Great tasting premiums from grass-fed beef

A niche market is growing for grass-fed beef amongst consumers. An entrepreneurial couple in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands is tapping into this, with their all-natural beef fetching around R20/kg more than grain-fed beef at R69,98/kg.Lloyd Phillips reports.
Issue date: 24 April 2009

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Great tasting premiums from grass-fed beef A niche market is growing for grass-fed beef amongst consumers. An entrepreneurial couple in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands is tapping into this, with their all-natural beef fetching around R20/kg more than grain-fed beef at R69,98/kg. Lloyd Phillips reports.

Adam and Cathy Kethro began their conventional beef farming enterprise in 1987 on Greenfields Farm just outside Mooi River in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Over the years, the couple experimented with the common practice of producing weaners for sale to commercial feedlots, and at one stage also finished off their weaners in their own feedlot.
Their enterprise achieved limited success but in 2004, the Kethros decided to start producing their own grass-fed beef, being fully aware it would be much more costly and involve much more effort.
“But we wanted to take advantage of the niche market for healthier, animal-friendly and environmentally friendly red meat, which was increasingly being demanded by consumers,” explains Cathy. “We realised that a free-range, grass-fed beef production system would allow us to build up a more holistic farming operation and the demand for beef produced in this way would generate a premium price.”

Genetics and feeding programme
Greenfields Farmcomprises 1 800ha and the Kethros currently run a commercial beef herd of 500 breeding cows and 1 000 weaners. The herd is crossbred and is predominantly Bovelder and Angus with a mix of Brangus thrown in for its drought tolerance. However, the Kethros and their farm manager, Khethwayini Ndawonde, are breeding towards an almost pure Angus herd. When that’s been achieved, the intention is to begin crossbreeding again with a breed still to be decided.
“Mooi River lies at an altitude very similar to Johannesburg’s and the Bovelder from the Highveld can tolerate the very cold winters of our area,” Adam explains. “The Angus is widely farmed here and has proven its suitability for the region. We’ve also been able to piggy-back on the superior marketing of both the international and local Angus Society. By crossbreeding we are taking advantage of the benefits of hybrid vigour. The crossbreeds also perform well on our grass-fed system.”
Greenfield Farm’s cattle are fed mainly on natural veld, annual ryegrass, kikuyu and Eragrostis curvula pastures at a stocking rate of eight animals per hectare. Once weaned at six months and 221kg to 225kg liveweight by either 1 May or 1 October, the calves not selected to be one of the 100 annual replacement heifers are grazed from April to December on 100ha of mainly self-seeded and irrigated annual ryegrass. From October to May, these weaners are grazed on 100ha of irrigated kikuyu pasture. Wrapped and unwrapped bales of Eragrostis curvula are fed as supplementary roughage.
“To be able to finish off our weaners at the ideal weight of 425kg to 475kg liveweight at 18 to 24 months, they’re fed a home-brewed protein mineral supplement formulated by Michael Pappas of Suthile Feeds together with maize silage and/or barley and/or wrapped kikuyu, Eragrostis curvula or ryegrass baled during summer,” says Adam.
“Our self-seeded annual ryegrass pastures are disked every autumn and allowed to regrow. It’s only when we see that pasture performance is declining that we’ll lightly oversow fresh seed. We also aim to bulk up the forequarters of our animals for the demands of the lower income group of our market.”

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Focus on sustainability
The Kethros focus on maximising efficiency wherever possible and working towards achieving a sustainable farming operation. An example of this is their large-scale compost operation, which they’ve had for a year. Kraal dung, stable bedding, chicken litter and uneaten bale material in pastures are all collected and turned into compost.
The plan is whenever the ryegrass pasture is being prepared for the next growing season, or the Eragrostis curvula and kikuyu pastures need extra nutrients, compost will be spread over them. Should this not be sufficient, the necessary inorganic fertiliser will be added. The Kethros currently  require about 1 000t of compost a year.

Focus on a clear direction and market
“We brand our Greenfields beef products as natural, free-range and hormone-free,” Cathy says. “Our animals are not feedlotted and spend their time on pasture instead. While the beef is not organically produced, we don’t blanket treat our herd with antibiotics as they tend to do in feedlots. We also isolate and treat sick animals individually as necessary and are very strict about observing withdrawal times. The herd is, however, vaccinated and dipped.”
Their animals are also not fed grain concentrates, which are commonly used in commercial feedlots, as some animal welfare and human health groups consider these to be unsuitable for the rumen of cattle.
As John Robbins, US author of The Food Revolution says, “Switching a cow from grass to grain is so disturbing to the animals’ digestive system, it can kill the animal if it’s not done gradually … because these animals are designed to forage.”
The Kethros are the first to admit that producing grass-fed beef is nowhere near as efficient or as high a throughput as commercial feedlotting. Where feedlot beef can reach slaughter weight in 14 to 16 months, the Kethros’ beef reaches this stage at 18 to 24 months.
This means they have the added expense of keeping the animals on the farm for longer, but there are savings on the relatively cheaply produced grazing grass in comparison to costly grain concentrates.
Adam, Cathy and Khethwayini all agree that their cattle are healthier and far less stressed than those in feedlots and there’s a distinct difference in the flavour and texture of the meat. “We currently supply our beef to two Spars in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, and also to a number of upmarket restaurants and steakhouses in Johannesburg,” says Cathy. “After tasting the difference in our beef, clients have become regular buyers. In fact, many of the restaurants list our beef on their menus as grass-fed beef and while it costs more than regular grain-fed beef, patrons have given us positive feedback. We currently send about 400kg of our steak to Johanesburg every week.” A Greenfields rump steak costs R98,99/kg compared to a large Pietermartizburg butchery which sells their grain-fed beef for R69,98/kg. But eventhough Greenfields’ steaks are still being snapped up every week and the couple say their steak is about 10% cheaper than other free-range steak, they’ve realised it’s crucial to diversify the range to include value-added products, especially in light of the current economic climate.
They now also produce a popular range of gourmet beef burger patties, boerewors, meatballs and beef olives, marketed through the two Spars and at the Greenfields deli. The Kethros’ pricing is in keeping with other such products on the market, but their profit margins are very low because of the intense competition between the many existing suppliers.

Greenfields finishing ration and results
Adam says they produce about 16 to 32 carcasses a week. “We used to aim for an average daily gain (ADG) of 0,75kg. Now, with our specially developed finishing ration, we achieve an ADG of 1,1kg to 1,2kg. Each animal being finished receives a daily ration of 5kg maize silage and 5kg barley grain or barley malt for about 60 days. This ration is delivered to the animals on the pastures by feed mixer.”
Adam says a typical feedlot achieves an ADG of about 1,6kg, which is about 50% better than that of Greenfields.
However, the standard growth stimulant used to produce feedlot beef causes massive water retention, which may result in feedlots achieving a 60% slaughter rate, against the Kethros’ 50% slaughter rate.
But the Kethros’ beef has nowhere near the water content of feedlot beef. Their consumers are paying for, and getting only pure beef.
Contact Cathy Kethro on 082 377 5697 or e-mail [email protected].     |fw