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Grower switches to grass-fed beef

Carol Ryan Dumas

Capital Press

Retired row crop farmer turns to grass-fed beef after losing money in his post-retirement venture as a cow/calf operator. In addition to raising beef, pork and chickens, he is also part owner of a marketing veture that sells grass-fed meat and poultry directly to consumers, retailers, restaurants, co-ops, and CSAs.

When Keith Huettig retired in 2004 after 35 years of growing row crops with his father and brothers, he thought he’d try his hand at a cow/calf operation.

He moved his few polled Herefords to land he had purchased near the family farm in south-central Idaho.

“I made every mistake you could make in livestock,” he said. He got into the business in the down cycle when everyone was losing money and started looking for a way to make a profit. That search led to an interest in grass-fed beef, but he had always heard it lacked flavor.

He contacted one of the top grass-fed finishers in the state, ordered some beef and found out it tasted “better than OK.” That convinced him the no-flavor claims weren’t valid, and in 2007 he decided to attend a clinic on grass-fed beef at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Ore.

The clinic was taught by a top consultant and covered everything from genetics, nutrition and animal handling to processing, aging and marketing.

Huettig said he learned more about beef in one day than he had in his entire life.

He went home and started a plan to transition his herd to animals that were more efficient and better suited to a grass diet. His herd now consists of Lowline Angus, Red Angus and Black Angus cows, serviced by docile Devon bulls. He continues to transition to all red animals, whose hides keep them cooler in the desert climate than black hides. This reduces the cow’s stress and thus enhances meat tenderness, he said.

He partnered with two other livestock producers he met at the grass-fed clinic to form Homestead Natural Foods. The marketing partnership provides all-natural, grass-fed beef, pork and chicken raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones. It sells directly to consumers, retailers, restaurants, co-ops and consumer supported agriculture arrangements.

Marketing is a big part of the grass-fed business and is different from marketing row crops or even animals from a conventional cow/calf operation, Huettig said.

For example, his family farm raised enough potatoes to feed all of Chicago for one day, and could sell all of that in 15 minutes, and his cow/calf operation sold calves once a year. But Homestead Natural Foods has hundreds of customers, with orders coming in all of the time, he said.

“It’s a full time job,” he said.

But it’s rewarding, he said. Most customers know him by name, where the meat comes from, how it was raised and that is natural and healthful.

He says the reason grass-fed beef got a bad name was producers weren’t raising the cattle fat enough, processing it too young, and consumers were cooking it too long.

Grass-fed beef cooks 30 percent faster than conventional beef because is has less total fat and water, he said.

“One of our factors of success is to always tell them (consumers) how to cook it. I want them to come back,” he said.

The grass-fed business is inefficient because of its small scale, and no one should get into it because they think they’ll make a lot of money, he said.

“It’s the satisfaction of producing a quality product for people you know and the one-to-one relationships (with consumers) whether you know them or not,” he said.

Keith and Sharon Huettig

Owners: Bar H Cattle Co.

Location: North of Eden, Idaho

Acres: 900 acres of pasture

Livestock: 120 cows, about 70 pigs and about 300 chickens

Marketing company: Homestead Natural Foods

Marketing partners: Ed and Debby Wilsey, Marsing, Idaho; Bill and Carol Gale, Middleton, Idaho

Product: Grass-fed beef, pork and chicken

Homestead Natural Foods: www.homesteadnatural.com


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