At Triple Creek Ranch we have been exploring the local beef business for the last 24 years. We first started finishing cattle when one of my sisters asked me about possibly finishing a beef for the family like we used to do when we were kids. I told her I would think about it, but I really didn’t want to go to the trouble of pulling a good calf from our preconditioned marketing group and then feeding it for nearly a year.
The next day we were palpating our replacement heifers for pregnancy, and as usual one of the prettiest heifers was open. As I looked at that fat, open, 18 month old heifer, I realized we could finish her for the family in short order! After 90 days fattening on soybean hulls, that heifer yielded some of the beef we ever ate.
The year after that first heifer, we had several open heifers and a one-eyed steer we finished for ourselves and for some friends. These were again really good eating, so we started saving a few more each year. We developed our brand “Blake’s Beef”, named after my nephew Blake Herman who worked on the farm during a gap year, but tragically passed away at a young age. Blake loved our beef, so it seemed fitting to name the product after him.
My mom was really good at selling the beef, and there were several different marketing mechanisms that she used. We supplied meat buyers clubs, sold at farmers markets, and sold at our farm on the weekends. We eventually got to 15 head a year, which was about as many as we could do with two chest and two upright freezers. We learned a lot about raising the animals, working with the processor, whole animal marketing, and dealing with customers.
Eight years ago, my mom retired from the meat business so she and my dad could open a charity medical clinic in my hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona (at age 80!). It quickly became apparent that I was not as good at selling beef as my mom. I didn’t enjoy evening phone calls with potential customers that called to the house and left messages daily. I was not sure how I was going to market the 15 head that were coming along!
Fortunately, I got a call from a friend who had started a company called an “aggregator”. The goal was to work with local farmers to create a gourmet beef and pork supply that they would market to restaurants and retail outlets in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area. They needed cattle to start with and were looking for finished cattle. This worked out great for me. I was able to take those finished animals to the processor and drop them off, and got paid based on the carcass weight. I could now spend my energy raising cattle and doing my public job, and leave the marketing to someone else who was good at it.
Today finishing has totally changed our production system at the farm. We have reduced our cow herd from 150 to 100, and now are finishing 50 a year. It has been great to know what our price will be (price is negotiated a year in advance), and to know that we are producing a very high quality product that consumers really appreciate. We had a scare at the start of the pandemic when all the restaurants closed, but a quick pivot to increase direct to consumer sales cleared up inventory backlogs and kept our product moving.
The local meat business is growing rapidly in North Carolina. We are blessed with many small federally inspected processors across the state that have worked with a variety of farmers and aggregators. We have also recently made a major investment in expanding processing infrastructure in the state, and will enjoy even more harvest capacity in the coming years. Educational programs are in high demand, and we have over 1500 farmers that have registered as meat handlers. A show of hands at our recent cattlemen’s conference showed that about half of our traditional audience is doing some level of local beef finishing!
There is one major barrier to the success of the local beef business in North Carolina and our region: Kentucky-31 Tall Fescue. About 2/3 of the state has a forage base of tall fescue, and most of it is highly infected with the toxic endophyte. Some surrounding states have even more KY31 than we do in North Carolina. Most of the cow/calf enterprises in the region involve very low levels of grazing and forage management. Successful farmers use good bulls, calve in the fall, use feed supplements, and use little fertilizer. All of this allows a level of reproductive performance that is tolerable, and while the calves are relatively small, they have high value because of their genetics. Good management of those calves after weaning can lead to a lot of added value and helps these farms to be successful. This very low input approach has sustained a cow/calf industry in the region, but many inefficiencies and problems can be blamed on the toxic tall fescue base.
Growing high quality beef on pasture will take a whole new attitude about forages and forage management. To be viable in the long term we will need to develop forage systems that support a higher level of performance than we have tolerated in the past with those cow/calf systems. At home we have started converting our toxic tall fescue pastures to either novel endophyte tall fescue or annuals to help support a high level of performance in our growing and finishing cattle. The mature cow herd continues to run on mixed pastures with a lot of KY31 present, especially in the spring. Eventually we will convert about ½ of our farm to novel endophyte tall fescue or other non-toxic perennial forages, and those will be targeted at the finishers and the first-calf heifers.
If you are considering developing a local beef finishing system, give some serious thought to your forage base. Some experts promote working with your old pastures and dramatically changing the kind of cattle you use so they are much more tolerant of toxic fescue and other grass-based systems. This is possible of course, but our success has been based on using good quality modern genetics that result in large carcasses that consistently grade mid-choice or higher. We are looking for “grass type cattle”, but we are doing that from among the latest genetics available. For our production system it makes more sense to upgrade our pastures and relieve ourselves of toxic fescue than to dramatically change our cattle.
If you start into this new enterprise, your market will dictate which way you go. You can feed, or you can chose to develop a 100% grass-fed system. You might advertise “never ever antibiotics” or you may decide that for welfare of the animals you will reserve the right to use antibiotics when they are necessary to treat disease. Whatever production system you chose keep in mind that it will never be easy to succeed if your foundation is toxic tall fescue. NC State’s most popular Pasture-raised and Pasture-finished Local Beef Production Protocol can be found here: https://go.ncsu.edu/local_beef_finishing
~ Matt Poore, NCSU and Chair for the Alliance for Grassland Renewal
The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion. For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org