Ken Geenty

Accolades for grass-fed beef are gaining momentum both locally and internationally. On the back of our world-leading outdoor pasture grazing systems the grass-fed beef phenomenon brings superior eating and human health qualities. These benefits give us a clear marketing edge for New Zealand beef.

Retaining this valuable grass-fed marketing edge is paramount for beef producers. Australian research has shown flavour modification of beef is possible with as little as three weeks feeding on some herb or forage crops. This could damage our grass-fed image so if in doubt producers should consult their meat processing companies regarding the final finishing weeks.

Research has also shown at least six weeks finishing on predominantly grass or grain can influence meat characteristics which are easily detected by consumers.

Some suggest we in NZ are somewhat insulated against the synthetic and plant protein
threats due to our strong reliance on exporting to larger economies with diverse food
requirements including a hunger for quality grass-fed beef.

As recently as the last five years stern challenges have confronted our incredibly competent beef producers. Looming climate change and environmental issues including methane emissions and water quality are increasing threats. Consumer rejection of meat for plant-based diets and the possibility of synthetic meat loom. Recent Colmar Brunton reports reveal up to 15% of NZ consumers are now vegetarian.

Highly efficient NZ pasture grazing, based predominantly on perennial ryegrass, has cost savings compared with grain or forage feeding. Estimated variable cost to farmers of producing grass is 10-15 cents per kg of drymatter whereas grain has a market value of around $3.80/kg of drymatter. Grazing beef cattle harvest their own feed compared with growing grain which needs to be harvested, stored and transported before being fed.

Some suggest we in NZ are somewhat insulated against the synthetic and plant protein threats due to our strong reliance on exporting to larger economies with diverse food requirements including a hunger for quality grass-fed beef. Our export reputation is enhanced by being largely disease free except for Mycoplasma bovis which is prevalent internationally but for us tends more to cause problems around domestic cattle movements.

The environmental challenges facing grass-fed beef come with highly regulated and often unpalatable conditions. As early as 2003 our beef and dairy cattle industries agreed to a Clean Streams Accord restricting cattle from freshwater areas and streams to avoid faecal and nitrogen pollution. As a result water quality and use is carefully monitored in the regions by local bodies to keep a check on compliance and trends.

More regulations are arriving with the recent Sustainable Water Accord agreed by producer organisations Beef+Lamb NZ and DairyNZ and soon to be released new government legislation on the Healthy Waterways Policy.

Repercussions of the Clean Streams Accord have included often complex and costly infrastructure developments including additional fencing, laneways and bridges. This has posed problems on hilly and high country where implementation is sometimes difficult or not practically possible.

Most farmers take the opportunity of planting trees in fenced off waterways, including riparian strips and retired land.

This not only helps with water quality and valuable biodiversity but contributes to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions of mostly methane.

The looming natural threat of global warming probably poses the greatest risk for beef producers with many unknowns. Farming advice is currently along the lines: ‘talk to your farming colleagues and rural professionals and develop clear risk management strategies’. With probable increasing weather extremes, including prolonged droughts, advance preparedness is crucial. A future greenhouse gas tax is a possibility.

Farmers can take measures, other than planting trees, to mitigate methane emissions from their cattle. Opportunities from a recent Biological Emissions Reference Group report include reduced stocking rates, increased per head production and cutting back on fertiliser applications. Beef and sheep farms have made good progress with 30% reduced emissions over the past 25 years.

Holding on to and growing our share of export beef in the face of other competing red meats and plant protein relies on consumers being constantly reminded about our grass-fed point of difference. This is done well by our meat exporters and the likes of producer organisation Beef + Lamb NZ, major farmer co-operative Silver Fern Farms and the Firstlight Wagyu producer group.

Established human health attributes of grass-fed beef include comparatively good levels of the healthy fats omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid as well as other valuable nutrients such as vitamins A and E.

Eating quality comparisons of grass versus grain-fed beef reveal the grass-fed product is darker in colour with a stronger ‘grass’ flavour and is slightly more ‘chewy’, characteristics pointing to a relatively more pleasant eating experience. Researchers have found grass-fed red meat has less muscle glycogen and a lower pH than grain-fed pointing to a better shelf life.

World appetite for farmed meat is large and expanding with beef globally capturing 22% of the total. Exports of NZ grass-fed beef are keenly sought in an international market comprising largely cereal grain-fed product. Our exports go mostly to the United States and Asia.

Even though NZ only provides 0.9% of global beef our $2 billion-plus-a-year industry contributes just over half of the 13% internationally traded. Our export niche of grass-fed beef is unique compared with major beef producers like India, Brazil, China and the US relying mostly on grain and forage crops to raise their beef.