Experts say time to finish weight and costs vary from farm to farm

When it comes to finishing beef, some producers opt for a grain finishing method, while others prefer their final product to be grass finished.

Each farm is different and there is no “one size fits all” method when it comes to finishing calves, but below is some food for thought.

How Long Does Each Method Typically Take? Since each farm will have its own variables, there is no standard guideline of how long each method will take, but there do tend to be some common norms.

“Most grass finished cattle are 28 to 36 months old when slaughtered and most grain-finished cattle are 18 to 24 months old when slaughtered,” said Dr. Phillip Lancaster, assistant professor of Beef Cattle Production at Missouri State University.

“Our grass-fed calves are 20 to 24 months of age when harvested,” Dr. Allen Williams of Joyce Farms, Inc., said. “We average 85 to 90 percent USDA Choice and Prime carcass quality grade at that age of harvest off of grass alone, no grain. All our cattle are federally graded and stamped, so the quality grades are real.”

The quality of the forage cattle are finished on, if the grass-finished method, plays a large role in the time frame.

“It depends on quality of forage being used in grass-finished system as to how fast cattle gain weight, which affects how long it takes,” noted Lancaster.

What Does Each Method Cost? There is not a hard and fast cost comparison with either method, but it does benefit the producer to explore all financial angles when considering how they will finish their cattle.

“It depends on how you calculate expenses,” Lancaster explained. “Forage is usually less expensive per pound than grain, but cattle do not gain as fast, so cost of gain may actually be greater with forage finishing. Also, if you look at the longer length of time to finish cattle on forage, then a producer cannot finish as many cattle in the same time frame. Grass finishing also requires more land to grow forage than to build a small pen and buy grain.”

“The price of feedstuffs for the feedlot varies with the price of corn, soybeans, etc., so it is not static. The cost of finishing on grass is actually much more dependable and stable,” Williams said. “We average a cost of gain (COG) of 85 cents to $1 per pound in the finishing phase. Feedlots can vary from about 75 cents to $1.20-plus per pound.”

Which Method Do Consumers Prefer? “There is certainly a growing trend for preference for grass-fed beef. This is evidenced by the fact that the grass-finished beef market has grown from less than $5 million in retail sales in 1998 to more than $3 billion in sales in 2018. The market has grown so much that almost every retail grocery store, every major distributor, and many restaurants and chains are now offering grass-fed beef options,” Willams said.

He noted that even large meat companies, such as Cargill, JBS and Tyson, are now producing and selling grass-fed beef. Grain-finished beef is still quite popular and easily accessible to most consumers.

“About 95 percent of cattle are finished on grain on a large scale and so the number of cattle finished on grain goes up and down with the number of cows having calves,” Lancaster said.

“From the environmental perspective, forage-finished beef requires more land and water per pound of beef produced, and cattle fed forage diets produce more methane, a greenhouse gas, than cattle fed grain diets. But large-scale feedlots create air pollution in the form of agriculture dust, and large lagoons have the potential to contaminate waterways if not managed properly. So which system is more environmentally friendly is not as clear as most people believe,” Lancaster said.

Klaire HowertonFarm Helpfinishing beef,finishing method,grain,grain finishing method,grass,grass-finishedExperts say time to finish weight and costs vary from farm to farm When it comes to finishing beef, some producers opt for a grain finishing method, while others prefer their final product to be grass finished. Each farm is different and there is no “one size fits all” method...The Ozarks' most read farm newspaper, reaching more than 58,000 readers in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma