A Blast from the Past, Genetic Decisions, Yellow Fat and Niche Markets

– Dr. Roy Burris, Beef Extension Professor, University of Kentucky

It was 1974 and I had just started my career as a beef cattle researcher for Mississippi State University. I was part of projects on grazing systems and crossbreeding but was also starting a new project on finishing cattle in south Mississippi. We were in the process of building a research feedlot but I needed to get something going right away. Fortunately, at that time, finishing cattle on grass was receiving a lot of attention in the southern region. Since I had ryegrass and cattle, one of my first trials was “Finishing Steers on Ryegrass-clover Pastures with Supplemental Grain”. Some of the things that we learned then are still relevant 42 years later.

Steers were grazed for 150 days during the winter and received either (1) no grain, (2) one percent bodyweight (BW) of cracked corn throughout, or (3) cracked corn the last 64 days. Dr. Neil Bradley (UK) always said that it takes 20 bushels of corn to “finish” cattle. One percent BW for 150 days would be in that range. Grain fed calves did tend to marble better and have greater fat thickness and yield grades.

My first “problem” was that a local producer told my boss that cracked corn was too low in protein for the steers to gain. I patiently explained (nah, I didn’t) that since the ryegrass-clover was very high in protein, they needed energy to fatten – not protein. But I did learn that most producers are hung up on crude protein levels when buying feed and pay little attention to energy levels. That is still true today.

In 1974, this group of grass fed steers were harvested at 900 pounds ‘live’ weight.

The steers (shown in the picture) don’t look much like cattle do now. These steers were not straight black or large framed. In fact they were harvested at 900 lbs.! Marbling is, to a large degree, a function of maturity. In other words, once a calve stops growing, it then begins to lay on external and, hopefully, internal fat (marbling). Thus, early maturing (smaller framed) cattle might work better for forage diets. Cattle on this trial averaged slight-plus marbling (enough to grade USDA Select plus). As I bred the cattle for more size and growth, it became more difficult to maintain marbling ability. We now look for those “outliers” that possess extra marbling ability.

Breeders, in my humble opinion, seem to sometimes get caught up in breeding for “outliers” instead of breeding for efficiency and uniformity and in the process may lose some of the functionality of the cow herd. I know it sounds trivial and simple but you, or your source of breeding animals, should rear them under similar conditions in which you expect their offspring to be productive. Farm planners say “fit each acre to its best use” and I say fit your breeding program to the intended purpose for your cattle.

What about yellow fat on pasture cattle? Fat color in this trial averaged creamy white instead of yellow. Other workers had reported that yellow fat was not a big problem when grazing winter annual pastures like ryegrass. When the T-bone, round and rib-eyes from these steers were placed in supermarkets and grouped together (not mixed with feedlot beef), their sales showed no reluctance of consumers to purchase cattle finished on winter pasture.

I soon learned that the problem with building a market for pasture-fed beef is the seasonality of supply. Ideally, grazing should be year-round so that cattle can be harvested weekly throughout the year. We need to re-think finishing on fescue and look at other grasses and legumes so that we can approach year-round grazing on high quality forages.

Finally, I have also learned that there is no problem with niche markets. Whatever you can do to successfully market your product is great. We don’t dictate what people eat – we fill orders. Simple as that. If the consuming public demands beef produced on grass or in the feedlot or any other way, we can supply them. Hopefully we do it at a profit so that our operations are sustainable. Something to think about – we need our domestic demand for beef to be strong enough that we can always be sustainable – because foreign markets can’t always be relied upon.