For producers who think finishing cattle on grain in Midwest feedlots is the only option they have for marketing their cattle, there may be a greener alternative: grass-finished beef.

Still, more work needs to be done before this marketing idea becomes a proven reality, as shown by an Auburn University Grass-fed Beef Field Day that left producers with more questions than answers regarding the profitability of finishing cattle on grass in the Southeast.

“That's not a negative thing,” says Perry Mobley, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation's Beef, Meat Goat and Sheep and Hay and Forage Crops divisions. “It got producers to thinking about the different aspects of producing grass-fed beef.”

The most obvious challenge is defining grass-fed beef, according to Darrell Rankins, associate professor of animal science at Auburn University. “If there is no possibility we could supplement with grain, we have limited options with grass-fed beef,” Rankins says.

Winter annuals such as rye, wheat, oats and ryegrass are the most efficient to use, but that forces farmers to finish cattle during cool seasons, according to Rankins.

Marketing grass-fed beef is also an obstacle producers face.

“We have to keep in mind that we are not going to replace the traditional beef market with forage-fed beef,” Mobley says. “It is a niche market.”

Chris Kerth, assistant professor of meat science at Auburn University, says there is a portion of the market willing to fit the grass-fed category. A study conducted by Kerth and his colleagues last year polled 1,250 consumers in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky to reveal that one-third preferred the taste of grass-fed beef over grain-fed beef.

Besides taste, Kerth says the nutritive standpoint is what sets grass-fed beef apart from grain-fed. Grass-fed beef has higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, the “good” fatty acids that help reduce the risk of heart disease by 50 percent. Another “good” fat more prevalent in grass-fed beef is conjugated linoliec acid (CLA), an anti-carcinogen.

Lisa Kriese-Anderson, associate professor of animal science at Auburn University, says the key selling point for grass-fed beef will be nutrition.

“The media is waging this war on obesity,” Kriese says. “Health-conscious Americans believe the healthier alternative is anything labeled ‘natural’ or ‘organic.’”

Walt Prevatt, professor of agricultural economics at Auburn University, says consumers vote with their money for food produced a certain way. “Organic foods are viewed as more desirable by the consumer because people picture a feedlot and imagine a concentrated, caged environment, as opposed to a pasture setting that is less constraining,” he says.

Grass-finished beef also exhibits a lower level of E. coli and no threat of BSE, according to Prevatt.

Teddy Gentry, member of the country music group “Alabama” and owner of Bent Tree Farms in Fort Payne, Ala., saw the potential of marketing grass-fed beef and began a program called Burt's Grass-Fed Beef in January of 2003.

“We use a salad bar mix of grasses, including fescue, clover and orchard grass, with no growth implants and no steroids,” Gentry says.

Burt's Beef supplies six restaurants in the Fort Payne area and nets $10,000 to $20,000 a month from retail sales off the farm.

Along with the different label also comes a different price tag. On average, grass-fed beef costs at least $1 per pound more than grain-fed beef.

“The people who will buy this product are the ones with good jobs and disposable incomes,” Kriese says. “It will not appeal to the typical Wal-Mart shopper trying to get the best deal.”

Kriese says there are still many issues to address regarding the production aspects of grass-fed beef. One factor is the time spent trying to achieve market weight. Cattle typically reach a desired market weight at 14 to 15 months of age on grain, but with grass, it may take 18 to 24 months.

“There is a very small window in which you can finish cattle on grass,” Kriese says. “This may warrant the use of early-maturing, smaller-framed cattle such as the British breeds that lay down more intramuscular fat, or marbling, in a shorter period of time.”

According to Prevatt, producers can't ignore the most important factor: cost of production. He says there is more cost involved in grass-finished beef with the current production system, but that could change.

“If the price of corn goes up, grain-finishing will be more expensive. But if the price of fertilizer goes up, grass-finishing could be more costly,” Prevatt says.

Kerth said the most important lesson to take home from the grass-fed research is that producers are not limited in their marketing options. “I believe we have a potential for it. We just have to enter into it very slowly.”

Rebecca Bearden is a senior at Auburn University majoring in agricultural communications. She currently is completing her internship requirement with Southeast Farm Press.