Beef Production Systems Research Benefits Local Agricultural and Entrepreneurial Stakeholders
Located 45 miles south of Traverse City, MSU's Lake City Research Center aims to become a national leader in pasture-based, lower-cost beef production systems.
Jason Rowntree, faculty coordinator at the center, is leading a team of researchers in a collaborative study funded by the United States Department of Agriculture-Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education that utilizes every level of the beef value chain—producers, packers/processors, distributors, retailers, and culinary specialists—to help small- to medium-sized farms fill the demand for locally sourced, grass-finished beef.
"The small- and medium-sized farm is the most rapidly disappearing segment of the industry," said Rowntree. "We try to develop opportunities for these businesses to thrive. They are too big to sell their product on places like Craigslist, for example, but too small to have an economy-scale industry of, say, 5,000 head or more. They represent a large segment of our farming community, and these projects are vital to their survival."
A key part of Rowntree's project is developing a method of grass-finishing that is economically feasible for Michigan farmers. Grass-finishing means that cattle remain on a pasture diet until processing, rather than being moved to a feed lot for grain-finishing. The method provides several benefits, including a higher market value.
"Michigan has a really conducive climate to grass-finishing," he explained. "We've had 20 producers coming to learn about grass-finishing and the value chain. They are taking what they learned at our farm back to their farms."
Starting in 2015, these producers will each provide 10 steers to be part of a pilot project in which the farmers will develop pasture-based acreage, as well as on-site packing and distributing facilities, to help keep production local.
"The small- and medium-sized farm is the most rapidly disappearing segment of the industry. We try to develop opportunities for these businesses to thrive."
Citing a University of Kentucky study, Rowntree explained the impact that locally sourced products have on communities: "For every dollar spent on beef cattle, there's a $3.50 multiplier, because money is spent along every step of the chain...buying feed, working with processors, etc." And the local label is very popular with consumers. "In all major surveys, 'local' is always number one," he said.
But there are potential bottlenecks in the value chain, and Rowntree and his team are working with producers and culinary specialists to address them.
For example, in cold-climate states like Michigan, there is a limited window of opportunity for grass-finishing. "Grass-finishing happens in the fall," explained Rowntree. "But chefs demand fresh beef 365 days a year. New technologies using vacuum packaging allow for beef to be frozen. We will develop a sensory panel that uses a blind taste test of fresh versus frozen beef."
Finding ways to market the entire carcass is the second challenge Rowntree's team is addressing. "Every chef wants to cook with the good cuts, such as top sirloin and New York strip," explained Rowntree. "We are doing culinary education programs to help chefs learn to use a greater percentage of the carcass, such as the chuck and round."
"For example, chefs like to use the flank steak," he said. "If there are four pounds of flank steak from one beef carcass, and we need 20,000 pounds of flank steak, it would take 5,000 head of cattle. If we can say, take these lower cuts and prepare them in a way that tastes good, it cuts down on the number of animals needed. Culinary specialists drive the food trends. If we can work with our chefs to use a lower-grade cut of meat and they can make it popular, it impacts the whole value chain."
Local Business and Local Employees
Packing and processing the beef locally also provides an economic boost to local communities in the form of employment. Rowntree works with Ebels General Store in Falmouth, Michigan, to do the packing and processing of the Lake City Center beef. "Ebels employs about 100 people in that community," said Rowntree. "This is so crucial to keep the quality of life in those rural communities."
Mark Ebels is the owner of Ebels General Store, which has expanded since its founding in 1920 to include retail, packing/processing, catering, and a cooked meats plant. He said that almost 70 of his employees were hired in the last ten years, including during the recent recession: "When you talk about jobs in agriculture, it's a lot of hands-on work. We cook for hundreds and cut meat for hundreds—it takes a lot of people. [This business] has been a real economic boon for our area."
Ebels attributed some of the growth in the local animal agriculture to Rowntree and the MSU Lake City Center, which has been working alongside industry partners since 1928 to develop sustainable agricultural systems. "Jason is pioneering a new idea in the grass-fed beef and the whole feeding process," he said. "He wants to do it really right so the animals are premium quality. We see in our business how people are raising more animals, and they're bringing them to us for packing, and this grass-fed [project] is part of that. From what I see, Jason has got a very good, marketable product."
Collaborating with local partners is essential to Rowntree's work, and he is respectful of their mutual roles. "It's our job as a university to develop techniques and work through the challenges," said Rowntree. "But then when the producers begin to move forward, we need to step back."
Ultimately, Rowntree would like to help ensure food security across Michigan. He realized how fragile food security can be while attending Louisiana State University during several bad hurricane seasons. "We had four major hurricanes in five years," he said. "And what I realized is that we can go from a nice, stable situation to third-world conditions in a very short period of time. Because of this, we need to have food systems that are local to global."
"In my opinion," said Rowntree, "agriculture is our life-blood. We all need to eat. If we can develop and see these systems become more mainstream, it strengthens the whole value chain. I want to see that resiliency in our food system."