When it comes to running an all-natural successful grass-fed beef operation that produces tasty meat, Rod Ofte and Dr. Allen Williams agree: It all starts with the soil.

Freelance Writer
Boylen is a freelance writer based in northeast Iowa.

Ofte, a fourth-generation farmer who operates Willow Creek Ranch in southwest Wisconsin with his family, and Williams, a sixth-generation beef producer in Mississippi, spoke about successfully raising grass-fed beef at the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) Organic Farming Conference held this spring in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

Williams said plant growth and health strongly correlate with the vitality of the soil. Protozoa are important because of their role in regulating bacterial populations and mineralizing nutrients.

Beneficial nematodes help control disease and disperse microbes. Favorable insects and arthropods shred organic material, enhance soil aggregation, control pests and stimulate microbial activity.

Earthworms increase water-holding capacity of the soil, bury and shred plant residue, provide channels for root growth and stimulate microbial activity.


Williams explains there are five vital functions of healthy soil:

  • Regulate water – Soil helps control where rain, snowmelt and irrigation water goes. Water and dissolved solutes flow over the land or into and through the soil.
  • Sustain plant and animal life – The diversity and productivity of living things depends on soil.
  • Filter potential pollutants – The minerals and microbes in soil are responsible for filtering, buffering, degrading, immobilizing and detoxifying organic and inorganic materials, including industrial and municipal byproducts and atmospheric deposits.
  • Cycle nutrients – Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and many other nutrients are stored, transformed and cycled in the soil.
  • Support structures – Buildings need stable soil for support, and archeological treasures associated with human habitation are protected in soils.

Williams said on his farm the two main strategies he uses to keep the soil healthy are building diversity and complexity of the plants grown in the soil and using the impact of the livestock to the soil’s advantage.

“Soil microbes and good soil go hand in hand,” he said. Williams explained the majority of soil microbes live in the root zone, and they need the diversity brought by root structures of different plants, such as fibrous root masses, tap roots and various root depths.

He said ideally cattle should graze like bison have grazed in nature, which is basically what is now referred to as high-density grazing or mob grazing.

The animals move forward rapidly to not allow too many bites of the same plant, and the plants are allowed a long rest before the area is grazed again. “Livestock impact can be used to restore poorly managed pastures,” Williams said.

Microbes and livestock impact can lead to an increase in organic matter, which has a huge impact on run-off control.

Soils with 2 percent organic matter will hold 32,000 gallons of water or 21 percent of a 5.5-inch rainfall, but soil with 8 percent organic matter will hold 128,000 gallons of water or 85 percent of a 5.5-inch rainfall.

Williams also discussed the importance of plant cover to keep soil cool. At 70ºF, 90 percent of the moisture in the soil is used for plant growth, but at 100ºF, 15 percent of the moisture is used for growth; 85 percent of the moisture is lost through evaporation and transpiration. When soil reaches 130ºF, all the moisture is lost to evaporation and transpiration, and at 140ºF, soil bacteria die.

Grass-fed breeds

Ofte urged those eager to raise grass-fed beef to not fall for the “sales pitch” of cattle breeds but rather learn about phenotypes (desirable traits).

Traits Williams recommended that grazing cows be bred for include:

  • Longevity (Cows should last until mid-teens or longer in solid productivity.)
  • High fertility
  • Sound feet and legs, eyes, udder and teats, teeth
  • Low to moderate milk (With too much milk, neither the cows nor the calves will be efficient.)
  • Highly adapted to their particular production environment (able to maintain adequate body conditioning score on forage-only diet)
  • Moderate frame score (3 to 4) with adequate depth, thickness and gut capacity

Ofte also advised those looking to enter the grass-fed beef market to make a thorough plan. “I’ve seen a lot of people jump into this too fast and make the same mistakes,” he said.

Ofte stressed the importance of considering all the resources a beginning farmer has available, including talking with those who have been in the business for a while.

Williams concurred, “In the grass-fed sector, most of us don’t see others as competition, and there is a lot of collaboration. The demand for our product is great and there is room for more.”

In 1998, there were about 100 serious grass-fed beef producers garnering about $4 million to $5 million in the retail industry. In 2013, it was a $2 billion industry with more than 3,000 grass-fed beef producers. The market continues to grow 25 to 30 percent annually.

Ofte also pointed to the need for patience when getting into this business. “When you are growing a calf crop, you are gaining value as the calves grow, but there will be many months without an income, and cash flow can be tight.

Know that it will be three years from the time an animal is conceived to when you have any income before you have any income from this; make sure you don’t find yourself pinched.”

He said the many variables that can affect outcomes require adaptability. “You constantly need to learn new things, learn from your mistakes and adapt.”

Measuring results

Ofte said at his family’s Willow Creek Ranch, they use spreadsheets which track everything from inputs to the number of days cattle are typically on grass each year.

The spreadsheets were created by Jim Munsch, Ofte and Williams for the Pasture Project at the Wallace Center.

The duo offered other grazing tips, including knowing the dry matter availability, knowing the Brix (plant sugar) content of your forages, turning cattle out into new paddocks in early to mid-afternoon at peak Brix, and grazing forages at mid-maturity or slightly beyond.

They also recommended that for finishing cattle (defined as cattle weighing 800 pounds and up), the animals consume between 3 and 3.5 percent of their bodyweight daily in forage dry matter in order to have effective gains and be able to fatten.

For best gains and performance, they recommend allowing the finishing cattle to consume no more than 30 percent of the available forage dry matter in a paddock before moving them forward to a new paddock.

Ofte encouraged graziers to not let water be a limiting factor when finishing beef cattle. “Gains will be limited if cattle have to walk too far to water or if water source is poor. For optimum finishing, water should be available in each paddock.”

Williams has developed a proprietary method to select only the best calves from select Angus and old British genetics for their program. He says this method, combined with their grazing program, has proven “to produce beef that is consistently tender, well-marbled and flavorful.” They sell direct to consumers, to restaurants and food service distributors. He and his partner market about 2,000 head a year.

The Ofte family lives and works on their ranch, raising a variety of items from farm-fresh eggs to grass-fed beef, from free-range pork to poultry products. They also offer eco-vacations that give visitors a chance to work on the ranch. Ofte finishes about 24 head annually.  end mark

Kelli Kaderly-Boylen is a freelancer based in northeast Iowa.