Change isn’t undertaken lightly in farming.
A mistake could literally cost the farm, according to Dr. Allen Williams. With the need for solid evidence and direct experience in mind, Williams, will be a featured speaker at a free grass-fed beef production workshop planned for Gays Mills on Monday, March 2.
‘Grass-fed Beef Success for the Environment and Small Farmer: Pasture Improvement, Genetics and Farm Financials’ will be held on March 2 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center.
Williams is a farmer and nationally recognized grass-fed beef and managed rotational grazing expert. He will be joined by Rod Ofte, a Coon Valley grass-fed beef farmer and sales manager of the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Co-op.
“This is a thorough workshop for both farmers and landowners,” said event organizer Cynthia Olmstead, the project director for the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative. “It’s a real primer, covering pretty much everything you need to know about grass-fed beef operations—how to make the transition successfully and with a complete understanding of the benefits and incentives for grass-fed production.”
The Kickapoo Grazing Initiative workshop will cover all things grass-fed beef and managed rotational grazing, from the economics of grass-fed beef with financials from Ofte’s farm to the genetics of grass-fed beef and pasture improvement through managed rotational grazing.
“Farmers raising grass-fed beef are capturing significantly higher premiums over conventional beef,” Williams said.
Conventional farmers are choosing different cattle to fatten on grains and owning them for shorter periods of time, according to Williams. The average farmer’s profit comes from the value of a calf sold at weaning to a feeder operation. In grass-fed operations, farmers are choosing a breed with a more moderate frame that fleshes out easily on an herbaceous diet.
That grass diet produces benefits that consumers are actively seeking. Grass-fed beef is healthier beef insofar as it has been shown to be leaner overall, yet contains higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and vitamin E than conventional beef.
The premium it currently commands is 30-cents-per-pound live weight or 50-cents-per-pound dressed over conventional beef prices, according to Williams. And if the farmer is direct marketing, the premium is even higher.
However, the grass-fed method requires work and commitment, which can be daunting.
“Every farm takes work, dedication, and intelligence,” said Vance Haugen, the Crawford County Agricultural Agent with UW-Extension. “To succeed with grass-fed animals, you have to do the work to get your grazing management in place. That takes extra work before you begin.
“You have to know what you’re doing and be prepared to have money tied up in inventory,” Haugen said.
Nevertheless, the work comes with some quickly noticed benefits that ultimately translate into more money per acre, according to Williams.
“You will physically see (beneficial) changes to the land within the first year,” Williams said.
Animals that are moved daily don’t eat down to the grub (the roots). This results in year-round groundcover and reduced erosion and runoff, which is desirable to both farmers and landowners renting fields.
The intensive rotation also results in increased biomass and the building up and sequestering of carbon in the soil, according to Williams. The carbon acts as a basis for increasing the complexity and presence of soil organisms.
The impact of improved soil ripples outward, fostering both a greater diversity of beneficial insect and wildlife aboveground and increasing the pasture’s carrying capacity for grazing. You can graze more cattle on the same acreage.
“What we have found, and I work all over the United States, Canada, and Mexico, the timeline irrespective of soil type or climate is that in four to five years, you will have doubled soil organic matter and increased water infiltration rates,” Williams said. “And carrying capacity is two to three times the original capacity when the switch to grass-fed beef and rotational management was made.”
The downside, at least initially, is that animals raised entirely on grass mature more slowly, lengthening the production time of grass-fed products, and the carcass weight is often less at slaughter.
The upside, which is long-term, is that rotational grazing management used to produce grass-fed animals generally reduces the cost of production and allows producers to grow enough hay for winter forage feeding.
“Grass-fed beef production is particularly well suited to the region,” according to Ofte. “We don’t have the large open spaces that characterize raising grain for feed.”
Grass-fed cattle meet many of the needs for farmers seeking to utilize the steep terrain and smaller open fields of the Driftless region, Ofte noted.
Williams characterizes farmers as a conservative group when it comes to change. So new methods tend to take around 17 to 25 years to become widespread, accepted practices.
While farmers may be cautious about making the transition, consumers have been quick to accept the product. Grass-fed beef appears to be making the break into mainstream markets.
Retail sales have grown from less than $5 million in 1998 for domestically produced product to retail sales in excess of $400 million in domestic product and $1.5 billion in combined domestic and imported retail sales in 2012. That is according to data compiled by the Wallace Center of Winrock International.
Grass-fed meat sales demand has grown at a rate of 25 to 30 percent per year for the last decade and consumer research suggests the trend will continue.
That growth has spurred the creation of branded product and the formation of farmer co-ops to assist farmers with the pressures of marketing and ensuring they can sell their animals in a timely matter.
Grass-fed beef has also found an effective market in the local foods movement.
Producer participation in local food systems is growing, according to the USDA, and it appears to be tied to the greater likelihood of profit. The USDA report from the 2012 agricultural census showed that farmers marketing outside of traditional channels were more likely to report positive sales and to survive over a 10-year period.
“The market for grass-fed beef is growing and the prices have gone up significantly,” Ofte said. “And we are still short of cattle. We need more.”
Ofte recommends that farmers look at the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Co-op website (wisconsingrassfed.coop) to learn about their protocols.
“Consistency is really important,” Ofte explained. “We require all animals be 100-percent grass fed, that they be born and raised in Wisconsin, and that members meet our animal welfare requirements.”
The co-op currently has 130 members, with Vernon County having the largest representation.
‘Grass-fed Beef Success for the Environment and Small Farmer: Pasture Improvement, Genetics and Farm Financials’ registration opens at 6 p.m. on March 2, with the workshop beginning at 6:30 p.m. The Gays Mills Community Commerce Center is located at 16381 State Hwy 131, Gays Mills, Wis. 54631.
Please RSVP by Wednesday, Feb. 25 to KGI Project Director Cynthia Olmstead at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-606-6022.
The Kickapoo Grazing Initiative, now in its third year, is an innovative public-private conservation partnership that focuses on promoting economic and environmental incentives for farmers and landowners to adopt managed grazing of grass-fed beef in the Kickapoo Valley in southwest Wisconsin. KGI provides pasture walks and workshops for area farmers and landowners, as well as hands-on technical assistance for grazing plans with Grazing Specialist Dennis Rooney.
The KGI is a partnership of Trout Unlimited, Mississippi Valley Conservancy, Valley Stewardship Network, Vernon County Land and Water Conservation (Ben Wojahn), and UW-Extension:Crawford County (Vance Haugen).
Funding for their outreach work is provided through the Wallace Center of Winrock International, NRCS, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, Fisher & Farmers Partnership and the McKnight Foundation.
For more information about KGI and to sign up for notification of future event, visit www.kickapoograzinginitiative.com.