Developing Michigan’s local, pasture-based, beef production system

MSU researcher leverages SARE grant to aid farmers in meeting demand for local food.

Michigan is now one of the leaders in meeting the demand for local “pasture-based” beef with the help from a North Central Region (NCR) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Research and Education Grant and educators who have been working hard to make it happen. Whether it’s on the dinner table at home, at the locally owned restaurant or at the farmers market, consumers are seeking more local food.

This demand caught the attention of the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation and Michigan Good Food Charter to set a goal to source 20 percent of the food for the Traverse City, Michigan, area within a 100-mile radius by 2020. When Jason Roundtree read the meat portion of this plan was to be pasture-based if possible, he was inspired. Roundtree, associate professor for beef cattle and forage utilization at Michigan State University, was optimistic Michigan could meet this goal with more education and an improved value chain.

A recent report from Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture pointed to Nielsen data that indicated retail fresh, labeled grass-fed beef grew from $17 million in 2012 to #272 million in 2016. Michigan has the opportunity to meet this growing grass-fed beef demand.

In 2012, Rowntree applied for and received a $181,342 NCR-SARE Research and Education grant to help connect area beef producers, local processors, distributors and retailers in order to begin to meet Traverse City’s 20 percent local food benchmark. Together with MSU Extension educator Jerry Lindquest, MSU professor Matt Raven, MSU Extension educator Jeannine Schweihofer and MSU Extension educator Kable Thurlow, Rowntree’s plan included identifying producers to participate in a value chain project called the Grand Vision Grass-fed Certification Program (GVGC). They selected 17 producers to participate in the GVGC; the program included an on-farm assessment, pasture development and a grazing and grass finishing school.

The first year of grazing school involved practical soil and forage management, pasture allocation and fence and water-point strategies. Year two moved on to advanced strategies on pasture allocation, specifically residual management along with forage chain and synchrony development. They also included genetics and animal management components and educated producers on the difference between grass-fed and grass-finished beef.

After three years of participating in the GVGC program, seven of the producers are now producing grass-fed beef at scale. Rowntree estimates these producers will produce more than 300 head in 2017. Carcass quality and yield measurements were taken; the average carcass grade of the GVGC cattle was USDA High Select, the average carcass yield at 19-21 months of age was 53-54 percent. They received price premiums of 25 percent above the general cattle market prices for the hanging carcasses. When asked how his operation had changed since the onset of this project, one producer said, “Sold the combine, sold the corn planter, sold the grain semi.”

By adding value to these cattle by producing grass fed beef, these producers have related an extra value of $138,600 or an extra $19,800 per farm over the three year period. One example of the impact is MSU’s work with Bell’s Brewery. Last year, Bell’s sold 8,000 pounds of our cooperator’s grass-fed beef. The beef sold on average at $14 per pound versus commodity prices of $5. This alone would be an additional $72,000 in added value with a small amount of product.

In tandem with the GVGC program, the team brought together 13 representatives of the emerging grass-fed beef value-chain in order to discuss barriers to the market. They met with meat distributors and chefs to devise strategies that utilize greater percentages of the beef chuck and round. The team also hosted the 2015 Grass-fed Exchange, the national meeting of the grass-fed beef industry. Building on the momentum of this project, the team at MSU is currently working on the development of the grazing app for use with smart phones in the field as well as a grass-finishing manual.

We are seeing the producers trained through this SARE-sponsored research growing and thriving. They are also giving MSU input on new projects. We believe these advances generated by our producer-university relationships are important in forward long-term sustainability. We have been monitoring grazing impacts on land, including soil carbon sequestration. The data suggests we are growing an awesome beef product and concurrently are improving land—this equates to improvements in quality of life.

This project is funded through the NCR-SARE program. For more information on pasture based beef contact, Jason Rowntree at For more information on the SARE program contact Dean Baas at

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