Grass-fed beef is a hot item with a growing number of consumers, especially artisan restaurants and upscale grocers, as well as food co-ops. The Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative, established in 2009, has been capitalizing on the burgeoning popularity of this sustainably-raised, lean beef. This grassroots co-op is putting out a call for more members and cattle in order to meet demand and further grow sales.
According to co-op president Greg Nowicki, Athens, the co-op already has over 80 member/producers statewide. Cattle must be born and raised in Wisconsin, which he notes, is “unique from a marketing standpoint.” They also must be raised under a strict protocol that precludes grain feeding, even to the cows when they’re nursing calves destined for grass-fed beef.
Membership is an opportunity for beef producers with adequate pasture, who’d like to try their hand at finishing beef cattle on grass. (Cattle can be carried over winter on forage, but no grain allowed.) Low-stress handling and rotational grazing keep cattle and pastures healthy.
Nowicki, 44, his wife Lisa, and their 8-year-old daughter Anna farm in Marathon County. Not only does he run 30 Galloway/Angus-cross cows on pasture, finishing their calves on grass, but he also custom-grazes dairy heifers. He grew up on a dairy farm but left the farm for the military and other pursuits, only to return again to his roots. He’s been raising beef since 2000 and was on the co-op’s original board and now, as noted, serves as its president.
Many of the members raise old-world British breeds such as Devon, Galloway, White Park and others, proven to be hearty and thrive on an all-forage diet. “We encourage small-to-medium British breeds,” notes Nowicki, stressing, though, that members aren’t restricted in terms of beef breeds and some members have, for instance, larger-framed Limousins that “do just fine” on a pasture diet. The co-op, however, doesn’t allow dairy genetics (i.e. Holstein steers).
Nowicki says ideally they’d like finished grass-fed beef with hanging weight right around 650 pounds (which usually translates into about 1,100 pounds live weight). The cattle can’t be over 30 months of age, with one exception. He says the co-op will take cull cows (grass-fed) when they need burger meat, but the co-op’s protocols must still be met on those as well. Ideally, finished cattle should be 24 to 26 months when they’re marketed.
The co-op markets its 100 percent grass-fed, naturally raised beef under the Wisconsin Meadows brand name. The aim is to bring locally produced grass-fed beef to the closest markets, and as demand grows, ultimately establish groups of farms around the state and send their beef onto restaurants and stores in the nearest markets. Presently cattle are processed at Black Earth Meats in Black Earth, which is in close proximity to the co-op’s primary markets in the Madison and Milwaukee areas.
Nowicki says it’s the producer’s responsibility to get the cattle there. However, members are reimbursed a “shipping credit.” If they’re 150 or more miles away from Black Earth they receive a $30-per-head credit, $20 for 100 to 150 miles, $10 for 50 to 100, but nothing if they’re within 50 miles of the processors.
The Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Co-op takes ownership of the cattle when they arrive at the processor, Nowicki explains. Members are paid by hanging weight, the price set monthly. For July the based is $2.35 a pound. There are premium and discounts depending on the quality of cattle, he adds, of up to an additional 15 cents a pound for a high-quality carcass, while lesser-quality, lower-weight carcasses are docked up to 20 cents. “We don’t want to go below 500 pounds, unless they’re small-framed and can still be finished at that weight,” he remarks.
Of setting the purchase price for cattle, Nowicki says the co-op tries “to maintain a 20 to 30 percent premium (live weight) above the conventional market.” Though, he notes, “a lot of it has to do with dress-out percentage.”
Producers must fill out an application to join the co-op; more information can be had online at www.wisconsingrassfed.coop. They sign an agreement and pay a $200, one-time membership fee. Even if a producer doesn’t have finished cattle at this time that meet protocol, farmers converting their operations to pasture-based are still encouraged to join and become a voting member. They’ll have access to technical advice, be able to buy and sell cattle, feed and equipment through the co-op’s member forum and network with other Wisconsin beef graziers.
The co-op’s production manager also coordinates new members; he’s Pete Prochnow, Ixonia, 920-210-9177 or email@example.com. He also coordinates cattle-buying and deliveries of members’ cattle to the processing facility on the every-other-week slaughter dates.
As noted, to get the type and quality of cattle this co-op wants for its Wisconsin Meadows brand, members must follow a protocol, which can be seen in detail at www.wisconsingrassfed.coop/wgbc_protocol_application.pdf. Again, the focus is to produce market animals raised and finished on pasture and forages, with no grain. While cattle aren’t organic, they need to be raised minus implants and antibiotics. Calves can’t be creep-fed and they must not be weaned prior to 120 days of age. However, producers are encouraged to wean later, up to 10 months of age. According to Nowicki, cattle kept over winter should be on dry hay, haylage or baleage.
As noted, Wisconsin Meadows beef is sold fresh to specialty grocers, like Metcalfe’s and Willy Street Co-op in Madison along with Outpost Natural Foods stores in the Milwaukee area, and restaurants such as the Harvest Restaurant in Madison, the Janesville Country Club and the Oconomowoc Lake Club. They also have outlets in the Fox Valley and LaCrosse area, and some in Illinois.
Demand is outstripping supply, both for this co-op and the grass-finished beef market in general, notes Nowicki.
“Without much effort,” he states, the co-op could handle several more head on its every-other-week slaughter dates. March through August in particular is when supply is shortest. To even out the supply of cattle more and get more producers involved in grass-finishing, co-op leadership is encouraging some producers to be custom-grass-finishers.
“By far this is our best year in terms of sales growth,” notes Nowicki, “and we think we have a real good future.” The co-op has a hired operations/meat sales manager, Rod Ofte at Coon Valley. Both Ofte and Prochnow are under contract and work part-time for the co-op.
The co-op also recently received a $28,000, private-money grant from the Wallace Center at Winrock International in Arkansas to address barriers to expansion of grass-based systems of meat production in the Midwest. The ultimate aim is to reduce the impact of agriculture on water quality in the Mississippi River Watershed. This entity is “looking for a business model to be replicated in other parts of the country,” notes Nowicki.
Other producers on the board (which still has one open seat) are: Vice-president Russ Endres, Middleton; Secretary-treasurer Lanice Szomi, Medford; Melvin Abel, Greenwood; Kevin Moore, Plain; and Judy Lang, Medford. For more information, contact Nowicki at 715-573-5610.