Question of the Week
Answer: I am pleased to provide you with information on appropriate breeds for grass-based beef production.
For pasture finishing, most producers select animals from herds that have mature weights under 1100 pounds, as these will most likely finish at the proper time. Pasture-finished beef cattle are usually marketed between 16 and 24 months of age. Regarding appropriate breeds, there is evidence that selecting body type, including size, is more important than breed type for pasture-based operations. “…there are important differences between domestic grazing animal species in their impact on grazed communities and …these can be related to differences in dental and digestive anatomy, but also, and probably more importantly, to differences in body size. Differences between breeds within species appear to be relatively minor and again largely related to body size” (Rook et al., 2004, emphasis mine). The six most important factors in animal selection would be to select animals from herds that exhibit these general qualities:
1. dual-purpose breed types (milk and meat producing)
2. medium frame
3. end weight 900 to 1100 lb
4. age at slaughter 16 to 24 mos.
5. early maturing
6. low maintenance requirements
English breeds usually fit best with grass operations because they often display the characteristics mentioned above. English cattle typically combine maternal traits like milking ability with growing and marbling ability. Breeds in this category include Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, and heritage breeds such as Devon, Galloway, and Dexter. Heritage cattle are known for their foraging ability. A good overview on rare and heritage cattle breeds is the online article “A Field Guide to Heritage Cattle” in the July/August 2007 issue of Grit Magazine. It includes characteristics and photos of 18 heritage breeds. More detailed information on heritage breeds can be found at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website.
Grazing Behavior and Selection of Appropriate Animals
The grazing process is a very complex mechanism developed by grazing species over very long periods of time, and constantly influenced by climatic and vegetational characteristics or particular landscapes. According to Launchbaugh et al. (1999) “herbivores inherit their ability to learn” how to graze forages. Grazing herbivores have evolved the ability to select forages high in soluble carbohydrates and will change their diets when they have had enough of any nutrient or secondary plant chemical (such as toxins). This makes a great case for pasture plant species diversity. The more diverse a pasture is in plant types and species, the more opportunities the animal has to select appropriate foods. What is more, producers can use selective breeding to build a herd that exhibits maximal grazing efficiency. The ATTRA publication Ruminant Nutrition for Graziers covers in detail this concept of grazing behavior as well as maximizing pasture intake to assure nutritional needs are met by grazing livestock.
References and Resources:
Launchbaugh, K.L., J.W. Walker and C.A. Taylor. 1999. Foraging Behavior: Experience or Inheritance? Presented in “Grazing Behavior of Livestock and Wildlife.” Idaho Forest, Wildlife, & Range Experiment Station Bulletin 70, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID.
Nemec, Jennifer and Oscar H. Will III. 2007. A Field Guide to Heritage Cattle, in Grit, July/August 2007.
Rinehart, L. 2006. Cattle Production: Considerations for Pasture-Based Beef and Dairy Producers. Butte, MT: ATTRA.
Rinehart, L. 2008. Ruminant Nutrition for Graziers. Butte, MT: ATTRA.
Rook, A.J., B. Dumont, J. Isselstein, K. Osoro, M. F. Wallis DeVries, G. Parente, and J. Mills. 2004. Matching type of livestock to desired biodiversity outcomes in pastures – a review. Biological Conservation, Volume 119, Issue 2.
Thomas, Heather Smith. Selecting cattle for your small farm. Countryside and Small Stock Journal.
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