[By Jayson Galbraith, Elk Production Specialist, Alberta Elk Centre. Reprinted with permission from the Canadian Elk and Deer Farmer magazine, Fall 2001]
In the summer of 2001, several livestock producer groups met to discuss the need for a "grass-finished" protocol. Benefits of grass- finished livestock, marketing of unique meat products, factors affecting meat quality, and the definition of "grass-finished" were discussed. Many of the issues identified are applicable to the deer and elk industry as they venture into venison production and marketing.
Ruminant livestock grazing on green pastures naturally produce Conjugated Linoleic Acids (CLA) in fat, meat and milk. CLA has been shown to protect experimental animals from cancer and arteriosclerosis (abnormal thickening and loss of elasticity of the walls of the arteries) as well as changing the ratio of fat to lean in a number of mammals. As traditional livestock management systems have moved towards finishing on grain and less forage, the CLA in livestock products has diminished.
Grass finished meat products are appealing to consumers, not only for the possible health benefits, but also from an image point of view. The pristine image of pasture-raised livestock attracts certain consumers. It makes them feel comfortable with the conditions the animals were raised in, and the naturalness of the product.
The deer and elk industry has an advantage in this regard with the natural image of the animal coming very easily to the mind of a venison consumer. The phrases "heritage" or "natural" meat product could be used effectively in the marketing and promotion of venison.
Meat-production operations using grass and forages in the finishing process will have different feeding challenges and goals as compared to a velvet operation. Optimizing the animals' seasonality could be used advantageously in a feeding program.
Seasonality is reflected upon examination of feed utilization in wild populations. Elk in the wild must deal with sharp seasonal changes in dietary quantity and quality. This natural variation in food consumption has been associated with an increased summer metabolic rate and consequently an increase in food consumption during times when food is abundant.
Farms emphasizing meat production animals may be able to capitalize on seasonality in the planning of their diets. Utilizing forages in the finishing process could keep the feeding costs down at certain times of the year, while still maintaining animals in good body condition.
Many factors contribute to the overall quality of meat. The diets of ruminants affect the quality of meat only to a small degree. However, diets can have an influence on the fat content of the carcass, which in turn can affect overall flavour.
Conditions that the animal is exposed to 24 hours prior to slaughter can be crucial to carcass and meat characteristics. After an episode of handling, transport and off-loading at an abattoir, an animal can become stressed. This will have negative effects on the meat quality.
It has been found that treating bison carcasses to various post-mortem treatments such as elevated temperature conditioning, low voltage electrical stimulation, blast chilling and very fast chilling can have a positive effect on the quality of the meat.
Therefore, if you want quality venison, feeding regimes (grass vs. grain finishing), stress reduction in handling and transport, and post-slaughter carcass treatments are all areas that need attention.
During the meeting, there was considerable discussion as to the definition of "grass-finished." Does grass-finished mean the animal has eaten forages exclusively during its entire life, or the animal has been fed forages the last few weeks of its life? Also important in the discussion was the fact that a component of the "image" of pasture-raised livestock should be in the definition.
Likely the best approach to a grass-finished protocol may be one that incorporates a high level of grass in the finishing process integrated with limited grain supplementation. This would capitalize on the benefits of a higher energy diet while still maintaining both the health benefits of a high forage diet, and the positive image to the consumer.
Many unanswered questions remain about "grass-finished" venison, both from a production and a consumer point of view. Research studies need to be undertaken to help the cervid meat industry move forward.