October 27, 2011
SEDRO WOOLEY, Wash: George Vojkovich said the biggest change on his Skagit River Ranch since our last article on his ranch in January 2004 is that the price of organic grain has tripled. While this has no effect on his sizable Certified Organic, grassfed beef operation, it has had a major impact on his Certified Organic pastured poultry and pork enterprises.
“I wasn’t paying close enough attention when grain prices made their big runup last fall and wound up losing money for awhile on my broilers and eggs,” he said.
He said once he realized he was in the red, he quickly raised the prices for his broilers, eggs and pork. Some of his competitors didn’t do this and have gone out of business.
In 2007, his chickens are priced at $5.25 a pound and his eggs are at $5.00 a dozen.
While he was raising prices, he also raised the prices on his grassfed hamburger to $4.95 a pound.
“No one batted an eye,” he said.
“Washington State is a very trendy place. Price doesn’t matter as much here as elsewhere.
“What people say they want is meat from ‘happy animals.’”
The high price of grain has encouraged George to expand into ducks which can get most of their diet from grass and which bring a much higher price per pound than chickens.
“They are much more durable than chickens when they are young and they really eat a lot of grass. A lot of grass!” he emphasized.
A wise man, George allows his wife, Eiko, to be in charge of marketing while he concentrates on production. George and Eiko had both formerly been in the Alaskan fish trade. He as a ship’s captain and she as an international fish marketer.
Currently, the ranch supplies five high-end restaurants in Seattle, including the new sustainable agriculture restaurant at the Seattle Art Museum. They also sell at Seattle farmers’ markets and direct to customers from their Saturday-only, on-farm store. He said each market segment counts for about a third of total sales.
All beef and pork consumer sales are sold in “bundles” to make sure that all cuts are sold. The pork bundle includes a variety of sausages which allows the marketing of the whole animal.
The ranch also sells a value family pack which does not include the very pricey cuts that are sold to the restaurants. All beef and pork is sold frozen, including that to the high-end restaurants.
ALL FROZEN ALL THE TIME
George and Eiko knew from their seafaring days that Alaskan seafood is sold frozen and restaurants have no problem with it.
The key to a quality frozen meat, George said, is to freeze the meat very fast. To that end, they installed a “flash” freezing unit and have had no complaints from either the restaurants or their direct customers. To offset today’s high fuel costs, the ranch has installed a 200 gallon bio-diesel unit which recycles used cooking oil from their restaurant clients.
“I like the idea of a full circle deal. We take them beef, they provide us with fuel.”
The Ranch’s “centerpiece” operation is its grassfed beef operation. The ranch currently markets 150 head of beeves a year and utilizes both home-raised and purchased feeder cattle.
Since our last visit, George has discontinued using Wagyu bulls and has concentrated exclusively on Angus bulls from Diamond D Angus and Shoshone Cattle Company, both of which are located in Montana.
“Gearld Fry showed me that to make any money direct-marketing cattle, you have to use cattle with a high cutout yield and that largely comes from an animal with a big butt.
“At our high abattoir and other input costs, a 50% yield is nothing but a break-even proposition (at our whole carcass price). We need that 60-plus yield to make any serious money.”
He said that he has started allowing all of his stocker and finishing cattle free-choice access to high quality alfalfa hay throughout the green season. He said this practice has improved both the marbling and flavor of the ranch’s meat.
“They don’t eat much (hay) at all but it really stabilizes your average daily gain and stops the seasonal fluctuations due to dry matter shortages and accidentally not moving them fast enough in their pasture rotation.”
By stool sampling, and heavy culling of those animals found heavily infested with worms, George said he has totally eliminated problems with internal parasitism.
“All of my problems were concentrated in my bigger cows. I’ve found that once you start selecting for mid-size to smallish cattle almost all of your animal health problems just go away.
“I definitely would not like to be organic with large framed cattle.”
He also has a live biopsy done on his harvested cattle once a year to fine tune his mineral program. He said the Pacific Northwest is very low in soil selenium and iodine.
The ranch only harvests beef from May until December due to the difficulties with western Washington’s extremely high winter rainfall. This restricts the use of winter-grazing due to pasture flooding from the adjacent Skagit River. As a result, the animals are fed ryegrass silage on concrete during rainy periods.
“In the winter, we are just like a dairy. We haul the feed in and the manure out. It’s a high labor, high cost situation.
“We would like to move our cowherd to (dry) eastern Washington and just do the finishing here at home.
“With a little (non-starch carbohydrate supplement) we could finish cattle in the winter on our ryegrass silage.”
In conclusion, George said the Pacific Northwest offers graziers a combination of the good and the bad.
It has an enthusiastic consumer culture willing to pay more for artisanal food products and a very grass-friendly climate.
Offsetting this are very high input costs for organic grain, hay, feeder cattle and abattoir services.
“We haven’t found this to be an easy road to riches but we wouldn’t trade our lifestyle for the world,” George said.
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