CHATHAM, Mich. (WJMN) – One ongoing project located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Education and Research Center farm is beef cattle.
James DeDecker, director of MSU UPREC, says the farm has a herd of approximately 350 red Angus beef cattle. In the summer, half of the cattle go to the North Farm and the other stay at the South Farm for pasture. DeDecker says their cows are primarily pasture-based, or grass-finished.
“That means that our cattle eat only grass and forages that are here at the farm, we don’t feed them grain,” said DeDecker. “It also means in our case that they are actually outdoors 365 days a year so they don’t come into the barn at night or in the winter. In the summer, this time of year, they’re out grazing pasture and we do what’s called rotational grazing meaning that we’re moving them from paddock to paddock in the pasture depending on how much forage is available there and how much they’ve eaten and then they’ll rotate usually every day or every other day so they spend a pretty short time in each paddock.”
The herd is rotated because it’s a relatively low-cost system according to DeDecker because they don’t have to buy grain or have the cost of housing the cows indoors.
“It takes some capital to establish because you have to build a lot of fences and have a lot of water lines running through your farm but once it’s established it’s fairly low cost and low input because we’re not buying grain,” said DeDecker. “And housing obviously there’s not really a cost for that.”
In the winter, the herd is fed hay. Dedecker says some is wet hay that has been wrapped in plastic and fermented to preserve and improve quality and some is dry hay. They unroll the bales on the pasture to feed the cattle.
“It allows them to continue depositing their manure around the farm which helps to cycle nutrients and also reduces our input costs as far as fertilizer and things would go and management costs, if we had to you know move manure out of the barn back to the fields like would be more normal in a dairy type operation or a confinement operation,” said DeDecker. “And then also that waste hay gets deposited so we’re improving soil, building soil organic matter and so forth in the process.”
DeDecker says having the cattle in a pasture also is helpful to environmental quality.
“Pasture is also great for environmental quality which is another part of our motivation there,” said DeDecker. “We’ve got perrenial cover we’re protecting it from erosion, we’re building organic matter and so forth and creating habitat for beneficial species, insects, wildlife et cetera and also protecting water quality because we don’t have a concentrated source of manure you know in a barn or a manure pit that’s a potential risk of contamination for water and when that water is deposited on the pasture it’s got all that sod to work through to help decompose it and help filter out any contaminants or anything before it gets to the water.”
One strategy they’ve implemented with their herd is calving in the fall rather than the spring which is more typical. DeDecker says calving in the fall gives the calves a better chance of survival and helps them get to finish weight more easily.
“When you are grass finishing it takes longer to get the cattle to harvest weight because they’re eating a less nutritionally dense product in the forage compared to grain,” said DeDecker. “What we were finding is when we were spring calving which is pretty normal for cattle operations when it came time to finish those cattle it was at a time of year when we had less forage available and so it was harder to get them to size so what we started doing is breeding at a different time of year to have our calves in the fall and that’s a practice we’ve seen some folks in the Upper Peninsula adopt. It’s nice because the weather is usually a little bit better
Another project they are working on is breeding their cows with other breeds to see how that changes the finished product.
“We have also been crossing with other breeds and the primary one is akaushi which is a wagyu type Japanese breed of cattle, in Japanese I believe it means brown cow, and they’re kind of a light tan color and the reason that we are crossing with the akaushi cattle is that they have an ability to finish a little bit easier and the meat will grade higher on a grass-based diet,” said DeDecker. “So by crossing with akaushi we’re hopefully going to see higher quality in the grass-finished beef product and maybe get them to market size a little bit sooner.”
Dedecker says that grass-finished beef is generally leaner than grain-finished and people typically prefer grain-finished beef. The intention of introducing akaushi into their cattle’s genetics is that the meat will be closer to what people are familiar with.
“We’ve actually done a comparison that wrapped up a year ago looking at grass-finishing and grain-finishing so we had cattle in the barn in a more traditional feedlot system and then we had our cattle on pasture and we did some sensory work on that as well where we took steaks to campus and we had folks go through a blind taste test in a controlled setting there and it was night and day preference for the grain-finished meat,” said DeDecker. “So it’s a challenge, how do we match this system that we know has benefits for the farmer and has benefits for the environmental quality in the grass-finishing to consumer preferences and so are there ways that we can either adjust genetics or adjust other things about how we’re feeding, what we’re feeding to do everything.”
When the cows are ready to be harvested, they are marketed through a grass-fed cooperative. DeDecker says with anything they produce they avoid competing with local farmers.