BEND, Ore. — Breweries in Central Oregon generate a surfeit of barley mash, which is a highly appetizing feed source for local cows.
Rob Rastovich’s company, Barley Beef, serves as a conduit between the two — supplying mash to the cows and beef to the breweries.
“I thought that’s not only a good idea, it’s a good marketing idea,” said Rastovich, whose family has farmed in the Bend area for 100 years.
The company provides about 10 breweries with the totes and trucks needed to haul away roughly 200,000 pounds of mash a week, which is then delivered to the 400 cattle residing at Rastovich’s 200-acre farm.
“We provide the infrastructure for them to get rid of it,” he said.
Part of the arrangement’s elegance is that breweries can get rid of the byproduct without any additional drying or processing, since the cows can eat the mash while it’s wet and excess water is used for irrigation.
“It’s brought in and fed within a day,” Rastovich said, adding that any unconsumed mash is composted and used to fertilize the farm’s hemp fields.
Most of the cattle that move through Rastovich’s feeding operation are aggregated from other ranchers and go on to be finished at a natural-beef feedlot.
About 10% of them are actually finished at Barley Beef and slaughtered in nearby Prineville, with the beef sold directly to consumers, restaurants and breweries.
“We want them to have the pure mash diet, that’s our differentiator,” Rastovich said.
Finishing cows on barley mash produces beef with similar fat marbling as finishing them on corn, but without the negative associations some consumers have about that crop, he said.
It’s also not as lean or gamey as beef finished purely on grass, Rastovich said. “We really get the best of both worlds.”
Consumers can buy beef from the company’s website, with the orders sorted through an “optimization algorithm” that schedules the most efficient routes for delivery in Central Oregon. It’s also possible to re-order beef by sending the company a text message.
“We want to make it easy for our customers to order from us,” Rastovich said.
Barley Beef has incorporated other technological innovations into its business, such as radio-frequency identification chips for cattle. Eventually, Rastovich intends to use RFID chips to automatically open and close gates, sorting cattle ready for slaughter.
Such high-tech elements marry the agricultural operation with Rastovich’s other career in computer science and the “Internet of Things,” which refers to devices that can communicate with online software and each other.
Rastovich said his love of tinkering with computers sprang from the necessity of repurposing random objects for use on the farm, such as the old headboards and lockers that his father turned into gates.
“Most people don’t think of coding as creative but it’s as much an art form as a science,” he said.
After college, Rastovich worked in the technology industry in California but the flexibility associated with online communications allowed him to return to the farm in 2006.
“The day I left, I couldn’t wait to get back,” he said. “Getting back here has always been my priority.”
Currently, Rastovich helps run the ThingLogix technology company, which was founded after the sale of his previous company, 2lemetry, to Amazon’s web services division.
“It’s a great life to be able to do very cerebral stuff and then very earthy stuff. It’s a good balance,” he said.
The Rastovich family’s history in Central Oregon agriculture dates back to 1919, when his Serbian immigrant grandfather, George, homesteaded the original 40 acres of the current property.
The family raised potatoes, alfalfa, milk cows and even diversified into beer production, he said.
“The old timers were doing craft beer long before Deschutes Brewing was,” Rastovich said. “They did whatever they could to make a living.”
The Barley Beef operation and the more recent venture into growing hemp represent a continuation of the family’s commitment to agriculture.
“To see houses on this property would kill me,” he said.