Alabama may lack the traditional feedlots and finishing systems common in the Midwest, but there is one thing it possesses in abundance: forages.
A Kansan who grew up on a traditional Midwestern livestock farm and who now works as an Auburn University animal scientist wanted to capitalize on this fact.
Since his arrival on the Plains some 10 years ago, Dr. Christopher Kerth, an Auburn associate professor of animal science, has focused on developing a forage-based alternative to traditional livestock production — a grass-fed approach that would provide both an added market niche to producers and, most important of all, another source of profitability.
Under the current approach, calves are produced in Alabama and then shipped north for feeding, finishing and slaughter. Kerth wanted to develop a system by which the calves could be kept in the South and grown on Alabama forages instead.
"The primary idea is to cut out the middle man, the finishing operation, and capture some of that profit on behalf of Alabama growers," Kerth says.
That not only means cutting out the middle man but also reducing fuel costs.
Kerth enlisted the help of Dr. Walter Prevatt, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System livestock economist. Like any good economist, Prevatt began crunching the numbers and has also laid much of the groundwork for this approach.
For a time, it was an uphill slog.
"Before there were spikes in fuel and grain prices, there was not much of an economic case for doing this," Kerth recalls.
Things began to change as the costs of fuel and ultimately grain began to rise a few years ago.
"Transporting 50,000 pounds of cattle out to the feedlot has gotten very expensive," Prevatt says. "In the past, you were looking at about $2 a road mile on a 1,100-mile haul; now you're looking at between $3.25 and $3.35 a road mile — roughly a 50 percent increase."
Feed costs, prices closely tied with fuel price fluctuations, also have risen markedly. A few years ago, corn ran about $2 a bushel. Now those prices are running between $3 and $5 a bushel, Prevatt observes, adding that this has changed the whole economic picture.
Consequently, the whole idea of raising grass-fed beef seems more economically plausible.
For producers, the biggest challenge involves management — preparing and managing perennial forage grasses to assure that the animals post the most optimal weight gain. This calls for close management to enhance fertility as well as to control insects and disease threats.
"You're managing grass, so, compared with the traditional feedlot approach, things become much more contingent on weather and traditional feeding systems."
Because it's so weather-related, growers must also contend with boom and bust periods in terms of weight gain — another significant departure from the traditional feedlot approach.
In fact, that is one of the challenges that most concerns Prevatt.
"The quality of grass is not adequate year round and won't be unless you go to a great deal of expense," he says.
"From about November to May, we have really good quality forages that can put weight on these cattle, but from June to October, it is a problem."
Some high-protein sources can be grown this time of year, but these tend to be expensive, he says.
Even if producers manage to get their livestock over this June to October hurdle, they face an especially acute challenge during October and November.
"You face that void between October and November where you really have to find a high-quality forage grass that will help them gain.
Prevatt characterizes this as a "hole in the production system that's yet to be solved."
And it's something that any prospective grass-fed livestock producers should understand, say Kerth, who also stresses that "management is much more difficult than what is associated with traditional feedlot systems."
Grass-fed livestock producers also face the added challenge of attracting customers to this new product, which, until now, has not been typical American fare.
"Fat is where we get the flavor in beef," Kerth says. "So when the fatty acids in beef are changed, the taste changes a little too."
Americans are used to the fatty acid profile of grain-fed beef — the reason why Kerth predicts that grass-fed alternatives will take some time to gain traction on the market.
"It's not better or worse, it's just different."
For now, Prevatt says the emerging grass-fed sector faces another big challenge: developing an infrastructure, namely getting the small number of meat-packing plants geared up to process this meat and to develop a marketing structure to support this endeavor.
In the meantime, while conceding that grass-fed beef production will never supplant more conventional forms of production, Kerth and Prevatt are confident that this emerging industry will become a respectable and integral part of the state's livestock sector.
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