Where’s the beef?
February 4, 2004
“No bull, just good beef” is the motto of Emma-area cattle ranchers Willie and Francesca Fender.
That motto has the potential to be more than a catchy phrase.
The Fenders are among a handful of Pitkin County ranchers who still sell beef directly to consumers. They believe there is a great opportunity to increase their market due to rising health consciousness as well as concerns ” justified or not ” over one case of mad cow disease in Washington state this winter.
Consumers are more aware and concerned than ever about the use of antibiotics and hormones. There is uncertainty over the practices of large feedlots, where cattle are fattened before slaughter, and factory-sized packing plants, where they are butchered.
“It’s pretty clear to me consumers don’t want any cows that aren’t in perfect health in the food chain,” said Bill Fales, a Crystal Valley rancher who also offers beef directly to consumers. More people these days want to buy beef from ranchers whose practices they know and trust, he said.
Willie Fender said he doesn’t want to boost his ranch’s business at the expense of the larger cattle industry, but he acknowledged that there is unease among consumers with large meat-producing operations.
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“In my ad, I didn’t want to do scare tactics, but I thought of asking, ‘Do you know where your beef is coming from?’ ” he said.
Fenders go with grass
The Fenders and Faleses are happy to share that information. The Fenders’ herd spends summers feeding on the lush grasses in the Hay Park area, a bucolic saddle on the eastern flank of Mount Sopris. They spend winters back at the ranch eating hay.
Calves are typically born in March. They are ready to be butchered in about 18 to 20 months, after they top 1,000 pounds.
Over the years, the Fenders have increased the number of cattle they have butchered for consumers each year from two to seven or eight.
Last year for the first time, they sold beef that was exclusively grass-fed. “Everybody loved it,” Francesca said.
Previously the Fenders had fed their yearlings grain to increase their weight before butchering. Francesca said they were convinced that was just adding fat. They also refuse to use hormones to fatten their cattle.
Willie said he only uses antibiotics when the calves are young, to guard against common ailments. He compared the practice to people having infants and kindergartners vaccinated.
The Fenders arrange in August to take the yearlings to a small packing plant to be butchered. They sell whole and half-beefs, and the consumers work with the butcher. “They get it cut exactly how they want,” said Francesca.
Steers that aren’t butchered are sold through a livestock auction house in Fort Collins.
Fales said 95 percent of the calves he sells go to an auction house. He sells his calves at 10 months old. They eat hay at the ranch until mid- or late May, then graze in his pastures on the valley floor until the end of June, when they are released onto leased land in the White River National Forest. Fales brings them “home” to his low-elevation pastures in October.
The calves he sells through a livestock auction house sometime around Christmas. Some of his calves were purchased this winter by Con-Agra, a large beef-producing corporation. Others were purchased by a ranch in North Park.
Most cattle raised in western Colorado go to a feedlot in October at a weight between 500 and 650 pounds, according to Paul Bernklau, president of the board of the Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association. They leave the feedlot at about 800 pounds, then head to a finish lot, where they receive grain and end up weighing between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds by the time they reach the packing house at 20 months old.
The half-dozen or so calves that Fales keeps each year for sale directly to consumers are kept on his ranch until they are about 20 months old. He fattens them before butchering by keeping them in a corral on the ranch and providing all the hay they can eat, along with oats that he grows and corn he brings in.
Like the Fenders, Fales opposes use of hormones, which increases the rate of weight gain for calves with less feed and less fat.
Aging critical for good beef
Fales takes his yearlings to the Rifle Packing Plant, in the town of Rifle. He said the plant’s practices are critical for producing good beef.
“They’ll hang that meat for up to three weeks if we want them to, which I think makes for better beef,” Fales said. The process ages and tenderizes the meat.
Rifle Packing is a smaller plant that receives regular U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections, said Carol McNeel, co-owner with her husband, Buddy.
She said the packing plant has operated in Rifle since the 1940s. It’s considered small. Big packing plants in Greeley and Fort Morgan probably butcher more cattle in a day than Rifle Packing does in a year, McNeel said.
Rifle Packing hangs its meat for at least 10 days. Fourteen is optimal. “It’s basically the old-fashioned way,” said McNeel. The Rifle Packing Plant also sells individual cuts of meat from the ranchers it works with.
Fales said the large packing plants don’t want to spend the money required to hang and refrigerate meat for up to three weeks. The beef is probably out the door of the large packing plants and in the supermarket coolers within three days, he said.
The aging accounts for the biggest difference between meat a consumer gets directly from a rancher and meat from the grocery store. Fales said he believes beef from cattle that go through large feedlots and packing plants is safe. But, like many other consumers, he isn’t keen on the idea of cattle receiving feed with animal byproducts, which can happen at feedlots.
Bernklau, who worked as a marketer in the beef industry for 30 years, said he doesn’t foresee a huge opportunity for ranchers to sell directly to consumers.
“I sell you a quarter, what am I going to do with the other three-quarters?” Bernklau asked. “They won’t keep any more than they have got the market for.”
He believes that all the scrutiny of the U.S. beef industry will raise rather than lower customer satisfaction. He said he believes that packing plants meet extremely high standards already. Public perceptions will usher in even stricter standards.
He believes selling directly to consumers who balk at buying meat from grocery stores will produce only a niche market for ranchers.
“There is a segment that wants to know exactly where their meat comes from,” Bernklau said. “It’s not a big segment now.”
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com