LA CROSSE, Wis. – It’s common sense to keep learning how to farm, says Rod Ofte, a fourth-generation farmer on Willow Creek Ranch near Coon Valley, Wisconsin. He rotational grazes primarily black Angus cattle as part of the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative.
“Even though you grow up on a farm and you may have it in your blood, I’m still learning and I do different things every year,” he said.
He said the four legs to a stable grass-fed-beef operation are forage quality, genetics, time and temperature management.
Achieving quality forage means rotation is important to achieve a proper finish on beef. The management style needs to be flexible so the forage-root system has time to recover.
“Work on the soil; the rest will take care of itself,” he said.
It’s possible to add more animal units with good rotation. He prefers fall calving with an excellent-energy forage such as sorghum-Sudan, he said. He likes to move animals in the afternoon when the Brix-sugar levels are greater in the plants.
Winter forage management is more difficult because the length and severity of cold weather is unpredictable. Ofte recommends buying extra feed supplies out of season when the price is less to insure plenty of supply.
“All hay is not created equal,” he said. “You should know your hay values and feed values, or it’s not going to be as palatable. Just eating stuff for eating’s sake may not put weight on them.”
Cows can do okay on marginal hay; the best feed needs to go to the feeders.
“I try to get the best all the time to get (the meat grade) up,” he said. “Don’t skimp on the feeders.”
The second factor, genetics, depends on the phenotype of the animals. It determines efficiency and frame size. Big animals are not desired for grass-fed operations.
“It’s tough to put enough energy in a big-frame animal to finish him,” Ofte said. “If you do it’s going to take a ton of feed and not be efficient.”
He uses fairly docile short and stocky animals.
Calving is planned around direct-marketing goals because it takes longer to finish on grass, he said. It takes him 24 to 30 months to finish an animal, with an average of 25 months. He often calves in the fall. He loves it, he said, because the weather is good; he’s never lost a calf to weather conditions.
“Cows are nature’s miracle,” he said. “They will take the junkiest forage and turn it into great milk. Beef cows do not need to have big bags to have quality milk.”
Calves nurse through the winter, and in spring they’re ready for lush grass. That also gives an opportunity for veal sales. Calves are fence-line weaned in the spring when pregnancy checks are done. He finds with fall calving his conception rates are better, he said; he attributes that to cooler temperatures during breeding.
Managing critical body temperature saves feed and increases gains. Any degree less than an outside temperature of 20 degrees creates a need for 1 percent more forage. A shed pays for itself quickly; windbreaks and dry bedding are necessary. Ofte keeps a windchill chart close by to determine temperatures. He said slopes make nice windbreaks and they don’t get as mucky – especially if they’re south-facing.
To determine if an animal is finished, Ofte said to ask someone knowledgeable – and go to the sales barn to practice guessing. The animal should have a brisket that’s full and jiggly, be fleshy over the rib cage with no sign of the ribs, be fat and full in the heart girth, and have a flank full and flat. Looking at the rear of the animal, it should look like two half-grapefruits with fat tail bones at either side of the tail head.
Ofte had 20 percent Choice cattle five years ago; he’s increased that to 76 percent this past year, with his first Prime animal. He said it’s worth the time to finish properly; the grass-fed premium pays for it. The consumers will come back for more if they have good eating experiences.
LeeAnne Bulman writes about agriculture from her farm overlooking the beautiful Danuser Valley on Wisconsin’s west coast. When not writing she helps her husband on their small grain and beef farm.
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