Feeding cattle to sell locally isn’t new, but it became more appealing during the past year as consumers searched for more local products. You may have found yourself looking into direct marketing beef to help capture a new revenue stream from your cattle. But, it’s not as simple as just diving in – it takes some smart planning to get your freezer beef program up and running.
Here are three tips to consider when getting into direct marketing beef to consumers:
1. Outline your marketing plan
Get started with direct marketing beef by understanding your customers, setting goals and outlining a plan.
“The most important place to start is asking what your customers want and then building a program around it,” says Amy Radunz, Ph.D. and beef technical specialist. “Do your customers just want something local? Do they want all-natural or conventional? Do they want corn-fed or grass-fed? Determining those factors will drive the rest of your management decisions.”
Additionally, consider how you’ll direct market beef. Selling quarters, halves and full carcasses to a few friends and family is very different from marketing individual beef cuts.
“Starting small by marketing beef from just a few cattle has its advantages,” says Drew Shain, Ph.D. and cattle consultant. “You can figure out a niche for your herd’s management program to see what works. Initially, only selling two to four head allows you to work with a locker to establish a relationship.”
Processing has become even more vital to the success of freezer beef in the past year as local lockers and small packers have been booked up with appointments. In some parts of the country, it might take a year to find an available processing date.
“If you’re just getting started, you’ll want to establish a working relationship with a beef processor before feeding cattle for direct marketing,” says Radunz. “There’s such a demand at this point, and if you don’t have a processor locked in, it will limit your ability to sell to your customers.”
2. Optimize carcass quality
Genetics plays a large role in an animal’s capability to grade Select, Choice or Prime. Some breeds are known for their ability to put on marbling, while other breeds aren’t as apt. Following genetics, nutrition is the next key to improving carcass and meat quality.
Raising your own calves from your cow herd is a simple way to optimize marbling by ensuring high-quality genetics and nutrition.
“Raising calves that marble well starts with the cow at conception,” says Radunz. “We know through fetal programming research that we can influence calf performance in how we feed the cow during gestation. Research has shown proper nutrition during late gestation can impact marbling in the carcass.1
Furthermore, the earlier we introduce corn to the calf’s diet, such as creep feeding
, impacts the amount of marbling. Essentially, marbling is a lifetime event.”
The amount of time cattle spend on feed also has an impact on carcass quality. If your customers want well-marbled beef, the longer you have them on a high-grain finishing diet, the more they will marble.
“If cattle are on a higher forage diet, I would recommend a minimum of 90 days on a high-grain diet to change the fat composition to be whiter and have more corn-fed flavor,” says Radunz.
For grades such as upper two-thirds Choice or Prime, cattle may spend even longer on feed. At commercial feedlots, days on feed tends to range from 120 to 200 days, so aiming for that range is more ideal to positively influence carcass quality.
3. Find the right feeding program
Outside of the actual value of the animal, whether it be home-raised or purchased, nutrition is typically the next highest cost. With corn, other commodity grains and byproducts hitting higher than normal prices this year, it might be a little harder to manage cattle nutrition costs.
“Ideally, you’d have farm ground available so you can feed corn you’ve grown to control costs,” says Shain. “If that isn’t the case, then you’ll want to look at what feed sources are available in your area.”
Feeding cattle to direct market beef doesn’t need to be as complicated as a commercial feedlot ration. If you have an off the farm or ranch job, self-fed rations can reduce labor. But remember, when using a self-feeder, it’s important to regularly check the feeder to make sure it hasn’t gone empty, cattle aren’t sorting feed and they can all access it.
products contain Intake Modifying Technology®
and can be used in a self-feeder mixed with grains and byproducts.
“A benefit of feeds with Intake Modifying Technology®
is they are self-limiting, so when an animal is full, they will stop eating until the next meal,” says Shain.
For those looking to handfeed cattle, Purina® SteakMaker® supplement
is an economical option to grow and finish calves. Purina®
supplement can be fed on its own or mixed with other grains and byproducts to complement the ration. It provides all the vitamins and trace minerals feeder cattle require so no additional mineral is needed.
If you intend to make forage a high portion of the diet to aid in marketing, you may still supplement while on pasture, depending upon what customers want. Purina® Accuration® supplements
like tubs, blocks, liquid and pellets can help optimize weight gain on pasture. Even if you don’t supplement, using a palatable mineral year-round, like Purina® Wind and Rain® All Season mineral
, will keep cattle nutrition balanced while grazing.
Feeding cattle and direct marketing beef takes thoughtful planning. Use these tips to deliver beef your customers want.
Launching a direct marketing beef program in a pandemic
Starting to market your own beef typically takes baby steps – beginning with selling quarters and halves of beef, moving into individual cuts and eventually entering restaurants. For Iowa cattlewoman Lillie Beringer, a different path worked better.
“I originally wanted only to do quarters and halves,” says Beringer. “I took an online course to learn more about beef marketing and thought I’d eventually get into selling individual cuts later.”
Those plans quickly changed when, due to packing constraints during the pandemic, the only meat locker at which she could find available dates happened to be USDA inspected and had just opened in May 2020. The inspection aspect allowed her to immediately get into selling individual beef cuts so she could sell across state lines.
“It drove my decision to go all-in with individual cuts since I could start my beef marketing business in four months instead of moving into individual cuts two or three years later,” says Beringer.
Beringer operates the family farm with her parents near Cascade, Iowa, where they run 100 cows split between spring and fall calving, while feeding out their own calves and custom feeding 500 head. In addition to her on-farm duties and running the beef business, Beringer also works full-time as a livestock production specialist for Purina Animal Nutrition, covering the northeast corner of Iowa.
She sells her beef under the Beringer Family Farms label, which she also promotes on Facebook and Instagram.
“A lot of my sales have been thanks to social media,” says Beringer. “I’m able to talk about what I do on the farm to help promote the beef and then drive customers to my website where they can order.”
In January 2021, Beringer took her first animal to the locker, and by late April, she had seven head processed. Her goal is to sell 20 head by the end of the year. All the beef is dry-aged for 21 days and would grade upper-Choice or Prime.
Beringer notes that “middle meats” like ribeyes, strips and filets sell out quickly, while other cuts are harder to move. She’s been putting together beef boxes that include roasts and ground beef alongside some of the more popular cuts, which has helped. Also, a couple of local restaurants have committed to buying ground beef, roasts, round steaks and livers, for additional business.
“It’s not easy by any means. It takes a lot of work starting a beef business,” says Beringer. “Sometimes you need to think outside of the box to diversify what you are doing on the farm to bring in more profitability. It’s been an exciting journey so far.”
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1 Summers, AF, Funston, RN. 2013. Fetal programing: Implications for beef cattle production. University of Nebraska. Range Beef Cow Symposium.