How do I select appropriate animals for grass-finished cattle production?

Matching the right animal or plant with the appropriate environment leads to healthy animals and a productive and successful farming system. Knowledgeable farmers understand that organisms adapted to the climate and habitat do much better than those placed into situations nature might not have intended. Selecting the right genetics for pasture-based production is therefore of utmost importance.

In general, you want an animal that combines maternal traits such as adequate milking ability with early maturity and meat tenderness. These three traits are important because a cow must calve on pasture and raise a thrifty calf that grows quickly. The carcass should yield high-quality beef that provides a positive eating experience for the customer. For this reason, the moderate-body-type English breeds usually fit best with grass operations. However, it is important to remember that there is wide variability in the expression of the traits important for pasture-based systems, even within breeds. Select for particular production traits in breeds such as Angus, Red Angus, Hereford, and Shorthorn, as well as rarer or more obscure breeds such as Devon, Dexter, American Low-Line, Galloway, Murray Grey, and British White.

The three most important traits to select for are adaptability, fertility, and longevity. These three traits have the greatest influence on profitability. Discuss these traits with your seedstock producer before purchasing seedstock or stocker cattle. There are other traits to select for as well:

  • Average milking ability, which is best for low-input type cattle; milking ability that is too high requires high maintenance costs
  • Soundness of feet and legs
  • Udder quality (i.e., well-placed teats, symmetrical quarters, and adequate support)
  • Good carcass characteristics (i.e., the ability to finish on a high-quality forage diet), carcass yield, and meat tenderness
  • Early maturation
  • Low maintenance

Important breeds in the humid South and Southwest are Brahman and such Brahman-cross composites as Beefmaster (one-half Brahman, one-quarter Hereford, and one-quarter Milking Shorthorn); Santa Gertrudis (three-eighths Brahman and five-eighths Shorthorn); Brangus (three-eighths Brahman and five-eighths Angus); and Braford (approximately one-half Hereford and one-half Brahman). Brahman cattle are very tolerant of heat, humidity, and parasites, and they have excellent maternal traits. However, they do not have the carcass characteristics and marbling that consumers have come to expect. For this reason, some producers in the southern U.S. keep the Brahman influence in their cow herd to one-quarter or less and no more than one-eighth Brahman breeding in terminal (market) calves.

It is not necessary to have Brahman genetics in your herd if you live in the southern U.S. as long as you select cattle that are adapted to your climate. Red-hided cattle are well-suited for the southern U.S. and perform well in heat and humidity. Alternates for Brahman to cross-breed with British breeds are Senepol, Tuli, and Bonsmara.

Ready to learn more? Check out the ATTRA publication Organic and Grass-Finished Cattle Production. It highlights the practices producers are using to provide customers with nutritious food from pasture- and rangeland-based farms and ranches. It discusses grass-fed and grass finishing, selecting appropriate animals, cattle nutrition, health and disease management, and much more.

While you’re on our website, check out the Livestock and Pasture section, which is chock full of useful resources.