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Beef Nutrition and Performance

Beef Cattle Nutrition 101                                                                                                                                      


Cows, sheep, and goats are domesticated ruminants.  Ruminants are unique set of mammals who possess the ability to upcycle low quality forage into high quality meat, milk, and fiber.  Their ability to efficiently digest forage is possible due to their four-chamber stomach.  The largest of the four chambers is known as the rumen. Within the rumen are billions of bacteria, protazoa, and fungi that synergistically break down fiber and other nutrients enabling the ruminant to obtain both energy and protein from their food sources. Maintaining rumen health and productivity is essential for cattle health and performance. For information regarding rumen health and the specific nutrient needs for cattle at all stages of production see the nutrition fact sheets below

If you are a visual learner and would like to know about beef and grass-fed beef nutrition click on the informative UCANR youtube video.

Rangeland and Irrigated Pasture Management                                                                                                 

California Rangelands
California Rangelands

Rangeland forage quality (i.e. protein, energy, and mineral content) can vary tremendously depending on soil composition, location of range, and time of year. Generally, in California’s Mediterranean climate, rainfall occurs during the winter with forage quality highest in the late winter/ early spring. For producers on rangeland matching the nutrients supplied by the rangeland to the nutrient demands of the animal is critical for animal health and performance. For resources on managing livestock grazing see below.   

In California, grazing cattle on irrigated pastures is a common management practice for both grass-fed beef, stocker, and cow-calf operations.  Most often cows and/ or growing steers and heifers are placed on irrigated pastures during the early summer months when rangeland forage quality is poor.  Cattle are then removed from irrigated pasture at the end of the grazing season in October/November.  For information on how to manage irrigated pasture see the resources below.
To ensure that your rangeland or pastureland is meeting your animal’s nutritional requirements you can get your forage tested. For a list of California labs certified by the National Forage Testing Association click here
For informative videos on rangeland and pastureland management visit the UCANR Ranching in the Sierra Foothills Youtube channel.


Water Quantity and Quality                                                                                                                                


Water is a vital nutrient, yet it is often overlooked. On average, cows with calves drink 15 gallons of water per day. Growing steers and heifers require 5 to 10 gallons of water a day. Limitation to water intake will result in a dramatic reduction in animal performance. Therefore, ensuring that cattle are receiving enough water is essential for maintaining the health and vitality for any beef operation. For more information regarding cattle water requirements and recognizing dehydration in your animals, view the fact sheets below. 

When water quality is compromised animals could drink less water, thus negatively affecting their health and performance.  Substances that can contaminate water supplies include, but are not limited to, nitrates, bacteria, organic materials, and suspended solids. These contaminations can cause the water to have an objectionable taste, odor, or color.  To learn more about water quality and how to help ensure water quality on your operation see the water quality fact sheets below.
For California water quality testing see links below.
      ♦ Well Water Testing


Grass-fed Beef Life cycle, Performance, and Carcass and Meat Quality                                                        

Differences in Grass-fed Beef and Conventional Beef Lifecycle

In conventional beef production systems (cattle that are finished on grain for over a 90 day period), performance characteristics, including live weight, dressing percentage (DP), quality grades, and hot carcass weight (HCW) are relatively standardized across the production system.  According to the most recent beef quality audit 70% of cattle graded choice and HCWs averaged 1348 lb. Cattle dressing in the U.S. averaged 62%. This product quality and consistency can be attributed to genetics, system logistics, and nutrition. Regarding logistics, although there are individual managerial nuances, beef cattle lifecycles are similar across the industry.  Typically, after weaning, at 6 to 7 months of age, cattle are stocked on pasture or backgrounded for 4-5 months before being transferred to feedyards where they are finished on a high starch diet, typically consisting of processed corn. 

In contrast, grass-fed beef systems differ substantially in logistics and diet composition, resulting in variability in age of harvest, animal performance and product quality.  On average grass-fed cattle are harvested at a later age and at lower weights than conventionally raised cattle. However, the age of harvest, DP, and HCW is highly dependent on forage type, region of production, and management strategies.  

Performance and Carcass Quality

As previously stated, grass-fed cattle generally finish at lower weights than conventional cattle. This is principally due to the slower rate of gain for cattle fed grass compared to cattle finished on grain. Although many forages are high in energy and protein, forage digestion and metabolizing results in a lower yield of energy for the ruminant compared to the energy conversion of feedlot diets (i.e. predominantly concentrates consisting mainly of corn).

In addition, dressing percentages and marbling scores are typically lower for grass-fed beef systems compared to conventional beef systems.  For a summary table comparing grass-fed beef and conventional beef performance click here.  

Grass-fed and grass-finished beef ribeyes. Research performed at UC Davis by Sarah Klopatek and others in 2020. 
The images above are of grass-fed and grain-fed California Angus crossed steer ribeyes. Conventional cattle produced significantly higher marbling scores and quality grades than grass-fed or  grass-fed + grain-finished treatments. The cattle were fed the following diets, conventional cattle where finished on a high concentrate diet for approximately 130 days, Grass-fed Cattle for 20 months were finished on the Sierra Rangelands, Grass-fed Cattle for 20 month + 45 day grain finished months were fed the Sierra rangelands prior to finished on a high concentrate diet for 45 days, and the Grass-fed Cattle for 25 months were finished on irrigated pasture (Klopatek and Oltjen, 2020).  


Meat Quality and Taste

There has been a a great deal of of interest in the health aspects of grass-fed beef with many believing that that grass-fed beef is "healthier" than grain-fed or conventional beef. The principal aspect of this argument has to due with the fatty acid profile of grass-fed meat. In numerous studies, grass-fed meat has been shown to be be higher in omega-3 fatty acids which are essential to brain and heart health.  However, while grass-fed meat is higher in omega-3's, grain-finished beef has been shown to be higher in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) which are essential for heart health. Therefore, it is difficult to claim that one type of beef is "healthier" than another. 

Taste preference is in the tongue of the beholder.  Many individuals have grown accustomed to grain-fed beef and prefer it to that of grass-fed beef. However, there are also a number of consumers who enjoy the taste of grass-fed beef. One of the biggest factors effecting the taste of grass-fed beef is the animal's diet. To help improve the flavor quality of beef many producers finish their cattle on legumes such as alfalfa, triticale, or pees. Despite the surging interest and demand in grass-fed beef little research has been performed on how variations in grass-fed diets affect the flavor of meat.