There is more than one right way to finish a steer.

The following thoughts from Katie VanValin, Univeristy of Kentucky beef extension specialist, recently appeared in the UK Beef IRM Off the Hoof newsletter. Pretty interesting info for those of you considering providing freezer beef to consumers.

About a year ago, our industry buzzed with talk about finishing local beef. Our friends and neighbors found empty grocery store shelves and instead turned to their local beef producers to fill their freezers.

Last year shed light on direct-to-consumer beef production. This concept of local beef is not a new one. Instead, it is more a case of what was old is new again. There was a time when small local meat lockers were a staple in small towns. With reports of some processors booking into 2022, it appears this trend for local beef may outlast the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recently a group of extension agents and specialists wrapped up a four-week series of virtual meetings focusing on producing freezer beef in northern Kentucky. The extension team also will be launching a new program for the fall of 2021 called “Master Finisher” to provide additional resources for people interested in finishing beef cattle here in Kentucky. We’ll be providing details about this program in the future.

One of the things we have come to appreciate while working with producers in small-scale finishing systems is there is more than one right way to finish a steer (or heifer). Regardless of if you are producing beef in grass-finished, grain-finished or a hybrid grain-on grass system, what works for one operation may not be the best option for another.

Answering several questions can help you narrow in on the right production system for your operation. A few examples include: Who is the customer base? What are their preferences and expectations? What are your feed and labor resources? Something that should not be overlooked in the local food sector is the product’s story. Consumers choosing local beef are not just purchasing any one pound package of ground beef; they are buying your one pound package of ground beef.

Each finishing production system has its own set of advantages and limitations.

• Grass-finished is commonly used to refer to cattle finished without grain. However, a more appropriate name for this type of system could be forage finished.

This production system results in low rates of gain, and cattle typically are anywhere from 24 to 30 months of age at harvest. Thus, regardless of when the calves were born, they will experience at least one winter while being finished. Therefore, at some point, these cattle likely will need to be fed a high-quality stored forage such as alfalfa hay or fermented forages such as baleage; hence the term forage finished.

A key to this system is selecting and maintaining ideal forages and having a good understanding of grazing management practices. The low and slow approach needed to finish cattle with forages successfully is not a disadvantage, but is a consideration when developing a timeline. If you have a processor reservation for this fall and yearling steers in the field, you could not only be leaving weight out in the pasture but also quality in terms of marbling score.

• As the name implies, grain finished involves feeding a concentrate or grain-based diet to cattle during the finishing period. Typically, cattle in this system are housed in confinement, which could be anything from a dry lot to a compost bedded pack barn. Depending on the ration or use of growth-promoting technologies such as implants, cattle in this system can gain two to four pounds a day. Of all of the finishing systems, this system can allow for the most consistent rate of gain but also requires proper feeding management to make sure cattle don’t experience digestive upsets. Even on grain-based diets, cattle still need to consume some roughage such as grass hay to maintain rumen health.

• Grain on grass hybrid finishing allows for the most flexibility in cattle management during the finishing period. We think of this system as more of a spectrum.

Cattle can be consuming a forage-based diet with minimal grain supplementation, or be receiving a predominately grain-based diet while being housed on pasture. The desired rate of gain and available feed and labor resources are things to consider when determining where to land on this spectrum. This type of system can allow cattle to take advantage of one of the cheapest feeding systems available, grazing. When weather limits grazing, cattle may consume more of their total nutrients from the grain-based supplement while consuming stored forages.

Regardless of the finishing system, it is essential to have realistic expectations when considering how long it will take to finish an animal. The length of time required to finish cattle in a specific production system can’t be ignored. Finishing cattle in any system will take time, labor and economic inputs to get started but is one option for adding value to calves while filling a niche in the consumer market.

Doug Shepherd is a Hardin County Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources. He can be reached at 270-765-4121 Ext. 102 or doug.shepherd@uky.edu.