WASHINGTON, Sept. 16, 2015 - Once thought of as a niche product meant for a limited consumer base, grass-fed beef is starting to gain traction among a wider array of producers and consumers. While exact numbers are hard to come by, Marilyn Noble, communications director for the American Grassfed Association, said they estimate that the grass-fed market is about 5 to 6 percent of the more than $40 billion U.S. beef market and growing.
“Judging by the growth of our membership and the number of inquiries we get about transitioning from a traditional beef program to grassfed, we surmise that the number of producers is growing, but it's impossible to count them,” Noble said. “Many are large, processing 10K+ head per year, but the majority are smaller, with some doing less than a dozen head per year, which they sell to neighbors or at the local farmers market. There's really no way of tracking them.”
This week, about 240 people will gather for the Grassfed Exchange Conference in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, to discuss the grass-fed beef industry.
Noble noted that the price premium at retail for grass-fed beef could be anywhere from 15 to 30 percent compared to traditionally-raised cattle. But that has not slowed demand.
Allen Williams, a Starkville, Mississippi, grass-fed producer and a board member for the Grassfed Exchange, said most of the industry’s new customers come to them, not the other way around.
“The consumer has been searching us out, to be honest with you,” Williams told Agri-Pulse. “The vast majority of the consumers that are eating grass-based meat and dairy products are purposefully seeking those products out. They clearly understand the health benefits because they’ve done their own research.”
Those health benefits involve a product that is higher in Omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acids, and major antioxidants than grain-fed beef, says Williams. However, some scientists say those nutritional claims come with flavor trade-offs.
Williams said domestic production is only meeting about 20 percent of consumer demand, with the rest being met by imports from Australia, New Zealand, South American and other countries, offering a great deal of growth potential for the U.S. industry. He said there is currently a shortage of finishers and processors for the product, creating a bottleneck at those production stages, but some producers are reluctant to take the risk because “our livelihoods are at stake” and the change could represent a big risk.
“Many want to see somebody else that they know do it before they do it,” Williams said. “Now, I was one of the ones that jumped in before all the neighbors did, so they were watching me to see how either smart or stupid I was.”
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