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Selling Grass-Fed Beef

“The government really wants grass-fed beef to work. From the minister all the way down, we’ve had tremendous support …”

– JIM LINTOTT

Being 20 minutes from Portage and Main is a big advantage for Jim Lintott, who began direct marketing his beef after BSE sent auction mart prices into the tank.

“My cattle have a summer pasture that’s right up against the floodway. You can walk up there and look on to Winnipeg and right on to our cows,” said Lintott. “That’s how close we are to the marketplace.”

The co-owner of Manitobabeef.com from Oakbank, works with Sundown-based partner Randy Tkachyk in the operation.

With a collective 285 head, their production is sold at farmers’ markets and direct-to-consumer deliveries via orders placed through their website and by phone.

Tkachyk’s operation located 90 minutes from the city, is too far. That’s why the walk-in freezers are located at Lintott’s farm, who handles all the marketing and deliveries, devoting one or two afternoons per week to the task. “That’s what it has taken to get this product out there,” he said.

The pair had been marketing natural beef since 2003, but added grass-fed products in 2008. Their beef is also sold at farmers’ markets from early June until Thanksgiving, but that outlet requires a good deal of preparation and effort.

“We start Friday at two o’clock getting the trucks ready, then we get up at five a. m. on Saturday and jump in the trucks and go, then get home by 4:30.”

The website is a “fantastic” tool for direct marketing farm produce, he said, because it allows consumers to look up his operation, read about how the beef is raised, and place orders. A logo and production protocol help convince the consumer to buy his products, and the “good eating experience” brings them back for more, he said.

“If you don’t give them the first part, the good eating experience, they are going to tire quickly and forget about the long-term health benefits,” he said, adding that the baby boomers want smaller cuts, not one-pound steaks.

They raise black Angus, but he said that any breed of cattle would work for grass-fed production. The best are thick and deep, with a finishing weight of at least 1,000 pounds.

Some surprises may occur when a beef producer becomes involved in final processing of their animals, he added.

Two animals were recently slaughtered, one at 1,050 pounds and the other at over 1,200. The larger steer looked better on the hoof, but after processing, the 1,000-pound animal gave a 611-pound hot hanging weight versus 691 pounds for the bigger one.

“The smaller-framed animal had better marbling in it,” he said.

The under-30-month regulation causes Lintott’s operation a fair bit of grief, because optimum slaughter age for his system is at 28 to 30 months.

“As soon as I go over 30 months, they take the backbone out, they charge me 2-1/2 times the per-pound fee to do the slaughter, and I don’t have a T-bone anymore,” he said. “That’s a huge challenge.”

The answer, with his age-verified cattle, is to kill the animals at 29 months no matter what their degree of finishing in order to keep his costs low and avoid the OTM problems. One solution that for him has so far proved elusive, would be to develop a genetic stock and a production model using high-energy grasses that could allow them to be finished at 18 months.

Lintott also belongs to the Manitoba Grass Fed Beef Association, a group of beef producers who are taking a collective approach to marketing their animals that was launched in late 2007 with the assistance of the provincial government and the Manitoba Forage Council.

“The government really wants grass-fed beef to work,” he said. “From the minister all the way down, we’ve had tremendous support, from staff and money available for us to do all kinds of things, from marketing to developing the logo.”

A production protocol for the group has been developed, and an information package outlining the health benefits of grass-fed beef is distributed at public sampling events at farmers’ markets. A number of dinner events have also been held to introduce the product in conjunction with the Winnipeg Chefs’ Association.

Lintott is handling the buying for three to four members of the group, and marketing animals on an as-needed basis. Volume has been low so far, at under 20 animals last year, as the group tries to solve the problem of marketing the whole animal, not just prime cuts. All meat is vacuum packed so that consumers can see what they are getting.

The high premiums make it more attractive to beef producers.

“We’re trying to hold the price up, so that when we do get this going we will have an industry that really works,” he said. “I know what my costs of production are and I refuse to sell those animals for less than the cost.”

A butcher shop has been leased in Beausejour, staffed by retired butchers from Winnipeg, in order to have better control over the timing of supply. Slaughter is handled by local abattoirs near producers.

Lintott said that a new interprovincial protocol has been developed by policy makers that would allow sales of provincially inspected meat between provinces.

“It’s already set up, and the government is going to introduce it, but we don’t know when that is going to happen. We hope it is soon.”

The association is currently working with Todd Churchill, operator of Thousand Hills Cattle Company, a successful grass-fed beef entrepreneur from Minnesota, in order to gain a better understanding of how to select top animals on the hoof, and research into taste and shear force testing is also underway to better identify quality characteristics.

The future of the cattle business is in grass genetics, he added.

“We can’t produce an animal that they are going to take off you at 450 pounds and throw it in the feedlot on expensive grain. It’s not going to work, so we have to come up with a 1,000-pound animal that’s going to finish in 60 days.” [email protected]

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