The predictable re-emergence of mad cow disease on American shores brings to mind the Mandarin Chinese word for crisis — a combination of the ideograms for danger as well as opportunity.
The danger is obvious and growing, as mathematical probability tells us there must be more than two mad cows among the 112 million or so in our national herd. More will be found, and the crisis will grow. And so will the opportunity for anyone producing and marketing healthy beef.
Natural, organic and grass-fed meat are all sure to attract the attention of careful meat-eaters. Because of all the better beef technologies, grass-fed is the safest from Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). In fact, it would be virtually impossible for a calf born on a grass-only ranch or farm, fed only on its mother’s milk, weaned and raised on local grass or hay, to contract BSE. Grass-feeding offers beef eaters the only 100 percent guaranteed source of prion-free meat.
But how do we find it?
The main problem, for grass-fed producers and consumers alike, has been market infrastructure. It just isn’t there. The combination of low volume, high capital requirements, overcautious investors and a complete lack of interest on the part of mainstream packers, has forced grass-only ranchers to become their own marketers, either directly from the farm, through small local brokers or through one of the small grass-fed cooperatives that have sprung up around the country.
What appears to be working for some ranchers is to simply set aside a few steers every year, raise them on grass, and sell directly to restaurants and local buyers willing to buy a quarter of butchered meat.
Mark Harris, whose ranch in central Montana runs about 1,000 cows, set aside 45 steers last year for the grass-fed market, up from 15 the year before. He’s expecting demand from the nearby communities of Billings, Livingston and Bozeman to grow as consumers become more aware of the health advantages of grass-fed meat.
But for larger, all-grass operations, the problem remains demand. It still isn’t there. So Harris would be taking an unacceptable risk converting his whole ranch. The grass-fed message, which has sounded more like sentimental pure-food evangelism than traditional meat marketing, has not persuaded enough consumers that the product is safer and thus worth the extra cost or effort.
That will surely change as the horrors of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (nvCJD) become better known and more mad cows appear from crowded feedlots, finished on things they were never supposed to eat.
An opportunity is opening for an enterprising packer to make the switch fromvfeedlot-fed to grass-fed beef. It wouldn’t have to be one of the gigantic four which dominate conventional meat production. But whoever makes the move should be national in scope, well-capitalized, and experienced at selling and delivering fresh meat to a fast-growing market.
This would be good news for the Tallgrass Prairie Producers Cooperative, composed of 10 ranches and an office in central Kansas. It went out of business in 2000 after five tough years of learning painful lessons about self-marketing beef. Now, they’re thinking of kick-starting the venture back into play. But as Annie Wilson, a member of the co-op, says, "A successful business needs access to volume markets to reach breakeven."
That’s something an isolated rural cooperative can rarely find, and it’s also missing in the West’s urban settings. Grass-fed ranchers Mike and Sally Gale in Chileno Valley, Calif., say their phone has been ringing off the hook since the first Mad Cow story broke.
"We’ve had over 50 new customers, including restaurants and food retailers, call during the first month after the story broke, some from out of state. If there was a packer-distributor who knew how to slaughter and process grass-fed beef and distribute it nationwide, there would be thousands of new outlets, retail and wholesale," says Mike Gale. "I could refer customers directly to them. And if there was special stockyard sales of grass-fed animals, and ranchers didn’t have to rely on local cattle brokers, they’d go grass-fed in a heartbeat. With the constant threat of BSE in the food chain, it would seem like a great way to go."
The Gales and hundreds of other small ranchers committed to raising healthy beef on grass are hoping that just one national packer will make the switch.
It would be a tipping point for their product. "And one day," says Mike Gale with a grin, "we might even seem normal."
Mark Dowie is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in cattle country about 50 miles north of San Francisco and teaches at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley.
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