Local ranchers reap profits from grass-fed cattle craze
In a stream-fed meadow just east of Quincy, raising cattle the old-fashioned way has become a big success.
Before the first U.S. “mad cow” was discovered in Washington state in December, the Thompson Valley Ranch initiated a ranching alternative to cattle fed with animal blood and bi-products, and injecting them with hormones and antibiotics. It offers cattle raised on grass only. And people love it.
With all of the concern over mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE), ranch Manager Bryan Roccucci’s phone has been ringing off the hook. The stories about beef processing make consumers want to know where their beef comes from, he said.
“We know every cow from the day it’s born to the day it’s slaughtered,” Roccucci said. “That’s what our customers like.”
But the arrival of mad cow has triggered a unexpected windfall that the Thompson Valley Ranch is not able to take advantage of, at least not yet. The demand for grass-fed beef far outweighs the supply, and it takes a while to raise a cow on grass from birth to a mature age. But by 2005, Thompson Valley Ranch expects to have more than 60 grass-fed cows ready for consumers. The projected quadrupling in supply from this year illustrates the success of the simple philosophy of raising cows the natural way.
Many of Thompson Valley Ranch’s customers are from Truckee. Some first tasted the beef after buying it at Truckee’s farmers’ market held at Truckee River Regional Park, where Roccucci usually mans the beef stand every Tuesday during the market season.
“Most people that buy a quarter [equalling about 100 pounds of beef] … call back the next year and say, ‘I want a half [200 pounds] this year,'” Roccucci said.
The Thompson Valley Ranch is set on 500 acres of pastureland surrounded by the rising foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Thompson Valley Creek gurgles through the property. Today, rainy and wintry, the cows munch on cut grass and hay strewn out for them by the ranchers. The cattle are black Angus, with a speckling of red through the herd that represents the black Angus recessive gene expressed in a reddish coat.
Only the prime cows in the herd make it into the grass-fed program. They cannot receive any antibiotics or have eaten any grain. The ranch sells the majority of its herd in the traditional way. They are raised on grass the first portion of their lives, but then a beef company buys them, and feeds them grain laced with antibiotics and hormones, and sometimes containing animal parts and blood. After the quick fattening, the cow is slaughtered. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has since banned blood from cattle feed to reduce the risk of disease.
Grass-fed cattle ranchers tout the nutritional benefit of their beef over conventional beef, and they have studies and experts to back them up. Nutritionists have discovered that grass-fed beef is higher in the omega 3 fatty acid, which is healthier for the heart. Other research has uncovered that grass-fed beef has a higher percentage of conjugated linoleic acid, which has been shown to fight and prevent cancer.
Roccucci puts it simply, “Basically it is less of the bad stuff and more of the good.”
“When you start finishing animals on grain, you start washing out all of the healthful benefits,” said Roccucci. “If you leave a cow alone to raise herself, how’s she going to feed herself? She’s sure not going to stick her head in a feed bag.”
Thompson Valley Ranch is not the only operation that is raising beef this way. Nearby Neff Family Ranch also provides grass-fed, half grass- and half grain- fed, and purely grain-fed animals to their consumers. Over the Internet, by mail or by phone, customers can order the beef that they like, whether it be low-fat grass-fed or higher-fat grain-fed, straight from the ranch.
Dan Macon, coordinator for the High Sierra Resource, Conservation and Development Council, is spearheading an initiative called High Sierra Beef. It will act as a type of cooperation between many family, grass-fed cattle ranches in El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sierra and Yuba counties, pooling resources to market a product they feel fills a niche in the market. High Sierra Beef, funded by grants from U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service, plans to market during next Fall and have its beef to market by 2005.
Roccucci has mixed feelings about High Sierra Beef. On one hand he likes that fact that locally grown, high-grade beef will become more widely available, but he fears the idea may kill the very thing that attracts customers to buy from his ranch – the idea of buying directly from a ranch that has raised the cows from birth to slaughter.
But High Sierra Beef, after months of investigating the market, are certain there is the consumer demand for such a product.
“With the occurrence of BSE it has definitely increased awareness of the market,” Macon said. “There is a large demand among consumers [for grass fed beef].”
More than 50 ranchers and industry experts are part of the steering committee launching High Sierra Beef.
To these ranchers, the occurrence of mad cow disease is indicative of a larger problem of raising beef the wrong way. It may be faster and more profitable, but it isn’t better for the consumer, they say.
“Ground beef for so long has become a sponge for everything that we want to put on it,” said Roccucci, who advised that his consumers try eating Thompson Valley Ranch beef without condiments so they could taste the flavor.
Of course with added quality comes added expense. Buying a quarter of a cow, about 100 pounds of meat that includes everything from ground beef to roasts to filet mignon, costs the consumer about $550, or $5.50 per pound at Thompson Valley Ranch. Neff Family Ranch offers similar quantities starting at $4.75 per pound.
“We’ve only ever had one complaint,” said Roccucci, who found out the lady complaining was cooking the lower-fat meat as long as she would cook regular meat. “And it lasted all of 5 days.”
Steve Frisch, director of natural resources for the Sierra Business Council, is excited to see Sierra-area grass-fed beef hit the market, and thinks that consumers will love it.
“They are raising probably the cleanest beef anywhere in the West,” he said. “It’s a new and growing market.”
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