October 27, 2011
GRAPEVINE, Texas: Is it still possible for a couple to bootstrap themselves into a ranching career today? Jon and Wendy Taggart said the answer is yes if you stay away from land ownership and put a “French Twist” on cattle production and marketing.
Jon said he was a city boy from Fort Worth who got the ranching bug early in life from weekend visits to ranch children friends. He started out with a cow-calf operation and a short-term ranch lease.
He built his numbers up to 300 cows and everything was going fine until the ranch owner died. He then lost the lease and couldn’t find another quickly.
This unexpected set-back caused him to liquidate the herd but didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for ranching.
Jon decided that a contract-graze, stocker operation would be better suited to a short-term, leased-land situation. He put together several small ranches in the suburban Fort Worth area and soon had his stocker numbers up to 1500 head.
However, having his cattle on several widely spaced ranches created a lot of management headaches and resulted in a lot a daily travel time on the area’s highly congested roads. This constant travel created a lot of stress in both he and Wendy.
Eventually, Wendy put her foot down and said that they were going to find a less stressful way to ranch or they were going to quit ranching.
They decided to shift gears from a volume orientation to trying to maximize dollar margin per head. They hoped this would allow them to pull into their 1350-acre headquarters ranch south of Fort Worth where they had a secure long-term lease and an excellent (and young) landlord.
They decided their best shot at adding a high-margin enterprise to their contract grazing business was direct-marketed grass fed beef.
BURGUNDY BEEF BEGINNINGS
They liked what they had read about grass fed beef but weren’t sure it would work for them. To soften the risk, they talked to one of their cattle investors and told him of their plans.
They offered to pay him a guaranteed profit of $50 a head over and above all costs for each animal they selected and harvested for grass fed beef. The only catch was this payment wouldn’t come until the meat had been sold.
This arrangement had several benefits.
It greatly limited their financial risk.
It gave the cattle owner the profit he desired in the animal.
It allowed them to select a few choice animals from a large group.
It allowed them to continue to get their monthly grazing fee until the animal was harvested, which kept a monthly cash flow coming for the year to 14 months it took to grow and finish the weaned calf.
Currently, the ranch contract grazes around 300 beef cows and an equal number of stockers. From this herd of Angus stocker cattle, about 100 were selected for the 2003 grass fed beef program.
“By continuing our contract grazing business, we could stay small and take the time to properly develop a production and marketing protocol for the beef, “Wendy said.
Liking what they had read about the French grass fed heifer beef program, they decided to put a “French twist” to both their production and marketing.
In 2000, Burgundy Pasture Beef was born.
Jon and Wendy decided to concentrate on Angus heifers and to steel themselves to not harvest them until they were well and truly “finished.” By finished, they meant marbled.
With today’s mainstream Angus genetics, this desired end point meant a slaughter weight of between 1200 and 1350 pounds and such a heavy slaughter weight requires a lot of patience.
“The big problem with most grass fed meat in this area is that the animals are killed before they are fattened. They are just too lean to be a high quality eating experience,” Jon said.
Wendy said that in order to maximize margins per head, they knew they had to have beef that was exceptional and unique.
“We call it `artisan beef’.”
The steaks are cut one and one-quarter inches thick and are dry aged to maximize tenderness and intensify the flavor.
Sales have grown every year they have been in business and have averaged around 100 head a year. They figure their current home ranch can produce 500 grass-finished beeves a year at maximum capacity.
ALFALFA AND JOHNSONGRASS PASTURES
Of course, grass-finishing requires very high quality pastures.
Borrowing a page from the Argentineans, Jon decided to use an alfalfa/perennial grass base pasture no-tilled into cereal rye and annual ryegrass for winter grazing. He said a no-till program was necessary to prevent winter pugging damage in the heavy prairie soils. He has found the best companion grass to the Alfagraze alfalfa is johnsongrass and kleingrass. Thanks to the tall-growing nature of johnsongrass, he has never had a case of alfalfa bloat in the three years he has been grazing alfalfa.
Alfalfa bloat commonly happens when the alfalfa grows taller than the companion grass sward. Since grazing animals take the grass sward down in layers, when alfalfa grows higher than the companion grass the cattle tend to eat an all alfalfa diet and are susceptible to bloat. Johnsongrass normally grows taller than the alfalfa and responds extremely well to the three to four week rest period the alfalfa requires.
“All in all, johnsongrass and alfalfa are just perfect companions,” he said.
While Jon has the no-tilling of cool-season annuals down pat, he said he had not had much success with no-till alfalfa and has to till when he is putting in a new alfalfa stand.
Of course, this tillage also stimulates the johnsongrass by cutting its underground rhizomes. Each of these cut rhizomes produces a parent plant which sends out its own web of rhizomes. As any corn or cotton farmer knows, tillage is the best way to produce a thick stand of johnsongrass.
Jon has found kleingrass to be the most drought resistant grass and credits it for having pulled the ranch through a four-year-long Texas drought. Vetch and burr clover also do well.
He said he was lucky to have found a ranch to lease that was already largely subdivided. The ranch has 30 large permanent paddocks, which can be further subdivided by temporary electric fences whenever a longer rest period is needed.
One hundred acres of alfalfa/johnsongrass are irrigated. He said some irrigation is critical in maintaining a year-round supply of grass-finished beef.
Alfalfa hay is the only supplement used and is only fed for about four weeks of the year.
SELLING BEEF IS WENDY’S WORK
Jon said he and Wendy have a clear division of responsibilities on the ranch.
“I am responsible for the cattle when they are alive and she is responsible for them when they are dead.”
This division seems to suit both of them. Wendy is a natural born salesperson and full of enthusiasm for their product.
“Our number one unfair advantage is that we are located within 250 miles of five major cities with a total population of approximately 15 million people,” Wendy said.
“And we are in the immediate vicinity of the five million in Dallas/Forth Worth.”
The ranch is located near an Interstate exit 35 miles south of Fort Worth.
“We decided from the outset that we would sell our beef by the cut rather than as halves or quarters,” she said.
“We just don’t think you can get an acceptable level of volume selling halves and quarters.
“Surprisingly, selling the whole animal has not been as big a problem for us as it has for many people. We started out grouping the cuts into packages which would always include some lesser cuts and hamburger but we soon learned that this was not necessary.”
Another early decision was to offer direct home delivery to volume customers.
“We have a minimum order of ten pounds of beef. Our average order is $100. Our customers order by e-mail and using Map-Quest we group our deliveries by neighborhood.”
“I make approximately two trips a month to the city and typically deliver around $2000 worth of beef per trip.”
Wendy said she wanted a chance to personally interact with all of her customers. She gives them cooking tips, recipes and the latest health news on grass fed beef. Burgundy’s customers must like this personal attention because their re-order rate is 90 percent.
She said an excellent marketing venue for them has been Howard Garrett’s organic gardening trade show in Dallas.
(Howard Garrett has a top-rated Sunday morning Dallas radio show on organic landscaping and food production.)
WEB LINKS ATTRACT CUSTOMERS
Another good source of customers has come from Internet links to Howard Garrett’s organic web site and Jo Robinson’s eatwild.com.
Wendy said they basically have two types of customers. One is the home-based professional woman who has young children and the other is older couples with grown children who are into gourmet foods.
She said the Dallas area has many high-income women who home-school their children and who work as software engineers or other computer related professions at home. She said these women tend to be value conscious and buy lots of hamburger and everyday cuts.
The second group are older and have grown children. They have lots of spare time and money and are into gourmet foods and European style cooking.
The mixture of these two groups allows them to sell all of the carcass including the bones. She said marrow bones add an extra $60 to $70 to each carcass’ sales.
Wendy said her customers shared a few common traits.
They all have a high level of food sophistication and demand foods that are fresh, wholesome and flavorful and/or they have a high level of nutritional awareness.
They can afford and are willing to pay a premium price for these foods.
They are aware that cooking and food preparation are critical to the eating experience. Wendy said many have had professional cooking instruction and have respect for French and Italian food cultures.
And they are environmentally aware.
“As Fort Worth natives, I wish I could tell you we sell a lot of beef in our home town but we don’t,” she said.
“Almost all of it goes to North Dallas and Plano. We have been surprised at how geographically concentrated our customer base is but this sure suits our home delivery system well.”
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