EAST LANSING, Mich. — A Michigan State University team will spend the next three years researching how to improve the profitability of grass-finished beef producers in the upper Great Lakes region.
The project is funded by a nearly $500,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). It is one of four grants totaling $1.95 million recently awarded to MSU to support research on local and regional food systems in Michigan.
Led by MSU AgBioResearch animal scientist Jason Rowntree, the three-year project will focus on the impacts of different forage combinations on finishing beef cattle, performance of the meat after various lengths of freezing and sensory panels where consumers will rate their eating experience of fresh versus frozen beef.
"Michigan has a climate that is conducive to grass-finished beef production, but producers face two challenges: obtaining efficient weight gains in the last 60 days of finishing, and supplying product for a majority of the year," said Rowntree, MSU assistant professor of animal science.
His project will address these challenges by identifying economically feasible production strategies suited for producers in the upper Midwest. During the first year, the project will include assessing the impacts of different forage combinations to determine if a particular combination is more effective in the last 60 days of finishing.
Rowntree said researchers will feed four forage types: perennial ryegrass, a brassica and cereal grains mix, a diverse cover crops mix and an alfalfa-based feed. "Our goal is to look at the performance of the beef cattle on those different forage finishing combinations," he said.
To complete the project, beef samples will be collected from those different combinations and researchers will conduct a consumer sensory panel to rate the overall satisfaction of the meat.
"We will have a blind taste test; people come in and sample the products," Rowntree explained. "We will also have a control in the form of a corn-fed product to serve as a baseline, which is what people would most likely be used to."
In addition, he said seasonality of the product will be assessed. "We are going to freeze beef in a serial nature. We are essentially going to have another sensory panel, where we are going to take one year, six months’ and three months’ frozen product and compare it to a fresh product."
The goal is to assess whether people can tell the difference between a fresh and frozen product.
Rowntree said he believes forging relationships between processors and distributors is the key to meeting long-term retail supply needs, and he will use this project to refine a working model for building these partnerships.
For some producers, the absence of in-state processing facilities forces them to ship cattle hundreds – in some cases thousands – of miles out-of-state. He cited a University of Kentucky study that showed every $1 spent on beef cattle production returns $3.50 to the local community.
"The longer producers keep beef cattle in their state, the more value it gives to their local economy," he said. "Local packing and processing is the lifeblood of our communities, and if we don’t have them, we’re completely dependent on someone else to feed us."
Ultimately, Rowntree aims to develop a pasture-based, local food system he refers to as a "pasture-to-plate" model.
"Improving the efficiency of grass-finished beef production and collaborating with local retail and culinary partners will enable small and mid-sized farms to improve their profitability and sustainability, in addition to increasing the overall food security of the upper Midwest," he said.
Rowntree will collaborate with five other MSU researchers on the project. They include Kimberly Cassida, professor of plant, soil and microbial sciences; Janice Harte, associate professor of food science and human nutrition; Matt Raven, professor of community sustainability; Jeannine Schweihofer, extension educator; and Sarah Wells, meat science academic specialist.