by: Clifford Mitchell

Beef has been the main course of the American diet for a long time. Generations have raised and eaten this product, changing taste buds through the years to adapt to the product served in the finest restaurants or on the family dinner table. Advances in technology and improved husbandry skills have allowed beef producers to take beef production to different levels, adding value in a variety of fashions to please a customer base.

However the protein has faced its share of critics over the years. Different income levels, knowledge and lifestyle bring out the need for niche products. The mind set of the American buying public as it views certain products will place extra demands on products to satisfy what they believe best fits nutrition, taste or philosophical beliefs. Newly recognized foodies and chefs will all tell you food is great when it has a story-Where it came from, how it's handled and how it's harvested.

Although some of the same basic principles of animal husbandry are applied, producers can create vastly different products to fill niche markets. Even though the buying public seems to be confused with the differences between organic, all natural and grass-fed, these products make up a small percentage of the total supply and fill niche market needs either through retail or online shopping.

Holder Brothers Beef in Altus, Oklahoma produces all natural beef. Maintaining ownership all the way through the production process; using creativity through the growing, harvest, post-harvest and marketing to help the consistency of their product.

“We had always been a stocker operator until about 1997 when we started getting concerned about the quality of beef in the store. At that point we decided to try and create a high-end product and remove the inconsistencies,” says Rick Holder.

Like most ranchers, Holder always knew the product he put on the family plate was better than most he could buy in the super market. Holder took this philosophy and started working toward marketing a product that was produced from their multi-generational ranch. Today, Holder Brothers Beef has retail stores in Altus and Edmond, Oklahoma.

“We had to get the genetics right first. Set up a feedyard and get a harvest facility in place that could help accomplish our goals. We dry age the whole carcass for 28 days,” Holder says. “We liked the all natural route. If I have to doctor a calf four or five times that's not what I want to eat. There are questions about the long and short term effects of antibiotics and hormones in the meat. We have to do our job on the ranch and prepare cattle for the next step in life without them getting sick.”

Concentrated marketing efforts or unveiling something new to the consumer public can sometimes create confusion. United States Department of Agriculture regulations can also sometimes cloud the picture through different product designations. Consumers looking for niche and specialty products also have a learning curve to adapt to.

“I think there is a lot of consumer confusion. Those that reach for the grass-fed product don't want to eat beef fed with genetically modified corn or other grains. They are afraid there might be some side effects from that product. I get calls for grass-fed every day almost and could sell it, but there are tenderness issues with a product that eats only grass and takes that long to harvest. We have to deliver a steak that tastes better and is more tender than our competition every time,” Holder says. “Third party audits have removed a lot of the inconsistencies in the all natural product. We have to have great records to satisfy the requirements. We have gone to an ear notch as a form of permanent ID for cattle that fall out of the program. If you lose one tag, the pen can't qualify for all natural.”

The push for locally sourced products and removing the carbon footprint has helped foster the market for niche products. The Holder business model placed emphasis on the all natural designation as a way to get in the door of consumers looking for a healthier product, turns out it was only half the angle.

“When we started marketing our product I was a little surprised at how little the all natural designation influenced our customers. Antibiotic and hormone free give them some reassurance, but they want to know where their product came from and how it was handled,” Holder says. “The way certain stores market products and how the public has been driven to local products has helped us market our product. Consumers don't trust the big corporations to remove the carbon footprint. I have to differentiate myself from those products and provide a good steak every time.”

The all natural designation obviously has to start at the ranch and cattle have to be handled a certain way to achieve this status. Production techniques that lend themselves to low stress handling go along way to keeping that calf in the program.

“We have to remove as much stress as possible to keep from doctoring those cattle,” Holder says. “Fence line weaning is great. We can remove stress and get cattle eating good when we wean them without additional stress.”

All natural beef production is nothing new to ranchers or the buying public. However, it still remains a small percentage of the total production in the U.S. supply. Limiting factors may go a long way to keeping this a niche market.

“Can we raise all natural cattle on a large scale basis? This will impact the future of my business because I can't compete with the larger firms if or when they master this. I just don't know how they can co-mingle cattle from all over the U.S. and keep them healthy,” Holder says. “The cattle we feed at the home place we end up doctoring one to two percent. I sent a load to a large all natural yard and they ended up doctoring 30 percent of them.”

Along with practicing good animal husbandry, Holder Brothers tries to create as little waste as possible through the system; furthering the story of a tasty, tender product. Made in Oklahoma is also high on the list in Holder Brothers stores and even all natural hamburger sales at one Edmond retail chain. Marketing the local fare does come with challenges, increases in cost of production has caused house wives to look for alternatives with rising prices of beef.

“I stock the stores with various rubs and condiments. Certain times of the year I can add fresh vegetables to the list of items we carry. Lasagna, meatloaf, enchiladas and beef jerky are great sellers. If we don't sell out of fresh briskets we smoke them and our HACCP plan allows us to repackage and sell them,” Holder says. “We are total carcass utilization, hot dogs and sausages are two big sellers. Consumers empty the case of high end steaks almost every week. I have started cutting a smaller steak to keep the cost per serving down, because the price of beef is so high.”

The Holder vision includes the all natural designation and tries to identify ways it can stay competitive. Bringing a good eating experience to the table also remains a top priority. Safe, handled right, coupled with taste and tenderness is tantalizing to even the most discriminating buyers.

“We had to start at the ranch level to remove all the inconsistencies we were seeing in beef. It's a step-by-step process and it all has to do with the quality of the meat,” Holder says. “We had to find a way to make a healthy product that still tasted good.”

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