Jim Lintott’s biggest problem selling grass-fed beef at the St. Norbert Farmers Market last summer was not having enough to sell to all the people clamouring to buy it.
“We have more market than we actually have supply,” said Lintott, president of the Manitoba Grass-Fed Beef Association speaking on the sidelines of the recent Manitoba Grazing School. “So that’s been a challenge all through the summer of 2010.”
Lintott, who raises 65 head of cattle near the provincial capital, first began peddling his homegrown beef in 2004 in a bid to capture more value in the wake of BSE. At the time, he was selling highly marbled, grain-finished, hormone-free beef.
With public sympathy for beef producers high, Lintott was able to build up a good reputation and direct-marketing business.
Then, in the fall of 2008, he sold one carcass of grass-fed beef. His confidence level in the product was not high, and he even recalls being apologetic about it.
“I said, ‘It’s not that great quality-wise.’ But they said, ‘No, we’re very interested in buying grass-fed beef and we’ll be patient,’” said Lintott.
Since then, as the number of forage-finished cattle produced by Lintott and his fellow association members has increased, quality has improved in line with what he described as a “high, self-imposed standard.”
The standard grading system for beef cuts does not apply to grass fed, since it is unable to predict tenderness, he noted.
In 2009, he sold both natural grain fed and grass fed, and Lintott spent a lot of time explaining the difference to his customers. This year, he brought mostly grass-fed beef, and discovered that he could have sold 30 to 60 per cent more beef every day he went to the market.
“We were turning down all kinds of interest from restaurants that had tried our product,” he added.
“They put it on their menus, but we could never have a supply that was large enough.”
One restaurant wanted to purchase striploins, but it would have swallowed more than his farm’s entire production for the year, or roughly 75 steers. That shows that demand is hot for high-end cuts, but producers must still work out a marketing
strategy for the low-end cuts.
“Then what would I have done with the other 90 per cent of that animal?”
The association has opted to stay small as it develops markets and perfects its production protocol so that when the time comes to bring in more supply, they can give ranchers interested in joining firm information on prices and requirements, he said.
Lintott is still in the process of improving his herd’s genetic base, and currently grass finishes only his heifers which are smaller framed, and easier to finish on grass. He sells the yearlings to another rancher, who runs them on grass all summer with his own heifers, then buys back the 20 best animals to sell at retail.
The 1,000-to 1,200pound
heifers are slaughtered at anywhere from 26 to 36 months and he pays $2.25 per pound hot, hanging weight for a 550-to 650- pound carcass. Carcasses are hung for two to three weeks. Consumers are willing to pay a 60-cent-per-pound premium for grass-fed over natural, hormone-free beef.
That’s not enough to compensate for the extra trouble of raising grass-fed beef, he said. However, once the system is perfected, Lintott envisions “picking off ” the “best of the best” for the premium market at a price high enough to compensate for the rest of the animals that don’t make the grade.
The success of the bison industry, which bootstrapped itself out of a catastrophe and now commands astronomical prices for its products, encourages grass-fed pioneers to keep plugging away, he added.
Feedback from customers at the farmers’ market serves as Lintott’s quality control panel. Also, shear force testing of the association’s grass-fed beef samples have been measured by researchers at the University of Manitoba at two to three on a scale from one to 10, with seven being “tough.”
The data lends scientific credence to grass-fed beef’s marketing claims, and the association hopes to develop a quality grid system that can be used when buying animals on the hoof.
“The easiest way to get a producer to produce quality is to pay him for quality,” said Lintott. “To avoid the shoe-leather animal, we have to have a reward system.” daniel. [email protected]
“Wehavemoremarketthanweactually havesupply.So,that’sbeenachallenge allthroughthesummerof2010.”
– Jim Lintott