GRANDVIEW, Texas - Jon Taggart squinted toward a dozen or so steers as they moseyed through a gate to an adjoining pasture of foot-high grass, unlike neighboring fields that almost looked as if the land had been scraped bare.
Forage is key to producing grass-fed beef, and it became an extremely limiting factor in drought-stricken Texas just as demand for the niche cuts may never have been higher. But Taggart has been at it since 1999, when few consumers realized nongrain-finished steaks were available, and he knows how to maintain his ranch land in dry weather.
Whole Foods became an early purveyor of grass-fed beef starting eight years ago, followed by Central Market four years later. Kroger convinced Nolan Ryan All-Natural Beef, of College Station, Texas, to join the pricey market, while trying to stoke demand by sourcing its own Simple Truth organic line with grass-fed beef from Uruguay. Nolan Ryan's namesake operation, by necessity, has had to source its meat from Iowa and Nebraska.
Consumer demand is strong but neither the American Grassfed Association nor Texas cattle experts can quantify sales, because they are so fragmented, with many small and medium-sized producers selling at farmers markets.
"It's growing but it's still very small," said Kevin Good, an analyst with Cattlefax, which monitors the industry. "Is it going from a half percent to 1 percent? We don't know."
Ron Gill, of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, sees expansion but can't quantify it. "The size of its production puts it in a niche category, but there should be increasing demand as long as they can maintain quality," Gill predicted.
Grass-fed beef is marketed as healthier and leaner than grain-fed, and fanciers say it has a stronger, more intense flavor.
which they find highly palatable. It can be tougher if not cooked right, however, and the association suggests cooking at a low temperature in a sauce, or coated with extra virgin olive oil before browning, if you like it well-done.
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Taggart and his wife, who operate Burgundy Pasture Beef, are fearful of becoming overly committed to any single large supermarket chain. Instead, they sell to a few restaurants but concentrate on the retail market with a storefront in Grandview, 40 miles south of Fort Worth, Texas, and Internet sales with delivery in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Burgundy hopes to open a retail store - with weekend hamburgers - by March 1 in Fort Worth. Another retail outlet is planned in Dallas.
The couple, who finish cattle they get from a grass-fed operation in Henrietta, are the first to admit their luck, landing spreads in Time magazine and other publications, as well as numerous speaking engagements. Although born and raised in Fort Worth, Jon Taggart looks the ranch-bred cattleman and can talk effortlessly of the joys and challenges of the turbulent grass-fed beef market.
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Right now the market is excellent for producers, reflecting extremely high prices for beef overall, thanks to the smallest national herd in half a century driven by heavy culling due to drought. And Taggart has used careful land management to avoid over-grazing and keep his pastures productive.
"This drought is separating the men from the boys, and the women from the girls," Taggart said.
Betsy Ross, whose Ross Farm of Granger, Texas, has been in the niche market since 1992, was forced by drought to drop out of a production alliance last year that supplies Whole Foods stores in Texas and several neighboring states.
"The drought was brutal," she said. Her brother's cow-calf operation in West Texas supplies her steers (South Devon crossed with Red Angus), but the lack of forage dropped his usual herd numbers from 400 to 120. In 2013, she processed just 50 head, down from 150 to 250 a year. Eighty percent of her beef is sold to retailers in the Austin, Texas, area, including four compounding pharmacies that have a natural food deli, she said.
Because of the high price per pound (a Nolan Ryan Grass-Fed strip steak costs $19.99 at Kroger vs. $11.49 for Ryan's all-natural choice) and lack of industry-wide standards, there's plenty of economic incentives to pass things off as grass fed.
When trying to identify grass-fed cattle sources for over a year, Nolan Ryan Beef CEO Charlie Bradbury came across a prospective supplier trying to pass off old dairy cows as antibiotic-free, grass-fed cattle, which he considered highly dubious.
"The definition of 'grass-fed' is a lot less clear than other definitions in our industry," Bradbury said. "One company was purchasing 8-year-old culled dairy cows and the seller signed an affidavit that they never were given antibiotics. Knowing what I know about the beef industry, that's very difficult to do. I also know people can get affidavits signed."
Central Market said it only buys beef that is raised according to USDA guidelines, relying on the department's inspectors to enforce them, said David Lusk, chief merchant of the HEB-owned division. To be deemed grass-fed under USDA marketing standards, the animals cannot be given grain - although plants in a pre-grain state are OK - and they must have year-round access to pasture. But USDA rules say nothing about prohibiting the use of antibiotics or growth hormones.
And bait and switch can be found at different stages of the food chain.
Taggart said he once supplied steaks to an upscale restaurant in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which stated on the menu that the grass-fed cuts hailed from Taggart's ranch.
But the arrangement lasted only a few months, and the owner switched to a far cheaper, commodity steak - but didn't change the menu's description.
"I call it fraud," Taggart said. "But what can I do, sue the guy?"
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Like the past debates within the natural produce world over what constitutes "organic" foods, the fledgling grass-fed beef niche has its own factions divided over its definition. Some "purists" believe only cattle raised totally on one operation should be considered grass-fed, said Gill.
The internal debates are reflected in reaction to the guidelines of the American Grassfed Association, which some producers find wrong-headed.
To be certified by the group, beef cattle must be born in the U.S. and raised on American family farms, given access to pasture - without ever being confined on feedlots - and never given antibiotics or growth hormones. Moreover, compliance is policed by an independent annual audit.
Still, Taggart says, he broke with the organization because it allows producers to resort to an array of feed supplements when grass is not available.
The association's list of approved supplements include canola seed, coconut meal, cottonseed, flax seed, linseed, malt sprouts, oat hulls, peanut meal, rice hulls, soybean meal and sunflower seed.
Ross, who calls herself a purist, said, "If they feed them that way, they should call the meat something else." Yet, while opposed to the association's approved supplements, she's nonetheless sticking with the industry group.
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Dennis Braden, 58, general manager of West Texas' historic Swenson Ranch, is no fan of grass-fed cattle.
"They're terrible from an economic standpoint," Braden thundered down the phone from Stamford, north of Abilene, Texas. "You are doing on grass in 13 to 16 months what a feedlot can do in three to five months."
For Swenson to grass-finish all of its cattle, Braden figures he'd have to reduce its herd by 30 to 50 percent.
"It will never happen on a big scale. Grass-fed would take us back to the 1880s, and we wouldn't be able to feed everyone who wanted beef. Right now it's a niche. Perhaps a gentleman farmer, with an operation small enough to fertilize and able to keep consistent nutrient value in the forage, maybe. But on a big ranch, it would be very, very hard to make it profitable."
Yet an heir to the Swenson ranching dynasty, retired New Jersey investment banker Chris Swenson and his son, comedian Mikey Swenson, 24, have been picking up Braden's steers several at a time - a total of 11 head last year - to supply a gourmet food truck in Austin. Svante Stuffed Burgers is named for the ranch family's Swedish patriarch, Svante Swenson.
Chris Swenson, 61, the former Wall Street banker, is the first to admit that he hasn't won over relatives on the ranch's board. But the food truck has gotten rave reviews (Yelp awarded it 4.5 out of 5 stars), and it sold out of burgers during the South by Southwest festival last year, forcing it to get emergency supplies of grass-fed ground meat from the Bastrop Cattle Co.
"Not everyone has signed off on the concept; not everyone is convinced," Swenson said. "I love grass-fed beef, but is it a viable business? We'll find out.
"For the time being, the food truck is supporting my son, the aspiring comedian."