Cows graze on a pasture in Franklin County, Ill.

Cows graze on a pasture in Franklin County, Ill. Raising grass-finished beef can be a challenge, but the niche market has a passionate following.

The growing niche market of grass-finished beef has its rewards, but also requires special care.

While most beef sold in the nation is finished on corn, many customers prefer meat from animals that graze pastures. There are plenty of farmers who meet that demand, but it isn’t always a breeze.

“It takes more management,” said David Ernst, who raises cattle on pasture near New Douglas, Illinois, in Madison County. “I would be the first to say it’s easier to feed corn.”

Among other things, raising beef on grass can be a battle against Mother Nature. Ernst has certainly gotten a taste of that lately.

“Last year was tough because it was so muddy all the time,” he said. “The winter of 2018-19 was worse than 2019-20. It was hard to get cattle to gain like I wanted to. I don’t want to sell skin and bones. I want something with flesh on it to get a good steak.”

Ernst is a firm believer in plant diversity and regenerative pastures. His fields are comprised of grasses, legumes and tubers.

“Some batches are predominantly fescue, and that’s what I mainly graze cows on,” he said.

“I have timothy, orchardgrass with legumes mixed in. There are white and red clovers in my regular pastures. I believe in the more the merrier.”

Travis Meteer, a University of Illinois Extension beef educator, said cattlemen who raise cows on pasture must have an intimate understanding of their surroundings.

“If you’re trying to maximize grass-fed beef you need to find cattle that are efficient on forage and match your environment,” he said. “You need to have flexibility to finish on grass even when the weather is tough on you. With grain-fed cattle, we know we can use those grains to support a little bit different type of cattle. It’s more performance oriented.

“But I don’t think there’s a universal system that suits both. You just have to be a good producer and identify the cattle.”

The practice can be part science and part art. Meteer agrees that a variety of plants provide the best chance of producing quality meat. That takes special care.

“You have a lot of broadleaf plants with high-sugar content in a grass mix where they’re probably managing those cattle intensively, where they’re only eating the top third of the plant,” he said. “It’s hard to finish cattle on forage only. That last 200 pounds largely comes when they have grass growing high energy. That’s why grass-fed beef sometimes take longer in contrast to grain-fed.”

Ernst stockpiles forage to help finish steers in his Angus- Simmental herd. He plants summer annuals to get his animals through the so-called summer slump.

“Seasons tend to really make a difference,” he said. “Fall is the best time. I have a lot of fescue pasture. That regrowth comes in. In October and November I stockpile it. Once that runs out, then I go back into maintenance mode. When you get past January it’s hard to finish anything out.”

Grass-finished beef has a slightly different makeup than meat from animals finished with grain. It’s a complex biological response.

“When we feed cattle predominantly a roughage-based diet, volatile fatty acid ratios look different than starch-based diets (corn),” Meteer said.

“In forage-dominant diets, acetate-to-propionate ratio is in favor of acetate versus when we feed cattle corn the propionate (ratio) increases. That results in a slightly different fatty acid profile and can impact rate of marbling.”

In laymen’s terms, there are subtle differences in flavor. One isn’t better than the other, Meteer believes.

“Grass-fed beef will have a little different taste than grain-fed beef,” he said. “Both can be very high-quality products. It’s just when we finish animals, energy density and ration are pretty paramount to getting an animal to his finished weight.

“Some people prefer the taste of grass-fed beef. I’ve had grass-fed and grain-fed that both taste really good. I think grain-fed has a more buttery taste. That’s just my palate. There is a taste difference. Some prefer it. Some folks like to eat elk, deer and more wild game.”

Consumer preferences can also include the environmental aspect of pasture-raised beef.

“I focus on the regenerative system, and that’s what people are into,” Ernst said. “I like keeping things green, keeping living roots in the soil.”

Meteer agrees that consumer preferences run the gamut.

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s because they like grass-fed beef, or maybe because they know the farmer,” he said. “There are a lot of factors that go into that.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.