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Visit to Niman Cattle Ranch

Visit to Niman Cattle Ranch

 
A few months ago I had a tasting between our Niman beef products and a competitor. The tasting was very close, the prices were a bit off, the story was about the same–no growth hormones or antibiotics (known as a “never never program” in the industry), the cattle are finished on corn but live a natural and happy life. If an animal gets sick and needs antibiotics, it is culled from the herd, tagged and taken out of the natural program. I have been using Niman Ranch beef and pork for going on 15 years.

 

I have been to pork farms, seen confinement houses, met the Niman pork farmers in the Midwest, including two instances that were quite emotional. I was riding in a elevator after the appreciation dinner we had just cooked for the Niman pork farmers in Des Moines and a middle aged woman and her family got in, looked at me and asked if I was one of the chefs. She had tears in her eyes and wanted to thank me for supporting Niman because without them she would have lost her family’s farm. Anyone can stage a tour that shows you the things they want you to see and I always have my BS monitor turned up high, but this kind of interaction is true to the core and affected me deeply.

 

I decided I needed to see the cattle ranchers that raise the Niman beef we use because the recent tasting I participated in made me realize there were other companies out there that were trying hard to get a piece of the pie. For years there has been very little competition for Niman; they had the best product out there in the natural programs so I did not question it. I now felt that I needed to see firsthand what it was all about, so I called Amanda Seastrom, the Western business director for Niman to schedule the tour.

I arrived in Boise Tuesday afternoon, picked up at the airport by Amanda and taken to the hotel to check in. We were to leave for dinner 15 minutes later. You know you’re in Boise when your room amenity is a bottle of water and a bag of potato chips. We had dinner at Red Feather Lounge with the owner Dave Krick, his purchasing agent, a couple that owns a meat store in town and the distributor for Niman in Boise. Conversation was a no-holds-barred discussion on grass fed beef and sustainability. Dave is a very educated and animated believer in grass fed; he even said that he pays $4 more for an inferior grass fed product due to his belief  that the beef industry is not sustainable otherwise, and he is begging Niman to start a grass fed program in addition to their finished on corn program. It’s a good point and I agree with him–it would allow us to offer a grass fed product next to corn finished and let the guest choose. We could even do a sample plate so you could try it side by side.

After a nice meal we took a tour of their kitchen, including a huge worm composting bin in the basement that they feed with all their leftover produce material. They are going to begin selling the compost in the restaurant. Pretty cool! Back to the hotel and to bed because we need to be on the road by 6:30 am for our two-hour drive to the ranch.

I met everyone in the lobby in the morning and was introduced to Mark Garhart, director of cattle buying for Niman Ranch. This was a pleasant surprise...I would have one of the most knowledgeable cattlemen in the company to travel with and question.

On the drive out I was able to ask a ton of questions and between Amanda and Mark got answers to everything I asked.

1)      It’s not realistic to think that every animal is tested for antibiotics in any natural program. This test is prohibitively expensive, so samples of a herd are the only practical way to test.

2)      Mark does random feed testing to make sure the ranchers are feeding to Niman specifications.

3)      Mark or one of his team physically sees every herd of calves shortly after they are born and before they take their first and last truck ride to make sure they meet the Niman standard.

4)      All Niman cattle are Certified Black Angus which has a better skeletal frame to produce higher quality meat than a Herford which traditionally is a dairy animal.

5)      The age of a Niman animal at process is 17-22 months; conventional is usually 12-14 months. This extra time allows for a slower more natural growth and allows for better marbling.

6)      If a rancher is caught cheating with feed, antibiotics or hormones, they are no longer working for Niman. This program benefits the rancher as Niman pays more than commodity beef and has a strong reputation in the industry.

7)      The beef industry is secretive and old school. When the market for natural beef goes up it is common for people in the industry to try to cheat. They try to get animals to pass that shouldn’t; they try to hide the implants put in the ears for growth hormones, etc. So while Niman is a middleman or broker, this system actually helps keep it honest. If a rancher is raising and marketing his own line of beef, then he is self-policing and you have to trust that if he says he is culling the sick animals, he is. This is an important point to understand. That rancher is standing in his feedlot looking at an animal that needs antibiotics to survive and he needs to pull that animal out of his herd and keep it separate and not sell it as natural even though he knows no one would probably be the wiser. This is a substantial financial decision that you just need to trust him on. At least Niman has a policing force (Mark and his other buyers), of which I believe there are only two. In this case a rancher is looking at the same sick animal, making the same decision, but knows that if he gets caught he not only loses that animal but the right to sell into the Niman program, which is a much higher cost decision. 

8)      There are animals in every herd that get sick. Cattle are like kids, the closer they are to one another the more cross contamination happens. So obviously the more confined the area, the more sick animals you get. The more sick animals you have, the higher the percentage of your herd that will need to be culled and given antibiotics; the higher this percentage, the less money the rancher makes. In other words, in a natural program the amount of space has a direct correlation with the amount of money you will be making.

9)      At least 40% of Niman ranchers have their own feedlot and grow their own feed. This gives them better control over the end product. This is an advantage of living in a rural place like Idaho and having the length of time on the land that many of these ranchers have. The Jaca family that we visited was fourth generation on that land with the fifth generation just starting to run around. This advantage means they can afford to use their land in a sustainable way; they raise cattle, grow their own feed and let the cows graze on different sections of their land on natural grasses. What Niman does is find these ranchers that have a sustainable operation and then go in and set them up with their regulations. These ranchers can afford to do this where a rancher that is in a more expensive area may not have enough land to grow feed and raise animals. 

10)   Niman gives the kill information of every animal back to the rancher. This is invaluable as Niman ranchers are bonused on the percentage of prime animals they raise. This system helps them manipulate the gene pool to raise better quality animals. It shows that a certain bull produces offspring with higher intramuscular fat (marbling) and they are able to continually improve their herd which puts more money in their pocket and better meat on our table.

The Jaca family that we visited could not have been nicer and more welcoming. As we drove into their property there was a herd of about 300 calves in a large field to the left. Mark pointed out the dry conditions, no mud on the animals and that they looked healthy and strong, which they did. Then he pointed out the feed bin running down a long stretch of fence–this was their feedlot! It looked more like pasture to me.

We took a tour of their operation, saw their feed, discussed energy and water costs, along with the history of the ranch and family, which are of Basque decent and have been working with Niman for around 12 years. It is always such a powerful experience to meet the people that raise and supply us with our products. This is a family that cares for their animals and the land so deeply that you can just feel it. Alias and Inez Jaca and their extended family all live on the land in three ranch homes and all work the land. All the cattle are moved on horseback, no four wheelers. One of Inez’ comments was that she should have been born as a cow the way her husband takes care of them. They raise a total of 1,200 animals completely sustainably. I did not want to leave, but Mark had an appointment an hour or so away and we were all flying out that afternoon.

Mark’s appointment was with a rancher he was just beginning to work with that had a group of 32 head he was trying to sell into the Niman program. I asked Mark on the way if he would walk me through his evaluation of this herd and tell me what he was looking for. He explained and showed me the brisket, the tail fat, the fact that the animal when you look at it from the front shoulders to the tail should form a rectangle. These animals numbered around 1,300 and he bought them all. The rancher tried to sell Mark a few other head in another feedlot and Mark looked them over and declined. Out of 1,200 head at the feedlot there were only 32 that met the Niman standard.

I plan on visiting other natural producers that are trying to get our business to see how they all compare. I truly appreciate what Niman has done though. They were very open and honest and I learned a lot from Mark and Amanda on this trip. The bottom line is that I want to be supporting ranchers like the Jaca family. When I left their ranch we all shook hands, they thanked me for taking the time to visit with them, and we commented that we are all in the same business. Raising, preparing and selling food that is wholesome, tasty, healthy and sustainable.