Something about food from your own garden makes it especially appealing. But for many consumers, food from a neighbor’s farm is the next-best thing.
“Locally grown” is one of the hottest trends in the food industry, and in the mountains of western Colorado, a small group of ranchers have expanded their marketing options by offering locally raised beef to consumers across the area. Colorado Homestead Ranches, a partnership of six mid-sized, family-owned ranches, produces beef from pasture to plate, with products ranging from frozen sides and quarters to packets of beef jerky and frozen, pre-cooked entrées such as beef tips in wine sauce.
Robbie Baird LeValley, whose family ranch is a member of CHR, also serves as the Tri River Area Extension range and livestock agent. She explains that CHR began in 1995, as a group of local ranchers sought to market healthful, high-quality beef products directly to consumers.
The West Slope area is known for fruit, producing apples, peaches and grapes, and features a growing winemaking industry. People in the region appreciate the availability of fresh fruit and have developed a culture of loyalty to locally grown food, LeValley says. That preference helped open the door for locally produced meat. CHR started small, initially selling sides, quarters and individual cuts at area farmers’ markets, and gradually grew to include a wide range of products targeted to different markets.
Focus on the end product
The ranchers involved in CHR raise a variety of cattle breeds, but all use some Red or Black Angus in their crossbreeding systems. Based on local demand, LeValley says, the program specifies no antibiotics in feed and no growth-promoting hormones, and markets beef products as natural.
Emphasizing prevention of disease, LeValley says member ranchers are working together to develop uniform weaning, vaccination and management practices to protect animal health, assure beef quality and add value. “It’s a close group of ranchers who know each other well,” she says. “They consistently work at keeping lines of communication open.”
Members select which of their calves to enter into the program, for most about one-quarter of their calf crop, and finish them collectively in a local feedlot. Member Calvin Campbell, whose family operates a backgrounding lot along with its cow-calf operation, says his family initially finished calves for the CHR program. But as the program grew, that function moved to Shea Feedlot, a commercial operation near Delta, Colo. Members own their cattle through finishing, and the company purchases them at slaughter. Campbell says the family continues to background its own calves and some for other CHR members.
One major challenge for the group, Campbell says, is maintaining a steady supply of finished cattle through the year. “It’s tough to schedule enough cattle to finish during March and April,” he says. Cattle placed on feed as yearlings would get too heavy by then, and calf-feds placed the previous fall aren’t ready yet. All of the members have spring-calving herds, and because they rely on federal grazing allotments to maintain their cattle through the summer, switching to fall calving is unlikely. Consequently, the ranchers sort calves into different production systems as a means of managing supplies.
Members typically sort off some of their heaviest and lightest calves for entry into the Homestead program and market the rest through other channels. “We sort our calves by size at weaning,” Campbell says. Some of the biggest might go directly into the grow lot, then to the feedyard, while smaller calves go to pasture for extended grazing. The Campbells also intentionally spread their calving season to provide some late-spring calves for the program.
On to the packing plant
In its first years, CHR paid for custom processing at a local plant, but as the program grew, the group purchased a small packing facility in Cedaredge, Colo., in 2002. Then, in November 2006, they invested in a newer USDA-inspected packing plant in Delta. The plant is one of a few federally inspected packing facilities in the area.
General Manager Dale Dexter, PhD, oversees the plant and meat sales. He says the facility typically processes about 35 cattle per week. About one-third of those are CHR cattle, with the remainder custom processing for individual livestock owners or other small meat companies.
Based on the market, Dexter decides the number and types of cattle the plant needs each week for the CHR program. He notifies the group’s president and the feedlot manager, and together they evaluate cattle and sort off supplies for that week’s slaughter. LeValley says they select cattle for market based on time on feed, weight and visual appraisal of fat cover, aiming for 0.35 to 0.4 inch of backfat
CHR processes and markets about 400 head of cattle annually, with most members selling about one-quarter of their calf crop through the program. Dexter says custom processing pays the plant’s fixed costs, while sales of CHR meats generate returns for the group’s members. The plant also slaughters about 20 hogs per week, some for the CHR program and some for other customers. Labor, Dexter says, is the No. 1 challenge in operating the packing facility, with finding, training and retaining reliable employees a continuous effort.
Dexter notes that cooler space dedicated to aging beef carcasses limits the plant’s capacity somewhat, but the group believes the aging period is a critical step in assuring customer satisfaction. All of the CHR carcasses spend at least 14 days dry-aging in the plant’s cooler.
There are no grade specifications for CHR beef. Dexter says cattle processed for the program typically grade about 75 percent Choice or better, and the program’s variety of sales outlets provides access to customers who prefer different types of beef. All the cattle are fully traceable, and the plant provides carcass data back to members to apply toward future genetic selection and management.
Marketing meat to diverse consumers
Selling a variety of beef products through several market outlets helps the company utilize the entire beef carcass and optimize the value of most cuts, LeValley says.
CHR operates two retail stores, one in Delta and one in Paonia, Colo., selling a full selection of Homestead Beef products as well as pork, lamb and sausage. CHR also sells beef through retail stores in the nearby larger towns of Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs, and at farmers’ markets in those towns, as well as in Aspen.
The group isn’t just shooting in the dark in identifying its target markets and implementing its sales strategies. In 2004, CHR received a USDA Rural Development Value Added Grant and contracted with Colorado State University to conduct market research to identify demographic groups of customers and outline their buying behavior and attitudes regarding meat production. Results of the research helped CHR develop a marketing plan addressing five distinct groups of consumers:
Health and natural consumers
Empathetic value seekers
Understanding market demographics and consumer preferences helps CHR tailor its product offerings to specific markets. At the farmers’ market in Aspen, LeValley says, the group’s specialty sausages sell quickly, as do high-value beef cuts such as tenderloin and strip steaks. Health-conscious Aspen customers, she adds, prefer lean beef, providing an excellent market for middle meats that grade USDA Select.
In contrast, the Grand Junction retailer that stocks CHR beef prefers Choice, and customers at that town’s farmers’ market favor lower-priced cuts such as sirloin, roasts and ground beef.
LeValley also notes that the company’s recent entry into value-added products — jerky, meat sticks and pre-cooked entrées — helps optimize the marketing of beef from the chuck and round. The company also markets ground beef and some other products to area restaurants.
Dexter says direct sales of halves and quarters eliminates the issue of finding markets for lower-demand cuts and simplifies inventory management for the packing plant. Diversity is the key to the program’s success in marketing, he says. “We don’t depend on one market or one type of product.”