A trend that has become more prominent in recent years is for ranchers to finish a few animals and sell beef direct to the consumer. Consumers have a desire to know where their beef comes from, value the story and are seeking ranchers to purchase beef from. At the same time, ranchers have been seeking opportunities to add value to their cattle and reduce their exposure to market swings.
However, feeding and managing a grain-finished animal is different than managing a cowherd or backgrounding calves. Proper feeding and management are key to capturing extra value and meeting customer expectations. This is part four of a four-part series for ranchers who have a small group of cattle with limited equipment and plan to finish a few head of cattle each year. This article will address meeting customer expectations for finishing out beef cattle.
If you are considering marketing your animals directly to consumers it is important to understand the inspection requirements for selling directly to consumers. This article will focus primarily on raising freezer beef for sale as a whole, half, or quarter.
A variety of factors may lead consumers to purchase beef directly from a producer. They may have an interest in purchasing local, a desire to know the source of their protein, or an interest in a specific quality or credence attribute. However, when purchasing freezer beef most consumers expect an eating experience that would be as good or better than buying beef from retail.
Consumers generally desire flavorful, juicy, tender beef with a bright cherry red color. To meet this expectation, it is recommended to market beef that is healthy, young (<30 months), and has been on an appropriate finishing ration.
- Health: While it may be tempting to try and capture value from a sick or poor doing animal by selling it as freezer beef it should be noted that animals that have been sick and treated multiple times can produce lower quality carcasses. Customers may also inquire about the use of antibiotics or growth promoting implants. This information should be shared as appropriate without disparaging others who chose to use or not use these technologies. It is critical to follow the label instructions on slaughter withdrawal time for any health products and it is recommended that cattle producers adhere to the Beef Quality Assurance guidelines.
- Animal Age: Older animals tend to producer tougher, darker colored meat that is less desirable for whole muscle cuts such as steaks. While there can be a market for older animals for use in ground beef or processed meat products, it is not recommended to sell older cows or bulls as freezer beef for traditional steaks and roasts.
- Finishing Ration: The type of finishing ration can also impact palatability. While there is room for both grass- and grain-finished beef in the freezer beef marketplace it is important to understand and accurately represent your product. In general, the typical U.S. beef consumer is accustomed to the flavor profile and palatability attributes of grain-finished beef. Beef from grass finished animals may be identified as having a grassy flavor and can have a different cooking odor compared with grain-finished beef. Also, consumers may note a difference in the visual appearance as the fat of grass-finished beef can be more yellow in color. Grass-finished beef are also generally finished at a lighter weight than grain-finished beef and, as a result, are often leaner with less marbling (intramuscular fat).
While individual preferences will dictate the type of beef a consumer selects, it is important to communicate specific details in order to meet their expectations.
Good communication between producers, processors, and customers is an essential step in meeting expectations. Producers should be prepared to share details about the animal’s sex, age, diet, and health history. They should also be prepared to estimate the final live weight and expected yield. This is important for two reasons:
- It allows the customer to estimate the purchase price of the animal and the associated processing costs.
- It allows the customer to know how much beef to expect to put in their freezer if they are purchasing a whole, half, or quarter of beef.
Producers will also need to establish good communication with the processor to determine slaughter dates and provide customer contacts. Producers should help communicate to customers when they can expect the final product by sharing harvest dates, aging days, and processing dates. They should also make sure customers understand the importance of paying for their processing and picking up their beef promptly when it is ready.
One way to grow your freezer beef enterprise is by providing exceptional customer service. Providing customers (especially new customers) with information about what to expect from a freezer beef purchase can go a long way to managing their expectations and avoiding problems before they occur. Providing information about your management practices, helping them to understand the process, and guiding their interaction with the processor are all good practices to enhance your customer service. Some common issues that you can assist customers with include:
- How much freezer space is needed: If someone is new to purchasing freezer beef, they may not understand the volume of beef they will be receiving or the amount of freezer space that will be required. In terms of how much freezer space will be needed, the general rule is one cubic foot per 35-40 pounds of packaged meat. Additional space is needed when storing large or odd shaped cuts. This infographic from the University of Minnesota is useful for visualizing the cuts and freezer space needed for a quarter of beef.
- Selecting cuts and cutting instructions: An aspect of purchasing freezer beef is determining the type and size of cuts desired. Customers will generally be provided a cutting form from the processor where they will specify the cuts they want, steak thickness, and package quantities. New customers may appreciate help and recommendations regarding these decisions based on your experiences.
- Dealing with frozen meat: Most U.S. beef consumers generally purchase fresh beef at retail and may not know how to properly thaw frozen beef. They may also appreciate tips on properly handling and cooking beef.
Retaining a small group of calves each year to market as freezer beef can help diversify a cow-calf operation. Taking steps to manage customer expectations, utilizing good communication, and providing exceptional customer service are efforts that can help build and retain your customer base.
The BBQ Bootcamp program is designed to educate consumers about beef selection, preparation, and use in meals. View this series of videos to learn more about choosing and safely preparing a variety of beef cuts.