The Seven Rules for Producing Great Beef:    1     2     3     4     5     6     7


Raising Cattle for Beef:
ensuring slaughter-readiness on pasture

Raising Cattle for Beef: Gaining Weight at Slaughter

Image Credit: StevenW, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

In Part 1 of this article series about raising cattle for slaughter I explained that, despite all of the different ways that cattle store body fat, ONLY the microscopic fat cells contained deep within muscle tissue (Rule # 1) matter to beef tenderness and flavor. Those fat cells do not develop until cattle reach maturity, no matter how obese cattle may be earlier in life.

In Part 2 I explained the correlation between size and target finish weight - that's the weight when cattle are old enough and fat enough to ensure that there are enough of these precious microscopic fat cells to ensure that the beef will be tender and flavorful. This ideal finishing weight varies depends on the size (hip height) of each individual animal (Rule # 2).

But just because cattle reach their ideal finishing weight does not mean their beef will be tender. There lots of little obstacles that can undermine tenderness and flavor at the very last minute. This article explores how even minor fluctuations in day-to-day calorie intake can reduce the fat inside the beef, leaving the beef dry and flavorless.


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(Rule # 3)

Beef cattle must be gaining weight at the time of slaughter to ensure maximum beef tenderness and flavor.


Day-to-Day Body Fat Variations

The microscopic intramuscular fat cells deep within the muscle fibers of beef cattle are nature’s storage system. They allow an animal to make up for nutritional shortages by tapping into body fat stored within these microscopic fat cells. It is a very basic and simple storage system.

When calories eaten are more than calories required to meet daily nutritional requirements, the excess calories get stored as fat. On that day the fat cells get fuller.

But if calories eaten are less than what is required to meet daily nutritional requirements, then the animal immediately taps into the microscopic fat cells to make up the caloric shortfall. So on that day the fat inside these fat storage cells begins to decrease.
 
Either the animal is gaining weight, or losing weight. While theoretically possible to just stay stable, equilibrium is such a fine balancing act that in reality the teeter-totter is either tipped one way or the other. As long as the animal is gaining, the meat will stay tender and flavorful. But as soon as the animal stops gaining, the fat in the meat starts to reduce and you immediately begin losing tenderness and flavor, which you won’t regain until you replace the fat that has been lost.

This means that even very brief calorie shortfalls can make beef tough, even if the cattle have reached their target slaughter weight.

Nor will a single day of gains after a week of weight loss replace what has been lost. All the fat that was lost from within the fat storage cells  must be regained before tenderness and flavor will be restored.

And that takes time.
 
The finished beef animal may still technically qualify as finished by weight alone, but if it is not gaining at the time of slaughter those fat cells will not be completely full; tenderness and flavor will be compromised and your customers will be disappointed.
 

Grass Finishing Program Implications

#1 - Cattle should have consistent weight daily gains throughout the grass finishing process. The best way to achieve this is to use a daily pasture rotation (lots of tiny grazing slices). My smart electric fence grid article series explains a very efficient and very low-cost strategy for how to create daily grazing slices.

#2 - Once the cattle reach their target finishing weight, they should be slaughtered while grass quality is still high enough to produce consistent daily weight gains right up to the very day that they are brought to the slaughterhouse.

As soon as the grass quality deteriorates to the point where pasture weight gains stop, the farmer raising cattle on grass has only two options:

  • suspend the slaughter program until the next growing season, or
  • supplement the cattle's diet to make up for the calorie shortfall so the cattle can keep on gaining weight.

Supplementing Cattle during Grass Finishing

Supplementing cattle while grazing poor quality grass is a low-cost strategy to keep the cattle gaining weight and allows you to extend the slaughter season long after the end of the growing season. However, gauging pasture quality and measuring calories in the grass is not something that you can eyeball.

Even green grass can be calorie-deficient or may be missing an important mineral. The solution is to test your pasture nutrient content as it changes from month to month over the course of the entire year. This means having a consistent forage sampling program so your nutritionist can calculate when your pasture quality is sufficient to meet your cattle’s needs and when you need to start supplementing in order for your cattle to continue gaining weight.

Furthermore, cattle nutritional requirements change constantly over the course of the year. This means that a diet sufficiently high in calories today may be grossly insufficient a week or a month from now as the animal’s needs change, even if the calories in the feed have not changed at all! For example:

  • As an animal increases its size, it requires more calories to sustain a larger muscle mass, just like a bodybuilder needs to eat more calories at 240 lbs than at 180 lbs just to keep from losing weight. Muscle, unlike fat, doesn’t just sit there; it burns calories every time it flexes or moves because the muscle fibers are either contracted or lengthened with each movement. Movement requires energy. So, as an animal grows, it also increases its muscle mass and requires more calories just to maintain its weight.
  • A growing animal requires more calories than an animal that has reached its mature body size (bone structure). Growing animals also need to grow bone, cartilage, muscle or nerve fibers. Once an animal reaches its adult frame size and has stops growing, all the calories consumed are available for fattening (after the basic nutritional needs related to breathing, eating and walking around have been met).
  • A lactating cow needs more calories than a dry cow.
  • A pregnant cow needs more calories than an empty cow.
  • Cattle that have gone through a period of weight loss will gain weight more efficiently than cattle that have not experienced a period of calorie deficiency. Metabolisms slow down during periods of weight loss as a way of compensating for calorie deficiencies. But metabolisms take time to adjust, which allows producers to take advantage of a phenomenon called compensatory gain.
  • And caloric intake also changes dramatically depending on outside temperature as the energy to stay warm changes throughout the seasons.

As you can see from this short list, the nutrient requirements of cattle over the course of the year are constantly in flux. Raising cattle for slaughter is thus an exercise in monitoring calorie intake versus an ever-changing calorie demand. That's why it is important to work with a livestock nutritionist while finishing beef cattle for slaughter.


Take Monthly Forage Analyses and Work With A Livestock Nutritionist

Taking monthly forage analyses and working with a livestock nutritionist ensures that the supplement program for your grass finishing program changes to keep up with constantly changing pasture quality and with the constantly changing nutritional needs of your cattle.

That supplement program is the key component of your grass finishing program to ensure that you are consistently producing tender flavorful beef. Supplements prevent short-term nutritional deficiencies, lengthen your grass-finishing season by being able to maintain consistent weight gains on a slowly-deteriorating winter pasture, and dramatically reduce your overall feed costs (grazing plus supplements is still much cheaper than switching to feeding hay, silage or a mixed feed ration). 

Your nutritionist will also be able to calculate exactly when your slaughter season should end based on the delicate balance between caloric intake vs caloric demand to ensure that your cattle are gaining weight right up to the day they are slaughtered. Do not rely on eyeballing the grass beneath your cattle's feet or wait for complaints from your customers to tell you when the grass-finishing season should end.
 
If you are raising cattle for slaughter, I recommend reading the chapter on ‘Planning for Winter Grazing’ in my book Grass-fed Cattle: how to produce and market natural beef to learn more about how to implement a pasture forage sampling program and how to work with a livestock nutritionist to develop a targeted supplement program. 

Moving On...

The first three rules of the Seven Unbreakable Rules of Producing Great Beef addressed the degree of ‘fatness’ or finish of a beef animal by focusing on the microscopic fat cells contained within the meat fibers.

But these are not the only considerations that affect tenderness and beef flavor when raising cattle. When any of the four remaining rules is broken, tenderness and flavor will nevertheless be compromised regardless of how well the finishing program succeeded in achieving the right degree of fatness or ‘finish.’



Related Articles:

  • Grain Fed vs Grass Fed - Learn how feeding cattle on grass versus on grain affect both cattle and the humans eating them.
  • Marbling in Grass Fed Beef - Learn how beef marbling is different in grain fed versus grass fed meat and discover when and when NOT to use marbling as a gauge of tenderness when you buy beef.
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