Grass-fed beef industry bullish on new USDA report
By John O’Connell
BANCROFT, Idaho — Brian and Michelle Stanger have always fed their cattle an all-grass diet and avoided hormones and antibiotics, but only recently have their ranching practices translated into extra income.
Since Aug. 1, the Stangers have fetched a $100-per-cow premium for their grass-fed beef, cutting out the middle man by having it butchered at a USDA-inspected custom packing facility in Lewiston, Utah, for sale at the Pocatello Co-op.
Officials with the Denver-based American Grassfed Association say both demand for grass-fed beef and production are on the rise, and a new report by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service tracking monthly grass-fed beef prices should lure more producers into the industry.
The Stangers raise 30 cow-calf pairs on 310 acres in Bancroft, feeding the animals alfalfa hay throughout winter. They believe grass-fed meat tastes better and contains more healthy fatty acids.
They previously sold at auctions, mostly to buyers who trucked the cows to a feedlot for fattening on grain.
“I hate to see them go to sale yard,” said Michelle, who artificially inseminates mother cows with top bull genetics. “You’re selling a premium product for the same thing as everybody else is doing with the additives.”
Brian, a lifelong rancher who also works as a Union Pacific conductor, believes he’s “just getting his foot in the door” at the co-op.
“What we can see right now, the demand is going to be higher than the supply,” Brian said. “I think people want to know where their food is produced, and they want a natural product.”
The AGA, which represents 150 members, has also noticed a growing trend of grass-fed production.
“We get calls from grocery stores and supermarket chains wanting to know where they can buy grass-fed,” said AGA spokeswoman Marilyn Noble.
At its annual conference, scheduled for Oct. 31-Nov. 2 in San Diego, AGA will address challenges facing its producers, including cheaper-priced grass-fed beef flooding the U.S. from foreign markets such as Australia and Uruguay.
“It’s hard to know exactly how those people in Uruguay are raising their beef. Also, the farmers in Uruguay are paid nothing,” Noble said.
Another challenge is how to get grass-fed products to consumers when infrastructure is set up for conventional beef production. Some larger AGA producers have built their own USDA-inspected meat processing facilities.
AGA has invited Taylor Cox, who will supervise the report for the Agricultural Marketing Service, to attend the conference and hear from the industry. Noble believes the creation of the report signifies “that grass-fed is finally moving out of being a niche product and into the mainstream.”
USDA released its first two grass-fed reports on Sept. 23 and Oct. 24. Report work will be done with existing resources and should present no additional costs for taxpayers. The data was requested by the Wallace Center, which promotes sustainable agriculture, believing the increased transparency will attract more grass-fed producers.
The report tracks direct market sale prices and offers the only source of prices on live and wholesale grass-fed cattle. USDA intends to expand the report as participation grows to include trade volume data and graphs.
Dressed grass-fed steers and heifers have sold for $200-$250 per hundredweight.
“The grass-fed is looking like it’s at least a third higher or better on cuts. Grind items are about twice as high as the conventional market,” Cox said.