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Grass Fed vs. Grass Finished

written by

Joel Salatin

posted on

December 11, 2023

One of our customers sent this explanation from another farmer:

“We do augment the diet as needed to meet the animal’s nutritional requirements with grain. Grass does not grow in sufficient quantity and quality to meet an animal’s nutritional needs. In the spring the protein is high while the calories are low and then toward the end of summer the calories exceed the animal's need while the protein is too low.”

Is Polyface depriving or abusing its herbivores by not feeding any grain?

These are great questions and certainly come from a confusing litany of production protocols. Let’s dig in.

Grass quality and quantity do fluctuate throughout the year and that is one reason why wild herds migrated long distances. With today’s land ownership and domestic stock, these lengthy cyclical migrations are difficult if not impossible. Some animals did not migrate: deer, elk, turkeys, grouse, and others. Those species can scrounge things seasonally and adjust their conception and birthing (or hatching, as the case may be) to match feed availability and type.

The craft of grass-finishing herbivores (cows, sheep, goats) is often compared to wine-making inasmuch as it is both art and science. While some places have wide quantity and quality forage-finishing ability, others have narrow times. For example, Mediterranean climates like California have a rainy and dry season of roughly six months each, creating a narrower period in which quality and quantity of forage are of finishing caliber.

Obviously, the upper reaches of Canada similarly deal with a narrow finishing window with a compressed growing season. Fortunately, the mid-Atlanta region lies in the correct latitude and climate for a long quality-quantity availability window. South Carolina is perhaps a bit better, but summer heat comes into play, deteriorating forage quality.

All this said, however, the art and science of 100 percent grass finishing can be done anywhere and is in fact being done everywhere.

As Allan Nation, editor of Stockman Grass Farmer Magazine often says: “If someone has done it, it can be done.” The default position too often is “I can’t” when in reality that’s an excuse for a host of issues, from management to fertility to genetics. Grass finishing requires a whole spectrum of correct procedures. Missing any of them can mess with the end product.

The challenge is to create the quality and quantity of forage necessary. In the mid-Atlantic region, that’s easy about 5 months out of the year. It’s not too hard to manage things for another 3 months. The final 4 months (primarily Dec., Jan., Feb., Mar.) become extremely difficult. Think of vegetables. It’s easy to grow tomatoes in the summer. With some season extension plastic tunnels or hoop houses you can extend it a month or two on either end. But if you want tomatoes in January, you need a sophisticated heated greenhouse with all the bells and whistles–maybe even a brush to pollinate the blooms.

At Polyface, we drastically reduce our beef processing in the winter, selecting only a handful of top animals and feeding them exceptionally excellent stored hay. We also use this time to slaughter cull cows (old, open, ornery–the 3 O’s) or poor doers, turning them into ground beef or hot dogs. This is an excellent use of non-prime animals. We plan our heaviest harvests for May through November when our grazing management and the season collaborate for abundant high-quality forage.

As to the starch and protein fluctuations, by moving the herd every day to a new paddock and strategically managing the growth cycle of the forage, we’re able to fudge the natural season quite a bit. For example, since we’ve built up our soil with compost for several decades, our grass even in June or July thinks it’s still May due to the dampness and biological activity in the soil. One pound of organic matter holds four pounds of water, so increasing this water-retentive capacity builds forgiveness in the soil. This stimulates biomass production later into the season, cools down the soil, and aids clover growth to augment the grass growth. Our almost religious adherence to moving the cows to a new paddock every day–what we call mob stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization–allows us to approximate the quality and quantity of forage on our farm that otherwise the migratory herbivores would need to migrate to find.

Matching the cows to the grass, the finishing animal to the proper paddock: this is not easy, but it’s certainly not impossible. The reason so many farmers use grains, beet pulp, or other additives in their programs is because their management is not yet sophisticated enough or they really don’t believe an herbivore can deliver a pleasant eating experience on forage alone. To be sure, the genetic component in the protocol is huge. Many farmers are die-hard breed defenders–black, spotted, hairy–rather than simply letting nature decide what color, size, and hair coat works best in a given environment. Genetic adaptability to a region and management protocol cannot be minimized.

At Polyface, we’re selecting our own bulls out of our own herd to develop a highly adapted pre-potency for our area. Over time, our animals will not look like the most grass-adapted phenotypes in Ontario or Florida. But they will exhibit nativized resiliency.

All of this takes time and faith. The herbivore genetics that current American farmers-turned-grass-lovers start with are woefully mis-matched. That creates a lot of variability in the end product and is one of the big challenges here at Polyface. Secondly, the level of management expertise required to grass finish is achievable only by the top tier of farmers. Most will not take the time or attention to detail to be successful. They will take a shortcut, like feeding grain or offering urea lick tanks as a supplement. These are not necessary but often touted as necessary by folks unwilling to go for the top trophy.

Thirdly, a willingness for both the producer and consumer to accept some seasonal variability in volume and quality will go a long way in meshing the market and climate. We can all be thankful that the freezer has enabled us to not have to follow the migrating herds. Instead, we can harvest large amounts when conditions are best and stockpile it for times when conditions are not as good. Extricating ourselves, with this good modern technology, means we don’t have to be concerned about starving in the winter, but can instead curl up with a good book or go watch a Nutcracker performance. Life is good.

Be assured that Polyface is committed to offering 100 percent grassfinished, no grain, herbivores. The best thing our patrons can do is buy in bulk in season, acquire a domestic freezer for better storage options, and appreciate seasonal variations in quantity and taste. Remember, it’s pretty unnatural to have fresh steaks in a meat counter any time you want them. Enjoying seasonality is one of the biggest first steps to embracing our ecological nest.

Embrace, caress, participate.

Joel Salatin

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