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Stone Barns Grassfed Beef Report

Reprinted with permission from Joel Salatin and "The Stockman Grassfarmer".

The USA has 762 million acres of grazing and pasture land. If animal units per acre could be increased just 33 percent with good grazing management, the extra forage would be enough to grass finish ALL the cattle in the nation without using any other land.

Who needs feedlots?  Many of us who have been at this management intensive grazing a la Jim Gerrish would scoff at 33 percent. How about 50 percent, or 100 percent? This is easy.

And lest anyone think this is a recipe for ecological disaster, like cow burps melting the ice caps, methanotrophic bacteria in soils live on methane.  If they’re healthy, they can oxidize the methane produced from about 65 cows per acre per year.  Oh, and those wonderful bacteria do not live in feedlots – they live in well managed pastures.

These are just a few tidbits in the 50-page Stone Barns for Food and Agriculture recent report on the state of grassfed beef in the USA. Funding partners were Armonia LLC, Bonterra Partners, and SLM Partners.  Lead authors are Renee Cheung and Paul McMahon. After reading the report, I realized I needed to share its findings and my thoughts.  The report is wide ranging. Let’s get right to the nuggets.

Tyson, JBS, Cargill and National buy 80 percent of the beef in the USA and they can process these animals into a box for $100-$120 a head.  That’s a far cry from the $400-$800 per head charged by smaller sized community scale abattoirs.  Despite what you may think, however, only a tiny portion of grassfed beef goes through these small plants.

Fully 81 percent of grassfed beef sold in America is branded; only 19 percent is sold by individual farmers. Of the $4 billion in grassfed beef (total beef sales are $78.2 billion annually) sales, only $1 billion is labeled; $3 billion is from cull cows and bulls sold through conventional channels.  In other words, 75 percent of all grassfed beef sold in the USA is not from grassfed aficionados, it’s from default nongrain fed animals in the conventional system.

As if that weren’t interesting enough, 75-80 percent of those grassfed sales are imported from Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.  In conventional beef sales, only 9 percent is imported. 

Soooo, guess what the number one challenge is to your grassfed beef sales, according to the report? If you’re paying attention, you guessed it; cheap imported grassfed beef.

By definition, imported beef has to be processed in a USDA-inspected plant, which means ALL of it can be stamped “Product of USA” even when the plant is on foreign soil.

I encountered this several years ago at an Arby’s in Richmond, Virginia. I was flying out to do some speeches in New Zealand and Teresa and I stopped in for a quick bite before my flight.

A big banner hanging behind the sales counter proclaimed that they were using grassfed beef. Our farm is only 90 miles away. I asked the manager where it came from: New Zealand. Isn’t that a hoot?

So when I landed in New Zealand and had my first auditorium full of farmers, I told them my last meal in the USA was a New Zealand roast beef sandwich 90 miles away from my house. They thought it was hilarious. I laughed outwardly, but inside I was not a happy camper.

Allan Nation consistently admonished us to know our market. This is one of those head slappers.  According to this report, the biggest challenge cited by producers was lack of adequate and accessible processing capacity – those community abattoirs mentioned above. Of course, the processing price prejudice exacerbates the cheap import issue, but the fact that we producers don’t understand the real culprit -  cheap imports – is telling.

I can’t help but note that the report never mentioned the regulatory prejudice against small abattoirs in the government inspection system.  Licensing and infrastructure compliance are much cheaper per head in larger operations; this scale prejudice in the regulatory climate puts direct market farmers at a distinct pricing disadvantage.

This is why Congressman Thomas Massie’s Prime Act bill in Congress is so important – it would allow by-the-cut sales intrastate from custom processing plants.  Not surprisingly, this is even opposed by some branded grassfed operations who don’t want competition from small-scale local upstarts.

Let’s go down the rest of the producer’s perceived top challenges.

Number two is market demand, most viewing the market as saturated.  At less than three percent of the beef market? Really?  I expect the real culprit here is inability to tell a compelling enough story or create market position to woo folks our way.  More on that in a minute.

Number three: access to distribution and markets. The top 13 branded fresh grassfed labels (in alphabetical order) are:

Bartels, Crystal River, Dakota Beef, Grassland Livestock Alliance, JBS/Grass Run, Jones Creek, Joyce Farms, Panorama Meats, Pasture One/Creekstone, Strauss, Thousand Hills, U.S. Wellness Meats, White Oak Pastures.

Ready for number four challenge?  Getting a full price for all the carcass. The report notes that 30 percent of the grassfed carcass is chuck and round, but only accounts for six percent of the dollar value because Americans don’t know how to cook these cuts and therefore don’t buy them.  Remember how Allan always used to say that if your grassfed beef program can’t survive on ground beef alone, it’s on a shaky foundation?

And the number five challenge: access to land.  Here at SGF we promote leasing and explain how to do it. Allan always said that if you know how to make beautiful pastoral landscapes, you would never lack for land. Hmmmmmm.

Way down at the bottom of the hurdles list were some honorable mentions; technical production challenges, cattle genetics, labor, financing.  This is a slap against my head as I try to make SGF relevant.  We spend a lot of time in these pages on these elements, but as it turns out, these aren’t the problem.

Perhaps we need to promote how to start and build an abattoir, how to sell chuck roast, how to get your product to the city, how to get into the consumers head space. For sure we need to keep explaining how to lower costs so we can become more retail price competitive. 

According to the report, by far and away the number one driver of consumer desire is health benefits of grassfed beef.  Folks, there is our story. It’s not about your pretty farm. It’s not about your heritage breeds.

In the SGF Marketing School (see details page 14), we stress over and over that it’s about making our story relevant to the customer. Short on you; long on her. The second marketing story is animal welfare and third is environmental benefits. There’s our story line, folks. 

While you and I could quibble about some of the reports findings, I think it’s important for us to appreciate the research and the perspective of friends who are not farmers.  So here goes their list of impediments to market growth in our grassfed beef industry.

First, inconsistent finishing quality. Ouch. Isn’t it interesting that they don’t say “lack of abattoirs?” I know, I know, I don’t like this kind of judgement either, but if we’re smart, dear SGF family, we’ll listen and take it to heart.  How many of us, including me, have produced less than stellar product? Guilty as our industry’s NUMBER ONE impediment to growth. That means you and I have to get serious about carcass dumping, about slaughtering prior to finishing, about waiting for that finish.

A survey of top Washington D.C., chefs recently asked what was the most common denominator, or assurance, of good grassfed eating quality? Across the board, it was animal age: about 30 months or more. As I read this report, all sorts of Allanisms pummeled my brain. Remember when hes likening grassfed beef to the wine industry?  Here is confirmation. We need to listen.

Second impediment to market growth: frozen meat. Here again, I’m guilty. The report did note that more and more gourmands believe freezing enhances quality, similar to aging. Perhaps the obsession with fresh will ultimately dimish.

I hope so, because number three is year-round availability.  At this point, the report makes a bold statement: “It is now possible to finish in any region of the country any month of the year.”  Remember Allan always quipping “if someone has done it, it can be done.”

The fourth impediment to market growth: confusing production explanation. The report spends some time introducing all of us to “grass feedlots.” These are places where pelletized forages make up the ration.  Just when you think you’ve heard it all, some charlatan comes along with a new twist. Good grief.

And finally, number five and according to the authors, the biggest challenge: PRICE!  On my. Again, the report took averages across the board and offered these comparisons. The average price of conventional beef at the retail meat counter is $3.98 per pound, representing a total per head value of $2,542. Grassfed averages $7.45 per retail pound for a per head value of $3,270. Just to keep things honest, realize that these averages do not account for differences in phenotype and cutability, which we know according to linear measurement can be major. It’s still good to know the average, though.

Today’s average grassfed beef producer has only been in the business 10 years. The report says that in 1998 the USA only had 100 grassfed producers, today it’s 3,900. I suspect it’s more than that, according to my SGF subscriber intuition.

The good news? We have a great story.

I’ll finish with this. The optimum ration of omega-6:omega-3 fatty acids is 1:1 to 4:1: grassfed is 1.53:1 and grainfed is 7.65:1. The link to cancer and heart issues is well established. Dear folks, this is a GREAT story.

One more: 73 percent of CAFOs admit that they’re still using subtherapeutic antibiotics in their total mixed rations. Roughly 18 percent of conventional beef has measureable multi-drug resistant bacteria compared to only six percent, for grassfed. Let’s get that to 0, whaddaya say?

Hang in there, everybody, We have a great ride ahead of us. Stay real.

Joe Salatin is a full-time grass farmer in Swoop, Virginia, whose family owns Polyface Farm. Author and conference speaker, he promotes food and farming systems that heal the land while developing profitable farms. To contact him, email or call Polyface Farm at 540-885-3590.

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