When Teddy Gentry is making albums with the music group Alabama, he likes the colors gold and platinum. When it comes to his other avocation, raising cattle, he likes green and red.
Green is for the grass in his pastures, the way he likes to finish beef cattle, and red is the color he likes in his cow herd on Bent Tree Farms at Fort Payne, Ala.
Gentry spoke recently to the South Carolina Cattlemen's Association annual meeting at Clemson University's Edisto Research and Education Center. He is high on grass-fed beef and on South Poll cattle, a breed his operation developed to meet the demands of hot and humid conditions in the Deep South.
South Poll is based on the combination of four breeds — Red Angus, Hereford, Barzona and Senepol. Barzonas were developed in Arizona to excel in high desert conditions and Senepol is a heat tolerant breed developed on St. Croix, Virgin Islands.
The result is a red, slick-haired cow, smaller than what is popular in the cattle industry today, weighing around 1,000 pounds.
“My goal is to produce the most pounds of beef per acre that I can produce, the most money that I can produce,” said Gentry. “I'm not concerned about the most pounds per individual calf.”
He said that in the quest for bigger and bigger cattle, many producers have forgotten that fertility and longevity are the No. 1 money makers in the industry. Cows 17 and 18 years old are common on his farm.
“Smaller cows are more fertile. We lose a small percentage of fertility each time we add 100 pounds to the cow,” Gentry said. “There is a 10 percent fertility loss from the 1,000 pound cow to the 1,500 pound cow.”
He said larger cows have more calving problems and the same acre of land will accommodate fewer large cows than smaller ones.
“On the same land that you can run a hundred 1,000-pound cows, you can run only 65 cows weighing 1,500 pounds each,” he said.
The smaller cows will yield an average crop of 87 weaned calves, each weighing around 1,050 pounds, bringing about $840 per animal at market for a total of $73,080. The 1,500 pound cows will produce a crop of 52 calves weighing 1,385 pounds each at weaning. If each is worth around $1,108, the 52 calves will be worth $57,616.
He expects his cows to be trouble-free. He said that cattle well-adapted to their environment will require less supplemental feed and use less medications. He does no worming and seldom has to use antibiotics.
Gentry markets grass-fed beef under the name Burt's Beef, named for his grandfather. He said that grass-finished beef is more nutritious than grain-finished beef. It's much higher in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce the risk of heart disease, and contains more of an anticarcinogen called Conjugated Linoleic Acid, more beta-carotene and more Vitamin A.
He complimented Clemson University for becoming involved in the Pasture Based Beef Systems for Appalachia project, a program which also involved the USDA/ARS, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, West Virginia University and Auburn University.
“I like what I see going on here at Clemson University,” Gentry said. “They've opened their minds to a new way of doing things.”
He pointed out that grass-fed beef was once the standard. Finishing cattle on grain did not become popular until after 1940. He said grain-finished beef, with a higher fat content, is one reason the United States is the fattest nation in the world.
“We're pumping the wrong kind of fat into our children, and one of the biggest sources is beef,” Gentry said.
Susan Duckett, Clemson University expert in livestock nutrition and meat quality and holder of the Ernest L. Corley Jr. Trustees Chair, said that health professionals say the American diet is too high in omega 6 oils. Research has shown that if the ratio of omega 6 fats to omega 3s exceeds 4:1, people have more health problems. Grain-fed beef can have ratios that exceed 20:1. Grass-fed beef has a ratio of about 3:1, omega 6 to omega 3.
“Grass-fed beef is comparable to poultry in leanness, and taste panels can't tell the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed when it comes to tenderness,” she said.
Duckett pointed out the irony of putting fat on cattle by feeding grain and then trimming it off before putting the beef in the meat case.
Bill Clapham of the USDAL-ARS Appalachian Farming Systems Research Center at Beaver, W. Va. said that grass-fed beef is not likely to supplant grain-fed beef.
“It appeals to a niche market, such as the aging portion of the population interested in health issues, those who prefer the fat profile of grass-fed cattle, those who do not like hormones used in their beef and who oppose the use of prophylactic antibiotics,” he said.
Clemson University Forage Specialist John Andrae advised cattlemen to concentrate on producing forages for quantity and letting proper grazing management take care of a lot of quality issues.