Forcing Cows Onto Marginal Ground Might Pay Dividends

Fodder for Thought

Economics appear poised to push cattle further into the hinterlands but I wonder if this could fuel the fires of grass-fed beef.

Published on: September 25, 2013

I find some of the most interesting and most useless articles on Twitter. However, a recent BEEF Magazine article from Harlan Hughes, a professor emeritus from North Dakota State University, proved to be a particularly valuable find.

The article was shared via a tweet from a colleague at Clemson University, John Andrae, who in response to the article asked the question – Will economics force beef cows to cheaper feed (grazing areas)?

Hughes suggested that current economics within the cattle business have begun to shift beef cow production from areas of high feed costs, specifically the Corn Belt and Northern Plains, to regions of lower feed costs, meaning untillable grazing lands.

Hughes used an impressive summary of the 50-year change in economic measures on the following price factors relevant to the cattle business: corn, hay, retail beef, farm value of retail, farm share, and feed costs, cow costs, and earned net income for Northern Plains farms.

Hughes' observations seem very much in line with what some are saying is a very bright future for the grass-fed beef industry. While this industry only makes up about 5% of beef sales in the US, it has grown an astonishing 25% annually over the past 10 years, according to livestock management consultant Allen Williams. Some experts are even suggesting that with this continuing rise in the popularity of grass-fed beef, it is time to add a grass-fed/forage-fed category to the existing meat grading system.

The data doesn't lie. It's quite obvious sales of grass-fed beef are on the rise. In addition, Hughes summary shows a clear increase in input prices which will only force cattle producers to have to find ways to more cost effectively raise and finish cattle (i.e. grazing or other forage-based feeds), which in turns opens up opportunities for these producers to market their beef from their animals to consumers who prefer grass-fed meats.

Back to my mention of Twitter earlier though, after I retweeted the article I received a response that confused me. Another "tweep," as I refer to them, disagreed with the article and suggested that new resources might be found to serve as feed for cattle. They were also unsure of the viability of grazing as an option. I tried to reach out to this person but didn't get a response, which is disappointing because I would have very much liked to discuss this topic further with them.

Their response both intrigues and confuses. Grazing may very likely be one of the most valuable, sustainable, yet misunderstood and ineffectively utilized management practices that agriculture has at its disposal. It's disheartening to me to see anyone question its viability in the future of an industry that is essentially built on grass.

In May of 2012, I wrote about how grazing improves agricultural sustainability for Feedstuffs Foodlinks. I focused on the benefits grazing brings to our industry, such as allowing us to produce a food product (i.e. animal protein) from marginal land that would otherwise be unsuitable for cropping. I also discussed the importance of the plant-animal interface to grassland and rangeland ecosystems.

Since writing that article I've also learned the benefits and necessity of grazing go farther than that. The presence of grazing livestock on grasslands and increasing this practice across the globe is as essential to grassland and rangeland ecosystems as the act of the breathing is to the human body. When managed properly livestock grazing builds soil health, sequesters carbon, increases forage production, and in the long term can increase land carrying capacity -- a direct result of the improved ecological health properly managed grazing brings to the grassland ecosystem. When coupled with a holistic approach, the benefits can be two-fold more, creating positive effects socially and economically as well.

I, for one, welcome a shift in beef cow populations from the Corn Belt to cheaper feed (grazing) areas. While it will cause changes in one sector of the cattle industry (feedlots), it will also create opportunity and new business for other segments (grass-fed). It also seems possible this shift in cattle geography could be just the launch pad needed to prepare the emerging grass-fed beef industry to grow to its full potential.

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  1. John Andrae says:

    Really interesting post Jesse. I originally was thinking just of shifting cow-calf production to the East, but your post broadened my thinking to forage finishing. I think cow-calf production could shift from the midwest and still leave the overall system of feedlot finishing unaffected. Lots and packing plant infrastructure are all in place. If beef demand and prices stay high, corn will be fed economically and sustainably to produce finished beef. If ethanol continues to drive corn and co-product prices up, I see the potential for finished beef to shift more to grass/forage based systems. This would force a LOT of changes to the overall system though. I question how large the forage fed industry can become when you begin to replace cow-calf production with forage finished production. Without very expensive corn and a big slip in demand I would guess that feedlot systems will remain the dominant outlet/system for beef production for a long time to come. There's a lot to think about here. This is really, really interesting to think about. Thanks for posting.

  2. Luke Perman of says:

    I used to hold the same opinion, that cattle can utilize land unsuitable for cropping. While true, I think it insinuates that cropping is the optimal use for any land good enough to support it. I'm not against farming - I grow row crops and small grains besides running cows. But I understand that "technologies" such as crop rotations and no-till farming are simply trying to mimic what's going on in the pasture across the fence. Break up all of the Corn Belt and Northern Plains and it would be an ecological disaster.

    • John Andrae says:

      Absolutely Luke.

    • dick buban says: