Ruby Valley Natural Grass Fed Beef
The red meat with a faint footprint- Better for you and the world around you
But can it be produced profitably?
Much has been written and information is readily available touting the human health benefits of consuming grass fed beef. An equal volume of opinion and data is available regarding the benefits of “natural beef” in our diet. Of late, a great deal of publicity is being given to the extent of the carbon footprint of traditionally raised, corn fed beef. Realizing that “perception is truth” and not intending to either substantiate or refute the foregoing claims, we desired to take some nine hundred pound natural, grass fed yearling steers, grow them into a beef ready for market, harvest them and share our findings.
In the spring of 2006, 15 calves were born on the Woodson Ranch to cows that had spent the previous year adapting to a life less dependent on their human owners and more reliant on their instincts and natural characteristics. The 2007 Annual Report of the Ruby Habitat Foundation featured a detailed analysis of what we refer to as our “Low Input” cattle production project. Through that project we have determined that there are economic advantages in a cow/calf enterprise that requires the cow to work for a living while we provide for mineral supplementation and disease prevention.
In December of the first year these calves were separated from the cows and spent the winter on the Barnosky Ranch getting supplemental hay to assure that their nutritional needs were being met. In the spring of 2007 the heifer calves were turned back out with the cows and the steers participated in the on-going grazing study on Woodson Ranch. Their daily rate of gain met our expectations.
Traditionally, cattle operators market their product as either calves weighing five to seven hundred pounds or as yearlings weighing eight to nine. With the growing demand for grass fed beef, the Ruby Habitat Foundation decided to retain the yearling steers and determine if it were economically viable to raise natural, grass fed beef in the Ruby Valley.
The “natural beef” label is reserved for animals that have never received growth stimulants or antibiotics.
|Date||Ave. Weight||Rate of Gain|
|5/17/07-Spring turn out||734||0.92#/day over winter|
|8/15/07-End of summer||925||2.12#/day on grazing study|
|12/31/07-Winter||1061||1.46#/day since 5/17/07|
|4/26/08-Spring||1093||0.28#/day winter grazing|
|6/10/08-Early Summer||1185||2.00#/day on early spring grass|
|7/2/08-Mid Summer||1293||5.28#/day on summer grass|
|Average Harvest Weight||1388|
A “grass fed beef” has not been fed supplemental grain. In our case, the steers foraged exclusively on standing grass except for a short period following weaning when they received supplemental hay.
The steers performed very well doing what comes naturally, eating. The chart at right indicates the average weight and rate of gain from the date they were weaned until they were harvested for beef.
To determine the economic viability of a grass fed enterprise which retains a 590#steer calf and takes it to finish, we simply deduct the value of our inputs from our income. We chose to market the steers locally, pricing them at the current national average fed beef price published by CattleFax. The results are detailed in the table below.
|1388# live fat steer @ $.9375/pound||$1301.25|
|590# steer calf @$1.215 (fall 06 price)||$716.85|
|1st wintering cost for 1.5 tons of fed hay @ $90||$171.00|
|1st summer grazing for 5 months- .85 au @ $20/aum||$85.00|
|2nd winter grazing for 7 months -1 au @ $15/aum||$105.00|
|2nd summer grazing for 2 month- 1 au @ $20/aum||$40.00|
|Vaccinations for general health||$6.00|
|Interest on investment in calf and other seasonal inputs over 19 months @8%||$113.26|
|Mineral inputs .05/day x 19 months||$28.75|
|Labor inputs for working cattle (labor for grazing and feeding included above)||$20.00|
|1% probable death loss over duration of project||$12.86|
|Net Income Per Head||$2.53|
The results leave little room for error. At a virtual break even, any producer must weigh the potential risk associated with variables beyond their control such as market fluctuations and weather conditions. If the steers had required hay for the second winter, an additional $100 would be added to the cost.
It appears that if a grass fed beef enterprise is to be sustainable, the demand for the product must become such that a price above standard commodity beef can be commanded. The market will determine what that premium will be. A ten percent price premium would mitigate some of the risk whereas a twenty percent premium would provide a strong incentive to producers. The real challenge comes in developing and maintaining a reliable customer base large enough to make the enterprise viable.
In a follow-up with the purchasers of our product we conducted a brief survey. With 80% of our customers responding, the results are as follows:
- Is this the first time you have purchased 100% Natural Beef? Yes-50% No-50%
- Is this the first time you have purchased Grass Fed Beef? Yes-50% No-50%
- Would you purchase 100% Natural Grass Fed Beef again? Yes-100%
- Would you pay more for 100% Natural Grass Fed Beef? Yes-75% No-25%
- On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being the most tender) how tender was your beef? 1-25% 2-75%
- On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being extremely good) how did your beef taste? 1-75% 2-25%
Though strict scientific protocol was not practiced to arrive at any of this data, we find the results compelling and we hope you will as well.