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.
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.
#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:
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 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.
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.
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.’