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Raising grass-fed beef profitably on arid rangeland focus of workshop

LAS CRUCES - Ranchers can learn about the benefits and challenges of producing grass-fed beef on arid ranchlands in New Mexico and adjoining states at a workshop Oct. 16-17 at New Mexico State University.



Grass-fed beef producer and board member Mimi Sidwell on the JX Ranch in Tucumcari gives one of her favorite cows a treat. (Photo by Laurie Bower)

The workshop, "Grass-fed in the Desert Southwest: Nutritional and Behavioral Considerations for Grass-fed Livestock," is a joint effort between New Mexico State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance.

"This workshop and others being planned will help expand the options available to New Mexico ranchers by including the production of grass-fed beef that can be sold locally. Our goal is to increase opportunities and profits, so New Mexico's ranch families will be able to stay on their land," said Ed Fredrickson, NMSU affiliated faculty member and USDA research scientist with the Jornada Experimental Range near Las Cruces.

"We want to examine if grass-fed livestock production, when properly managed, can be a long-term, sustainable option in the desert Southwest," he said. "Working with livestock producers, we want to continue improving livestock grazing's impact on the land and produce healthy animals that provide consumers with high-quality meat."

The workshop will be a forum for NMSU and USDA researchers to provide scientific knowledge and for livestock producers to discuss the real-world challenges they face raising cattle on arid ranchlands. This exchange of knowledge will allow scientists to learn firsthand from ranchers about their needs and to tailor future research to meet those needs.

Fredrickson will open the workshop Oct. 16 with introductory remarks, followed by Laurie Bower, Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance's executive director, who will discuss the marketing and profitability of grass-fed beef.

"Today, only one percent of the beef that New Mexicans eat comes from New Mexico, so there is a huge potential market for locally produced, grass-fed beef in our state," Bower said.

"And there are great advantages to raising grass-fed beef," Bower said. "On average, the meat on our tables has travelled 3,000 miles from the ranches where the cattle originate, to the feedlots where they are fattened on grains requiring huge inputs of energy and resources to grow, then on to stores where we buy it. When cattle are grass-fed locally and the meat is sold locally, we reduce the carbon footprint of producing that meat.

"In addition, raising grass-fed cattle is more humane for the animals, it is easier on the land, and it provides local consumers with healthy, environmentally sound and sustainable options," Bower said. "Research shows that, compared to grain-fattened beef, grass-fed beef has a more beneficial fat profile for humans, more vitamins and minerals, and is less likely to harbor harmful E-coli bacteria."

But connecting grass-fed beef producers with local consumers is not always easy, Fredrickson said.

"Ranchers are faced with a 'Catch-22' situation: they need regional meat-processing plants to sell the beef locally," he said. "But to be viable, meat-processing plants require year-round demand for their services, while cattle production tends to be seasonal. We can help ranchers adapt their grass-fed beef operations, so their cattle will be available at varied times.

"Another challenge in New Mexico is the limited number of local meat-processing plants, an issue we will address in this and other workshops."

The meeting will also focus on ruminant nutrition, rangeland forage and animal behavior, essential factors for successfully producing grass-fed beef in the desert Southwest.

On Oct. 16, Clint Loest, NMSU associate professor and ruminant nutritionist, will discuss the fundamentals of ruminant nutrition.

"The animals' diet determines to a large extent the meat's quality: its flavor, tenderness, fat profile, and vitamins and minerals," Fredrickson said.

Sergio Soto-Navarro, NMSU associate professor, ruminant nutritionist and forage specialist, will talk about forages; and Derek Bailey, NMSU associate professor and a specialist in range livestock and nutrition, will talk about range forages and stocking rates. Anibal Pordomingo from Argentina, one of the world's leading experts in grass-fed beef production, will discuss fattening cattle on grass.

Grass-fed beef producer Rick Kingsbury, of Pecos Valley Grassfed Beef, will close the day's meeting with a discussion and question and answer session from a producer's perspective.

The Oct. 17 meeting will feature Andres Cibils, NMSU associate professor, rangeland livestock behavior specialist and nutritionist, who will talk about cattle behavior. Then, Bailey will discuss breeds and stress, followed by Dean Anderson, USDA Agricultural Research Service animal scientist at the Jornada Experimental Range, who will talk about multispecies grazing.

"When cattle, sheep and goats graze on the same land, ranchers can produce more pounds of high-quality protein than on land grazed by cattle alone," Fredrickson said. "With different animals grazing on varied plants, the overall plant mix is not changed, and there is less impact on the land."

Following lunch, Fredrickson will discuss future considerations and possibilities for grass-fed beef production in the desert Southwest.

"How we think about beef production today may be too limited: we may be able to add to existing, larger-scale operations where cattle are fattened up on grains before processing," Fredrickson said. "This workshop will help ranchers begin thinking about expanding their options and consider the possible benefits that producing a local and regional grass-fed beef supply may bring to them, to consumers and to the land."

Kingsbury will close the workshop with a final discussion from the producers' perspective, followed by a question and answer session.

The workshop will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 16 and 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 17 in Wooton Hall on the NMSU campus at 2995 Knox St.

The registration fee is $65 for Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance members and $85 for others; the fee includes lunch both days. To register and for more information, contact Bower at (970) 390-5597 or send e-mail to info@grassfedlivestock.org.

Funding and support for this project was provided by the Washington State University Western Center for Risk Management Education, the USDA Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service (CSREES), New Mexico State University, the USDA Jornada Experimental Range, and the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance.