When Stefan Bouw and his family established their purebred Angus herd, they learned quickly that very specific genetics were needed for the program they had in mind.
Bouw, his brother Jonathan, their father Herman and their families run Edie Creek Angus, a 100-per cent grass-based seedstock operation, at Anola, Manitoba. Early on, they purchased purebred females regardless of the original herd’s production system, but they soon realized that approach didn’t serve their own program.
“They looked really good, they were fed really well on a high energy, feed bunk ration, and then they came to our place and we didn’t feed them any grain, and they didn’t do well,” Bouw recalled. “They were too tall, didn’t have enough rumen capacity and had not been required to turn low quality forages into beef.”
When a number of these cows failed to produce calves, the Bouw family realized it wasn’t fair to expect cattle raised in a very different system to thrive in their grass-based program, and they set out to find the right type of genetics that would work for them.
The Edie Creek cowherd bale grazes throughout the winter and calves on pasture in May. They sell around 50 two-year-old Angus bulls every March, and they grass finish a number of animals each year, which are direct marketed to customers who purchase beef by the quarter, side or whole. Their open cows are direct marketed to a number of restaurants as grass-finished ground beef.
“Our heifers are developed without any grain, so they have to be fertile enough on just forages,” said Bouw. “It also keeps them all available to move over to the grass-fed program if they do come up open as a heifer.”
At their location just east of Winnipeg, conditions are generally wet, allowing perennial pastures to do well. However, the past few years have been drier than Bouw can ever remember, which has been challenging.
To tailor their herd to best fit their grass-finishing program, Bouw and his family select low-input females that can take care of themselves throughout the year on forage only. The genetic combination to thrive in this system is very specific, he explained, highlighting the importance of longevity, maternal traits and fleshing ability.
“The animals that are going to finish on forage do look different than typical Angus cattle,” said Bouw. “They do have to be a moderate size and have the rib capacity and width.”
Selecting for fertility is vital to the success of their herd. By decreasing the length of their breeding season and using multi-sire breeding groups, they’re able to ensure the most fertile bulls and females reproduce. Their cowherd is exposed to purebred Angus bulls for the first 30 days of their breeding season, then a Simmental bull for the remainder of the season, allowing the most fertile females to produce purebred progeny.
Genetics are only one part of the equation, Bouw noted, as the type of forage makes a difference. At their farm, cattle take about 36 months to finish on grass.
“If I wanted to put the work and money into growing a higher-quality forage for them, I could probably get them finished at 24 months, but right now, especially in this drought, that’s not an option,” he said.
Taking longer to finish cattle with low inputs, however, results in a greater carcass weight at slaughter. “Maybe people think it’s too long, 36 months, but I’m getting paid by the carcass weight, and I want them to have a nice cover.”
Selecting genetics for low-input cattle doesn’t just apply to grass-finished systems, Bouw explained, as this focus can help other production systems to become more competitive.
“Grass-fed beef is a niche market that not all cattlemen can sell into,” he said. “Still, the biggest expenses for all cow-calf producers are feed and replacement costs for their cowherd. In order to reduce these costs, genetics should be selected for their performance in low-input environments and maternal qualities. These cows will excel when you pair them with terminal bulls to create market calves.”
For Edie Creek Angus, the economics of grass finishing pays off, even though it takes longer to finish an animal on grass. When their steers are finished, the carcass is approximately 700 lbs. “That’s probably 200 lbs. less than the standard carcass size, and it takes us a lot longer to get there, but we do charge a premium for it, so it’s worthwhile for us to direct market grass-fed beef.”
Contributor: Piper Whelan