by: Clifford Mitchell

For most Americans grass-fed beef brings back the days of the large trail herds and the drovers bringing them to the railhead to be sent to places like Kansas City and Chicago to be processed to feed a society that was looking to satisfy a beef fix. Changes to the feeding and harvesting industry along with consumer tastes redirected beef production.

Health conscious American consumers are sometimes driven to try different diets based on trendy views or what's cool within in the peer group almost like cattlemen are driven to try new fads or change philosophy based on how much propaganda can get channeled into the system. Unlike cattle produced on vast Western grasslands back in the post Civil War era, grass-fed beef is a relatively small portion of the cattle harvested today.

Certain countries still depend on the grass-fed critter to provide a protein source. Changes in cost of production have also helped some ranchers search for alternatives to combat high grain and hay prices. For some, the management change makes sense to help improve profit margins because the end product will bring a premium over commodity beef in markets where the lifestyle allows consumers to choose premium products.

“Producing grass-fed beef was the quickest way to becoming a low-cost beef producer. I have always been a student of the cattle industry and that has guided me to make many management changes over the years. Becoming a low cost producer has allowed me to do away with harvested forages and utilize my number one resource, grass. Coupled with the nutritional improvement in the end product, it was a no brainer,” says Ted Slanker, Slanker Grass-Fed Meats.

“It takes a real commitment to produce grass-fed beef. I think genetics between grass-fed and grain-fed will differ significantly because the same biological types won't fit the different production scenarios. You can't just change to grass-fed production overnight,” says Charlie Bradbury, CEO Nolan Ryan Beef. Nolan Ryan has added a premium never frozen grass fed line.

Grass-fed beef is another niche product that faces challenges when it comes to separating this product from its all natural and organic counterparts. Distinct differences in the product can be nailed down from a sensory standpoint.

“When we started trying to build supply, there is a wide variation of grass-fed products ranging from cull cows being marketed as grass-fed to grass-fed ground beef products to a lot of the grass-fed products available in the U.S. that were imported,” Bradbury says. “We were looking for a high quality product. It has a different color to the fat, tastes different and there is a texture difference when compared to grain-fed beef.”

“There is a heck of a lot of product out there being marketed as grass-fed, that isn't. Few people really understand what it's all about. This is a niche inside of a niche. All natural products and organic products that have been fed strictly a grain diet have the same nutritional profile as commodity beef,” Slanker says. “Grass-fed beef has a different color, taste, smell and texture. You can tell the difference between grain fed and grass-fed beef just by looking at it. The animal that eats the only green leaf is the perfect food for man. The grass-fed product has a perfect balance of essential fatty acids. A high level of Omega-3 versus Omega-6 fatty acids is what makes it taste fishy, gamey or grassy and allows you to eat large quantities of meat while getting stronger, smarter with a more powerful immune system.”

Differences in the product lead to other challenges in marketing grass-fed beef. Education is at the front end of any marketing effort, but changing tradition is hard to do in any business.

“Consumers have to learn how to cook and adapt to the flavor of grass-fed beef. Most people are used to bland tasting beef; grass-fed beef has a gamey flavor and it will change with the seasons depending on what's available for cattle to eat,” Slanker says. “Grass-fed beef has less intramuscular fat so it will not be as tender as grain fed beef. You have to change your expectations of the beef you're about to eat.”

“The challenge is the variation of product over a 52 week period. I have had grass-fed steaks that have been as good as any I've eaten then other times the eating experience was not so good,” Bradbury says. “Grass-fed cattle are pretty easily finished in May, but it gets tougher during times of drought or in months where grazing conditions can greatly affect performance. Seasonal changes affect taste and texture even more with the grass-fed product.”

For most Americans, this is another niche product made available because a certain part of the buying public is interested in this product. However, rather than having to search out customers, proponents of grass-fed beef have established guidelines to how they live and this product fits the pattern.

“Grass-fed beef is a lifestyle; it's not something you just try once. It takes tremendous dedication to step away from traditional dietary customs,” Slanker says. “There are a lot of vegetarians that shift to grass-fed beef because their health is failing, yet it fits their way of thinking, because animals run on grassland in a natural setting.”

“Grass-fed beef was an easy sell. We had consumers calling the company and demanding it or asking Kroger, who sells our brand, if we had a grass-fed option. To sell more beef we're going to give the customer what they want,” Bradbury says. “I think films like Fast Food Nation and Food Inc. have impacted consumer choices, but most of all proponents of grass-fed beef know it's healthier for them and more sustainable production. There is a growing belief that grass-fed has better cholesterol and is higher in Omega-3 fatty acids. People are concerned about the environment and most believe grain-fed production practices use a lot of water and other important resources.”

The peer-reviewed science behind consuming grass-fed meats is already above and beyond something as simple as local and documented raising practice. According to Slanker, because so few consumers are aware of its advantages, internet marketing is the best way to move his product and it has just as good of a chance winding up on a plate in a far off state, as it would at home.

“We sell our product on the internet and will ship it to you. There is a lot of information on our web site because I need to educate potential customers and reassure those that already believe in the product,” Slanker says. “We're into total carcass utilization and want to respect the animal even after harvest. We'll market about everything including calf fries. Certain times of the year we'll market different products. Wild boar is really popular and most people call it a nuisance; we call it an asset. Most of our customers get online and search for Omega-3 or something besides grass-fed meat, but they eventually find us. It is hard to market this product in conventional grocery stores because there will be just a smattering of it and it scares the meat manager just as much as the customer at first.”

Nolan Ryan Beef has taken a different approach to marketing its grass-fed line. “We market a fresh, never frozen product through Kroger. Even though this is a premium product, we have noticed this is more of a roast and hamburger market than it is for steaks. Consumers are working hard to meet their grocery budget with the rising cost of beef,” Bradbury stated.

Like anything else we do in the beef business genetics will also play a key role in grass-fed beef production. No implants just pasture or in an emergency harvested forages and an end product similar to what most trail crews ate needs special attention to create a specific biological type.

“I need to produce the type of cattle that will walk by a grass plant and gain weight. Cattle will have smaller frame and more body to convert grass into pounds of protein,” Slanker says. “The cooperator herds and my cattle need to be early maturing animals that can finish on grass between 18 and 30 months of age. I have a lot of cooperators because most of us are small producers. They do a good job of raising beef they just don't want to get in the marketing game.”

“I think some producers are as excited as we are about the opportunities grass-fed beef bring to the table. I don't think producers understand they will have to select different genetics and change their way of thinking to produce this product,” Bradbury says. “There will be a lot of producers look at the change because of rising production costs, but it will take some time to build in the genetics that will be efficient on grass and finish in a timely manner.”

Best utilization of forage resources is a common theme for most ranchers. A good “grass farmer” takes on a whole new meaning when the animal walks from the pasture to the harvest floor.

“Rotational grazing benefits the cattle and the land in this type of production. I have had to incorporate more legumes, because that fertilizer buggy costs a lot these days,” Slanker says. “I have to look at different alternatives to produce more pounds per acre. Legumes, fertilization, rotational grazing, the right biological type and hope it rains; after that it's out of my hands. We are in a great area, but there are certain regions of the country where the growing season is really adept to raising grass fed beef.”

“There are some really good grass farmers out there producing grass-fed beef. They know what forages they can use and when they can graze them, keeping something green out there year round,” Bradbury says. “If this product continues to build up steam we could see another segment to the industry evolve “grass-fed finisher.” Good grass farmers that know what to do with forages and forage by-products will excel in this arena.”

Niche markets are a small percentage of the total pounds of beef harvested, but most have gained a following with certain parts of society. Grass-fed beef is a way of life for most on the production and consumption side of the equation.

“It's all about achieving economic and environmental sustainability,” Slanker says. “Unless you make a full transition, grass-fed beef won't be part of your diet, it takes tremendous dedication. Not only do I have to market to sell beef, but I also have to change dietary habits.”

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