics won’t do you any good if they are coming out of a grain based feeding regimen.  Does that mean that genetics aren’t important?  No, not at all.  In fact, they are of paramount importance!  The point is that grain fed animals might fit all of the other criteria I list below and have smashing good looks and wonderful personalities.  But if those cattle have been raised on and finished on grain,  then they simply won’t perform as well as cattle with the same pedigree who come out of an all grass system.  In reality, you want to find both good genetics and a grass based herd to buy from.  My point is that if you only look at genetics or a specific breed, then you are missing the boat.

Another tip for success is that you also want to buy your cattle direct from the source, if at all possible, and avoid livestock auctions.  This allows you to quiz the breeder, see the operation first hand, and inspect the animals carefully before making a commitment to purchase.  It’s also a great way to build a long term relationship with a supplier until you get your own cow-calf herd up and running.  Conversely, it’s near impossible to find out what the animals have been eating if you buy them at an auction.  You also can’t see the parent stock, the living conditions, nor ask questions of the person who breed them.  Auctions can be a way to get a great deal on livestock, they can also be a way to lose your shirt.  If an auction is your only option, then take an experienced cattle farmer with you when you go and be on the look out for sick animals.

So beyond the above, what are we looking for when we go shopping?  In general, we are looking for small framed, short legged, wide, fat animals.  And we want genetics, coupled with being bred to perform in a grass based system, to allow them to finish out within 2-2.5 years.  And when I say “finish out” I mean the cow is “done”.  Done is different for every animal, but the brisket needs to be filled out and the rear end fleshed out.  This takes some experience and, over time, you’ll gain an eye for it.  But not every animal you raise is going to be done at the same age or even the same weight.  As best as your finances allow, let the cow tell you when she’s finished out.

 

In addition to the physical attributes, we want to look for docile dispositions and personalities who are easy to handle.  This is especially important in a rotational grazing system where we are working with and moving the cattle every day.  Jumpy, erratic animals with a bad temperament should be avoided at all costs, and gotten rid of as quickly as possible if they show up on your farm.  Trust me when I tell you that one heifer who is jumpy can make the entire herd unsettled.  Then they are all harder to work with and they are stressed, which causes them to not perform as well.  This can really make you hate your work.  In my experience, it is best to load that one animal up and make a trip to your butchering facility, regardless of the fiscal consequences.

Lastly, we want to look for animals close to home and here is why:  micro-evolution.  No, I’m not an evolutionist.  But, animals do absolutely micro-evolve to their climates, surroundings, seasons and in the case of a cow – to the grasses, legumes and forbes she has available to eat.  If you can imagine what cattle in Indiana get to graze on versus that of an animal in the high desert plains of say Wyoming, you get the point.  Each animal, over time, will have been bred and evolved to perform well in that geographic region.  So, is it bad to drive 150 or 250 miles to get cattle that you really want?  No, but if you can drive 25 or 50, you will be better off due to the likelihood that the forages they are eating there will be the same as what is found in your pastures.  It may take some looking, but eventually you’ll find someone with a few extra animals to sell close to home.  And, as mentioned before, if you find some nice animals in an all grass system, really work hard to cultivate that relationship so that you can be a repeat customer.  Good cattle are hard to find, and 100% grass-fed beef is in really high demand!

About Darby Simpson

Profile photo of Darby Simpson
Darby grew up on his family’s seventh generation farm located in Central Indiana, just 25 miles outside of Indianapolis. However he never learned anything about the family business. He began his own farming enterprise in 2007 after reading “Pastured Poultry Profits” by Joel Salatin as well as several other sources of information pertaining to small scale pasture based meat production. The operation produced 150 pastured broilers that first year that were quickly sold and generated a base of avid customers who were left clamoring for more. In 2008, the enterprise grew to 1,000 birds while pastured pork was also added, with the hogs all being spoken for thru successful marketing to the existing customer base. By 2012, the farm was producing up to 3,000 pastured broilers, 125 turkeys, 60 hogs and 12 beef per year while using less than 20 total acres. The farm now financially supports Darby and his wife Brandy, along with their two young boys, Ethan and Zach. Darby has transitioned himself from a successful mechanical engineer into a full time farmer and enjoys the many benefits that come with being self sufficient in ones livelihood. His success shows it is possible to build a business from scratch with little or no knowledge of what Joel Salatin affectionately calls “lunatic farming”.

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4 comments

  1. Profile photo of

    Good post. The photos were especially helpful. Thanks!

  2. Good post Darby,

    I had an experience last year that might add some color to your post. I bought a new bull and two cows/calf pairs from a local farmer last year. He swore they were grass fed only, but they came running for the grain bucket when he produced it. A bad sign. However the cows looked really good and were pure bred black angus which I wanted at the time as we traditionally run baldy angus. The calves were just finishing nursing. I brought these cows into our 100% grass rotational system and the bull did ok, the calves did good, but the cows lost weight and bellowed for grain daily. After a few months they had lost significant body condition. I established that grain was what they needed so I put them up for sale with the info above, that a grain based farmer needed to buy them. I found one and made a deal with him for the cows only. I talked to him about 4 months later and he said the cows had regained all of their body condition and were doing fine.

    So I got bamboozled by a Craigslist cow peddler, so what? What was interesting to me was that the calves from these non-performing moms readily adapted to grass only. Sure, they’d had grain before too but not much by that point in their lives, just a nibble here or there. The calves are fat and happy now on grass and never missed a beat in their body condition or weight gain but the mom’s were on the way to looking like concentration camp survivors even with unlimited grass on daily rotations. They were on farm long enough for their rumens to change over to grass but they couldn’t convert their bodies. I learned that it’s much harder to get a cow off grain than it is to find a cow on grass and keep it there. If your readers are looking for cows on 100% grass and cannot find them, then taking some weaned grain calves before they get used to grain may be another entry into grass fed for them. Traditional weavers are a lot easier to find, and might even make the sale barn an option if that’s the best option someone has for their area.

  3. @Dan – Great follow up comments sir! I’ve brought in a few weened calves who were similar to what you describe and they have done okay. A few cattle I bought last year were eating mostly hay in the winter, but did receive a small daily ration of grain due to the harsh winter elements. We really didn’t have any problems out of them, but as you suggest it’s because their systems were not acclimated to a grain only diet. Thanks for your comments, I think readers will find that very helpful!

  4. Cattle that fit the above article to a tee are Dexters. They are the worlds smallest cattle, perfect for small acreages, are tri-purpose,(beef, milk, and draft) with excellent dispositions. For a plethora of info and a list of breeders,which I am one, go to the ADCA web site. American Dexter Cattle Association.com

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