Randall Hastings is a third generation South Alabama cattle rancher. “My dad and grandfather worked our land from this very house, ” he says, pointing to a family photo hanging in his Bay Minette home. But nine years ago, Randall took the family business in a new direction: grass-fed beef. “And I discovered the demand for healthy meat is not just a market, ” he says, “It’s a movement.”
Market, movement or both, grass-fed beef has a growing and passionate following with both consumer and producer. Consumers receive healthy meat from area producers. And local cattle farmers benefit from something that frequently eludes them—profits.
“Traditionally, cash for cows required lots of land and lots of cows. I had neither, ” says Hastings. “Traditionally, I sold my stock for about $400 a head. After subtracting my cost, I cleared about $50 dollars each, totaling approximately $5, 000 annually. Without a lot of livestock to sell, that’s not much money. Of course, you can’t make a living on that.” So Hastings Farm was a part-time job.
Before switching to grass-fed, he sold his calves when they reached about 10 months of age. His customers were large commercial stockyards, Midwestern Big Ag companies and giant national processors. But from that point on, his cattle were gone and so was the money.
“About eight years ago, 2004, an idea hit me, ” the Baldwin County farmer says. “It was a very basic business concept: Cut out the middle man. In the traditional cattle business, at least five sets of hands touch cattle from birth to barbecue. All want a piece of the action. Why not do the processing and marketing myself?”
Randall Hastings soon expanded his job description to include direct marketer.
In addition, Hastings’ research revealed a public craving for healthy food from local farmers. “People want to know what is going in their bodies and it better not be pink slime, ” he says, referencing the recent news-making mixture of byproducts, leftovers and fat combined with who knows what else and pumped into commercially sold meat. “Seventy percent of antibiotics made today go into animals, ” according to the Baldwin County farmer. “Not mine.”
Somewhere around 2005, Hastings gradually switched to a grass-fed herd, direct marketing and becoming a full-time rancher. “I’m the middleman now, ” Hastings says. “Today, we hold calves to about age 22 months, take it to a processor, bring home finished cut products and sell to our customers. A calf once fetching $500 dollars now brings in about $2, 000.”
On the opposite end of the state, in Fort Payne, Teddy Gentry agrees. “Direct marketing is the key to our growth.” A singer with country music super-group Alabama, Gentry’s other passion is for the cattle on his beloved 400-acre Bent Tree Farm.
“The more people learn about how good this product is for them, the better our sales will be, ” he says. For example, grass-fed beef contains two to four times the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids as its grain fed counterpart, and can be four times higher in vitamin E, according to the industry website, eatwild.com.
“And it’s lower in cholesterol, ” says Jennifer Winslett, of Winslett Farms, in Montevallo. “It is also lower in calories, tastier and more tender.”
“Our cows are not squeezed together with a thousand more, standing in manure, pumped with hormones and/or steroids, in a Mid-West feedlot, ” Winslett says. “The cows roam pastures, grazing at will, on native grasses. They are so stress free our kids pet and play with them.”
“Grass is key, ” Hastings says. “I’m as much a grass gardener as I am a rancher.” He constantly tests and blends grasses for the correct quality and vitamins. Bahia, clover, crabgrass, and others are mixed in with legumes for just the right nutritional balance.
“We are still learning, ” says Hastings, quipping, “there are no schools yet for grass cattle farming, other than the school of hard knocks. But we are blessed in South Alabama with good warm weather and great grass growing conditions. Not only do we have a readily available grass supply, but we have it all year. Our cattle never stand in snow, giving us an advantage over our north-ern friends.”
Having a healthy and tasty product is vital, but so is logistics. And that’s still a challenge. Processing/inspection centers are the one bottleneck everyone agrees must be solved. “It is keeping the grass-fed cattle business from moving from a niche market to an industry, ” says Karen Wynne, program director, Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network. “The market is very promising. We raise a lot of grass-fed cattle in Alabama, but we don’t export and don’t sell a lot of finished product. We are losing a lot of the value.”
Currently Alabama has only a handful of processors. One is Cox Butcher Shop in Florence. “We have a USDA federal inspector onsite, ” says Renee Cox. “It’s a strict test to earn the ‘grass-fed’ label. The animal must be able to walk on its own, unassisted. It will have its liver and lymph nodes tested and it must be medicine, drug and steroid free.” Often there’s a waiting list to be tested.
Qualifying for the USDA Organic Seal is even tougher. “Your land that feeds the stock must be pesticide free for years before you can even apply, ” says Hastings, one of the few organic seal qualified Alabama cattle farmers. “Federal inspectors visit your land to take soil samples.”
The inspection is stringent, but the problem comes with so few people doing inspections and processing. Randall Hastings trucks his herd, about 10 head at a time, to Dothan, a 400-mile round trip. Then he drives back to pick up his finished cuts. This spring, each round-trip costs about $560 in fuel.
He is not the only one making the trip. The demand is so great, he says, “I have to schedule weeks in advance just to get on the processors’ calendar.”
Wynne agrees, adding, “Most grass-fed cattle growers come to market with six to 10 head of cows per truck.” It is not uncommon for producers to drive at least 200 miles to the processing house. The current small number of processors simply cannot keep up with much more. “We need to increase the number and be able to export at least 40 head at a time to maintain a consistent quantity and become a viable business.”
Grass-fed ranchers give new meaning to the business adage to know your customer. “When was the last time a big meat packer stood by the grocery store freezer to answer questions about your purchase?” Jennifer Winslett asked. “We do.”
She and husband Ryan sell their end product from home, trucks and various meat markets throughout mid-Alabama. “We interact with our customers. I can tell you exactly what is in the steak I’m handing you from my truck. The beef you buy from us and eat for dinner is the same my family eats, too.”
Hastings knows many of his customers, too. “I want to know everything about what I sell, ” he says. “If something is wrong, I need to know that, too.” Personal interaction between farmer and buyer is the ultimate market research.
The Winsletts sell 100-pound shares, approximately one-fourth of a processed cow, as well as smaller packages. They take orders by phone, email and website, and they make deliveries to outlets like Birmingham’s Pepper Place Market.
Most grass-fed cattle ranchers sell direct from their farms, as well. In addition to running a meat store and inspection center, Cox Butcher Shop also maintains a farm, selling their cattle as well as those from other farmers. “We do a lot of restaurant business, and so far, even in this poor economy, commercial sales have held their own, but our over-the-counter retail sales are low lately. During lean times, people buy less expensive cuts of meat. When times are hard, we eat more hamburger and less prime rib.”
There is little hard data about sales, since the business is still in its infancy, still a niche market. “But demand for grass-fed will only become better as the news of mass produced food becomes worse. There is a need, ” Hastings says. “And we hope to supply the need.”
Alabama Grass-Fed Beef Farmers
For more information on beef and other chemical-free meats in Alabama, check out eatwild.com.
1582 Country Road 852, Ranburne, AL 36273 • 770-862-7379
Beef “Primeburger, ” pork and lamb cuts
Foggy Bottom Farms
4816 Country Road 27, Estillfork, AL 35745 • 256-776-1499
Registered Dexter Beef Cattle
Goose Pond Farm
298 Goose Pond Rd., Hartselle, AL 35640 • 256-751-0987
Beef, chicken, turkeys, lamb, pork and eggs
40701 Pine Grove Rd., Bay Minette, AL 36507 • 251-937-8728
Custom beef cuts
Irvington Cattle Co.
11680 Irvington BLB Highway, Irvington, AL 36544 • 251-243-0453
Individual cuts, vacuum packaged
11851 County Road 41, Gaylesville, AL 35973 • 256-643-5312
Beef, available half and whole
Narrow Gap Farm
1199 Beasley Road, Brewton, AL 36426 • 251-236-0683
Beef, call for custom cutting
Native American Natural Grass-Fed Beef
194 Lake Gerald Circle, Delta, AL 36258, 256-488-5661 or 256-396-2058
Steers sold whole by hanging weight
5210 Highway 10, Montevallo, AL 35115, 205-789-4593
Beef cuts, sold by shares and custom cuts
Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.
By Emmett Burnett