Grassfed beef a big, rewarding changeWritten by Christy Hemken
By Christy Hemken, WLR Assist. & Crop Editor
Douglas – In conjunction with the 2008 Wyoming Winter Ag Expo, Frank Eathorne of the U Diamond Ranch near Douglas and Terry Henderson of the Cougar Valley Ranch near Shawnee spoke at the AIMe conference on why their operations turned to grassfed beef.
Eathorne said he started asking the question, what can I do to improve both the lifestyle and the land? “So far the grassfed beef is the answer at which I’m arriving, although the learning curve is steep, as it is in any direct marketing business.”
Explaining a niche market as one that is neither mainstream nor established, he said right now grassfed beef remains a niche. “There are some outlets that are growing, but right now we’re at the head, not the tail. We’re addressing a need for a product or service not being addressed by mainstream providers.”
Historically raising beef to sell as calves, Eathorne says the ranch is now maintaining a large percent of the calf crop to finish and sell directly. “It’s a big change, and it takes some courage, but so far it’s been very rewarding.”
“The reason a lot of people are interested in grassfed beef is because all ranches need to make the economics work,” said Henderson. “The accelerating cost of fuel, hay, corn and a lot of other basics are challenging us to stay in business. When one is dedicated to agriculture to their core, they look for ways that will make it possible for them to stay on the ranch or in the ranching business.”
“Having a good idea isn’t enough, and that’s where the grassfed beef comes in for us,” she said.
“I’m a believer in grassfed beef, and that’s why it’s easier to sell to people who are seeking a quality product and are tired of the poor quality in the grocery store. They want something better,” explained Eathorne.
“The end product is satisfied customers and hard data to show the cattle will feed good,” and the key to this is tenderness,” said Eathorne. “If you don’t have tenderness you can throw everything else out. One of the main ingredients of tenderness is fine-textured meat. The flavor comes from intramuscular fat and the proteins and components in the grasses.”
In addition to tenderness, Eathorne said the window for finishing grassfed beef is much larger than those finished on grain. “In a feedlot I understand it’s very short. When they’re finished you’ve got to go with them, and they could be over- or under-finished, but on grass you’ve got much more flexibility.”
“Marketing takes time, and if you get too busy to market you’ll have some leftovers. That extra window for finishing affords me the extra opportunity and I’m not nervous yet,” he continued. “Last year I sold coming-three steers in the middle of winter and processed them and two of the three customers said it was the best beef they had ever eaten.”
“Getting a consistently stable price for your product takes partnering with a marketer, and we’re looking to try a pilot project to market these grassfed beef, for which we need numbers and volume,” said Henderson.
“There are several grassfed marketers out there, and each has their own set of standards for selection protocol,” she continued. “Essentially, the animals have never been fed grain, though some marketers are as strict as organic while others allow the periodic use of Ivomec.”
“Our idea with this project is to allow a cattle owner to put as many as a few to a bunch of cattle in a program without having to change their whole program or lose a year’s worth of income,” she explained. “We want enough numbers in this so that we can have the power and the clout to make an impact and be a negotiator instead of just taking what they give us.”
Qualified cattle receive electronic ear tag and are entered into a system while producers sign a contract saying they’ve followed the proper requirements, such as the lack of hormones.
Even though grassfed beef contain less fat, Eathorne stressed that when direct marketing grassfed beef, one shouldn’t use the term “lean beef.”
“Ninety percent of health benefits of grassfed beef are in the fat, and it’s vital that we don’t stress it’s lean beef, but instead stress the health aspects of the fat,” he said. “It’s hard to retrain myself to eat that fat because that’s where the research says the health is.”
“Those in the grassfed mindset are really into the overall picture of better pastures and ecologically taking care of everything around them,” said Henderson. “A lot of research has been done promoting the health effects in humans, and beef as well, from a grassfed program.”