As consumer demand for naturally raised beef continues to increase, researchers at the University of Illinois have discovered that naturally raised beef can be produced effectively for this niche market as long as a substantial premium is offered to cover additional production and transportation costs.

Naturally raised beef is produced without hormones or antibiotics, whereas traditional systems take advantage of technologies the industry offers such as ionophores like Rumensin to improve feed efficiency and implants to improve gain and efficiency.

"Producers are asking many questions about the value of natural programs and the premiums needed to remain profitable," said Dan Faulkner, U of I professor of animal sciences. "Our goal was to find out the costs involved in natural systems focused on producing environmentally friendly, locally raised beef."

Researchers studied the effects of finishing management (confinement versus pasture) and production system (traditional versus naturally raised) on performance, carcass and economic characteristics in a group of early weaned Angus x Simmental steer calves at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center in Simpson, Ill. The calves were fed on fescue pastures or confinement feedlots.

The study revealed that naturally raised steers can be produced effectively in either confinement or with a pasture finishing system, but they require a substantial premium of $110 with today's feed prices to justify the costs and returns.

Faulkner said that pasture finishing is $35 more profitable than confinement feeding using current feed prices, making it an attractive option for producers interested in raising locker beef for local markets with either natural or traditional production systems.