In an industry where the latest trend has been to breed larger framed cattle to increase the carcass size of offspring for dinner plate-sized ribeyes, Scott and Rebecca Jager are going against the grain.
The Jagers own and operate a grass-fed/grass-finished cattle ranch near Baker City, Ore. Rather than follow the standards established in the mainstream grain-fed beef industry, their breeding program at Four Pines Ranch focuses on traits that produce animals easily adaptable to their environment while remaining competitive in beef production.
They are raising smaller framed cows and calves that thrive without chemicals, antibiotics and growth hormones, taking the animals from birth to slaughter, completely on grass. Some producers raise grass-fed beef prior to grain finishing, but the Jagers also finish the cattle with grass.
“As a result, the animals grow at a natural pace,” said Scott. “For these reasons and more, grass-fed animals live low-stress lives and are so healthy there is no reason to treat them with antibiotics or other drugs.”
It takes a little longer to finish cattle on grass – about 18-24 months compared to 12-13 months for grain/corn fattened animals — but the Jagers say the added time and expense is worth the investment considering their finished product is healthier for consumers, their resources are sustainable, and their cattle are allowed to grow and mature on the animal’s native diet.
“For production reasons, we select for smaller sized cattle which means we can run more animals per acre,” says Scott. “This changes our focus from production per cow to profit per acre.”
The Jagers got serious about raising grass-fed/grass-finished cattle about five years ago.
“We were doing a lot of reading and research and found that raising cattle purely on grass seemed logical and intriguing,” said Rebecca. “Being new to ranching, we haven’t lived with any other traditions. At this point we are sold on the process. It works for us.”
Grass-fed genetics and breeding
The Jagers chose Black Angus and Red Angus breeds for adaptability, productivity, and flavor, and use data derived from ultrasound technology and DNA testing for their bull selection to help them determine genetic traits that are important to them as beef producers, including good marbling and tenderness.
“We look for animals that thrive with low maintenance and the ability to prosper on grass alone,” said Scott.
They also select sires that are rated high for calving ease, a rating usually considered for heifer breeding, but the Jagers use these bulls on their mature cows as well, which Scott says, “makes our breeding season nearly effortless.”
Other traits they breed for include cattle with good dispositions, fly resistance, and longevity.
They calve mostly in May. Rebecca said, “This is a natural time for ungulates to calve because the weather is warmer and the grass is growing, giving the cows the best nutritional support for milk production.”
Grass feeding and finishing
As with most cattle producers, the Jager’s main commodity is grass.
They raise hay, producing up to three cuttings annually, some they sell and the rest is used as winter feed for their cattle. In the winter, they feed the cattle on the same pastures, covering the fields with manure as a natural fertilizer.
During spring, summer, and fall, the Jagers rotate their herd to feed on pastures that have new grass growth.
“The cattle that are being finished for processing in the spring are put on the best quality grass, the greenest, most vegetative,” says Rebecca. “The cow/calf pairs can follow on the remaining — still nutritious —undergrowth of those pastures.”
Although cattle can still thrive on dryer grasses, she said, “Once our temperatures reach 85 degrees, grass starts to lignify (it becomes more rigid and woody), so for finishing cattle in the fall we supplement with alfalfa hay.”
Scott said, knowing when to finish the animals for slaughter is key to having a successful product.
“The general consideration is heifers are ready to finish when they weigh 10% less than moms, and steers 10% more, For us that is roughly 1,200 pounds,” he said. “During our finishing process, we make sure they have the best new growing grass. This leads to the best flavor, best quality, and best tenderness.”
Although they do harvest beef in the fall, they say the best time for finishing and harvesting is in the spring because the grass is new and growing. Their pasture grass consists of orchard grass, fescue, brome, perennial ryegrass, and oat grass, mixed with some legumes such as alfalfa, sanfoin, trefoil, and clover.
“Grass that is high in calcium and phosphorous produces sweet flavored meat,” said Rebecca. “Grass from soils with low PH can be sour flavored.”
Dry aging the beef, Scott said, also adds to the tenderness that Four Pines Ranch beef is known for.
“Most supermarkets in the U.S. today do not dry age their beef. It takes time and there is a significant loss of weight during the aging process,” he said. “When beef is dry aged, the carcass is hung in a room at near freezing temperature for a week to even a month. During this time moisture evaporates from the muscle, thereby increasing the concentration and saturation of the natural flavor. Natural enzymes in the beef break down the connective tissue which makes more tender beef.”
The Jagers age their grass finished beef for approximately 10 days and say they do notice benefits from using this process.
Their main interest in raising grass-fed/grass-finished beef is for the health benefits.
“Meat from grass fed beef has less saturated fat and cholesterol,” said Rebecca. “Studies have shown that it has more Vitamins E and C, beta-carotene, and health promoting fats including omega-3 fatty acids and CLAs (conjugated linoleic acid) than grain fed beef.”
So does the eating experience of grass-fed/grass-finished beef compare with the more traditional corn-fed cuts?
Tom and Belinda Pilcher of Newberg, Ore., think so. The Pilchers routinely purchase cuts of meat from Four Pines Ranch.
“The meat is so tender it almost melts in your mouth,” said Belinda. “Nothing can replace natural, grass-fed beef to support your health.”
The Jagers sell beef cuts year-around after being processed and stored in vacuum sealed packages (for freezing) at a USDA certified plant.
“We sell by the cut because it relates more to the general purchasers,” said Rebecca. “Most people aren’t familiar with hanging weights and would need to learn what that translates to in yield. Rather than work off hanging weights, we bypass the randomness of individual yield by describing a whole beef as 400 pounds, half 200, quarter 100, and so on. This is a typical yield for 1,200-pound live weight.”
They can ship cold packed cuts to six western states and deliver locally with no shipping costs. For more information visit www.fourpinesranch.com.
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