Mead Ranch Natural Beef, Spent grains from local brew pub help fill marketing niche
Jackson – Of selling natural beef to restaurants in Jackson, Kate Mead of Mead Ranch Natural Beef says it’s been a great learning experience.
“You don’t know that much about your cows until you see what they look like inside,” she says of the Mead Ranch cowherd.
Mead Ranch Natural Beef started after restaurants in Jackson began asking Mead for local beef to sell. She says that’s when she created an LLC and began trying to figure out how to do that with a portion of the calves from the commercial herd.
“We had one year when we sold a bunch of our commercial calves and had some steers left that the buyers cut back, so I bought them and started fattening them,” she says of the company’s beginning. “They stay on our meadows, not a feedlot, and in those days, as we still do today, we fed them grain and continued them on grass.”
However, she says after three years of finishing them on a corn-based ration the feed costs were killing profits with only a small bunch of 50 head. She considered grass fattening, but soon concluded it would take too long to finish a steer on grass in Teton County.
That’s when the ranch’s hired man of 25 years suggested Mead use spent grains from a local brew pub to finish the steers.
“The brew pub had spent grains they’d take from their brewing process and dump into a wagon. Every week or so some pig farmers from Star Valley would come pick it up, and Olaf said we should at least get a wagon load and try it,” says Mead of the mixture of hops, oats, barley and rye, some imported from as far as Germany and Holland.
“We started picking it up every day, and that became our replacement for the corn we’d been using,” she explains. “The steers have feed almost every day – out of every two weeks they might have two days where they don’t have grain because the brewery is cleaning their system.”
Mead says one interesting thing about using the spent grains is that, while grassfed beef contains yellow fat, the barley in the ration turns the yellow fat to white very quickly.
“We’ve had really good luck with the ration, and we grow them to about 1,300 pounds before harvest,” says Mead. “They’re still pretty lean when we slaughter, and we have a great family-run USDA-inspected slaughterhouse in Tetonia, Idaho.”
“We hang them for 21 days to dry-age them, and that has a huge impact on the flavor,” she says. “I understand why the big slaughterhouses don’t do that, but that contributes to the lack of consumer faith in the quality of our beef.”
Mead says that once a month she chooses which steers she thinks are ready to slaughter, and then she finds customers to buy them.
“There’s enough demand that I haven’t had much trouble getting rid of the beef,” she notes, adding that there are always some cuts that are harder to move. “This winter one thing I was focusing on was sirloin tip roast. Fortunately, one of the restaurants in town decided to make beef bourguignon, so they now use the bottom round and sirloin tip roasts. Whatever I have they’ll use for that stew, and it turns out really well.”
Of marketing, Mead says it’s hard to compete with low-priced beef, and an American public without a palate for really fine beef.
“A lot of people do, and a lot of people are really into locally grown, and that’s been the big selling point for me,” she says.
Although not USDA certified organic, Mead says the meadows where the steers are pastured are simply drug every spring. “One thing we do grow in Teton County is good grass,” she adds.
Selling points for Mead Ranch Natural Beef are the genetics, big ribeyes and lean beef.
“That’s not really anything we’d planned, because, like most producers, we’d hardly ever seen our cows with their hides off. It just happened that way to begin with, but now we’re paying more attention to bulls that are supposed to produce good ribeyes,” she says.
The commercial herd that the natural steers come from is a Hereford/Black Angus mix. Mead says Teton County, like much of the West, used to produce predominately Hereford cattle, but has gradually switched to black with the marketing trends.
Although she began by finishing the “extra” steers, Mead says she now pulls out some of the calves that she wants at the beginning. The natural beef company still purchases calves from the commercial side of the operation, and pays a premium for them.
“Sometimes I know a good calf won’t be taken because he’s red, so I cut him out at the beginning, and that’s worked out pretty well,” explains Mead, adding that she’s never sure how many she’ll have from a given calf crop. “From our commercial herd we send a truckload of heifers and a truckload of steers every year, so some years there aren’t many left.”
Because of brucellosis, and the fear a few years ago that their herd would be the next to be depopulated, Mead and her husband Brad now winter and calve their cows at Kirby, in the Big Horn Basin, on a winter BLM lease.
Of her shifting supply and once-a-month slaughter, Mead says she tells her customers up-front that she may not always have beef to supply them.
“I practice law full-time as a litigator, so I’m very busy, and if I had more time to spend on the business I’d have more clients,” she explains. “I’m lucky to do as well as I have, because of my time constraints. Sometimes my legal assistant delivers beef.”
In addition to selling beef to Snake River Grill and the Rendezvous Bistro, which owns three restaurants in town, Mead also sells retail at Pearl Street Meat and Fish and every Saturday in the summer at the Jackson farmer’s market. She says she delivers fresh beef to some of them, while frozen beef is delivered to her burger clients.
“Last year I had 50 head of steers, and for the first time I ran out of burger,” she says of her brisk business, which no longer includes ground beef patties because of E. coli concerns, which lead to increased regulation and insurance costs.
“Most of my customers tell me that their customers want something local, and Jackson Hole is too cold to grow any produce, so people have really flocked to the beef,” she states. “Not to mention, it’s a great burger.”