The variation in liveweight gain in grazing beef cattle as influenced by pasture type, season and year effects has important economic implications for mixed crop–livestock systems and the ability to better predict such variation would benefit beef producers by providing a guide for decision making. To identify key determinants of liveweight change of Brahman-cross steers grazing subtropical pastures, measurements of pasture quality and quantity, and diet quality in parallel with liveweight were made over two consecutive grazing seasons (48 and 46 weeks, respectively), on mixed Clitoria ternatea/grass, Stylosanthes seabrana/grass and grass swards (grass being a mixture of Bothriochloa insculpta cv. Bisset, Dichanthium sericeum and Panicum maximum var. trichoglume cv. Petrie). Steers grazing the legume-based pastures had the highest growth rate and gained between 64 and 142 kg more than those grazing the grass pastures in under 12 months. Using an exponential model, green leaf mass, green leaf %, adjusted green leaf % (adjusted for inedible woody legume stems), faecal near infrared reflectance spectroscopy predictions of diet crude protein and diet dry matter digestibility, accounted for 77, 74, 80, 63 and 60%, respectively, of the variation in daily weight gain when data were pooled across pasture types and grazing seasons. The standard error of the regressions indicated that 95% prediction intervals were large (±0.42–0.64 kg/head.day) suggesting that derived regression relationships have limited practical application for accurately estimating growth rate. In this study, animal factors, especially compensatory growth effects, appeared to have a major influence on growth rate in relation to pasture and diet attributes. It was concluded that predictions of growth rate based only on pasture or diet attributes are unlikely to be accurate or reliable. Nevertheless, key pasture attributes such as green leaf mass and green leaf % provide a robust indication of what proportion of the potential growth rate of the grazing animals can be achieved.