Invest in grass for better beef

There’s a bright future for beef produced from grass, but we need smarter veld management.

Invest in grass for better beef
Photo: John Fair
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You will find the Bovelder ‘factory’ sprawled across the mountainous region between Harrismith and Memel and further afield. It’s flanked by the N1 highway to the west and an escarpment plunging to the Middleveld to the east. It’s the kind of wilderness that stirs my Scottish genes – a rugged country farmed by rugged men. The development of Bovelder beef breeding here shows what can be achieved when farmers work as a team and use the services of top animal scientists.

The Bovelder is a functionally efficient breed, well-suited to the region, that can be ranked as one of the best beef breeds in the country. But what lies ahead for the Bovelder? Are breeders going to focus on fine-tuning the gene pool, or are they going to lift their eyes and look to the future?

I would like to suggest they do the latter and develop a ‘factory’ concept. The factory’s product is, of course, beef, but grass-fed beef.

The consumer is increasingly distrustful of food produced in an ‘unnatural’ way. Ruminants were never meant to eat a high-grain diet. To make the ‘grain-fed beef factory’ profitable, it’s necessary to add growth stimulants and antibiotics. Some consumers are resistant to these practices. What they don’t yet know is that herbicide residues are consumed by grain-fed beef. All of this means the future for beef produced from grass looks very good indeed.

Powerful force
Now let’s examine how a Bovelder grass-fed beef factory could work. Each Bovelder farmer has his own small factory that is integrated with all the other small factories by breeding policy. Together, these farms make up a powerful breed improvement force, or one highly effective factory. Taking the concept further, each small factory owner should view his animals as machines that convert grass into high-quality beef free of ‘harmful chemicals’.

Grass is the raw material used in the production process. And this is where the greatest potential for improving factory output lies. The fact is, the ‘grass-to-beef conversion machines’ are already operating at a high level of efficiency; tweaking their performance is not going to have a major impact on output. Current Bovelder owners are, with a few exceptions, paying scant attention to the quality of the raw material produced for their ‘factories’.

Most would scoff when told they could radically improve the quantity and quality of the grass. But there is evidence to support the claim that Bovelder ‘factory output’ could easily be doubled by improving the production process of this primary input.

Better grasses
Good veld management results in a greater production of raw material, and in a significant increase in the feed value of the material. Why is this so? Firstly, good veld management brings about a gradual change in the species composition of the grasses – a swing from undesirable and unpalatable species to desirable, more palatable species. And palatability is strongly linked to feed value. Cattle don’t need a laboratory feed analysis to tell them what is best for them to eat.

Secondly, a resurgence of other desirable species takes place, involving nitrogen-binding legumes and mineral-rich herbs. These improve animal performance – they are nature’s growth stimulants and immune system boosters. Farm beef factory output can be further increased by planting arable land to high-quality, low-cost pasture. Most Bovelder owners wrongly believe that they have to push maize into ‘the factory’. Perhaps they don’t know that 1kg of quality pasture has the same energy value as 1kg of standard feedlot ration on a dry material basis.

Whatever the case, it’s time for Bovelder cattle farmers – and all other beef farmers, for that matter – to pay attention to the improvement of the raw material they produce for their beef factories.

John Fair is a pasture consultant. He heads up Fair’s Biofarm Assist, and can be contacted on 058 622 3585 or [email protected].

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