What’s for dinner? The summer months are the perfect time to fire up the grill, and though the U.S. beef market has experienced a sales decline in the past decade, Americans still consume approximately 58 pounds of meat per capita.
A food trend that continues to emerge is the growing preference for grass-fed beef. According to Nielsen data, retail sales of labeled grass-fed beef went from $17 million in 2012 to $272 million in 2016.
The jump in preference to grass-fed beef is good news for Grady Ranch, a fourth-generation farm located near Whigham, a small Southwest Georgia community in Grady County.
Purchased in the 1970s by Glynn West, who also owned a farm in nearby Mitchell County, Grady Ranch has been family-owned for decades. West’s youngest son, Bill, and son-in-law, Bob Holden, managed Grady Ranch as a dairy farm. In the early 1990s, Holden’s son, Bobby, joined the family dairy operation.
When Bob decided to retire, Bill and Bobby started transitioning Grady Ranch from dairy to a grass-fed beef operation. The uncle and nephew team are joined by their wives, Renee West and Catherine Holden, in managing Grady Ranch’s continued growth.
“The dairy industry was changing,” Bill says. “To continue being profitable, we would have to double or triple the size of our dairy operation.”
The first herd of Black Angus cattle arrived at Grady Ranch in 2012, and today, more than 500 animals roam freely in pastures on 1,000 acres.
Grady Ranch uses a New Zealand rotational grazing system, where paddocks (an enclosed field) are divided so the herd can consume available grass in one to two feedings before rotating to a new section.
“Visually you think of a pie and the paddocks are the slices,” Bobby says. “There are enough paddocks to ensure 18 to 21 days for a complete cycle. The grass is at its optimal nutritional value during the 18 to 21-day window.”
The adage “you are what you eat” also applies to cattle. The type of grass the animals consume determines the taste and quality that is produced.
“Grass-fed beef coming from different parts of the country will taste different, mainly because of the grass they feed on,” says Bill, who works with forage production management experts at the University of Georgia in Tifton and University of Florida in Marianna to maintain Grady Ranch’s grazing system. “We use a proprietary blend of grasses which include Bermuda, Bahia, Rye, Tift 85, Clover, and Perennial Peanut.”
While nutritionally the grasses are similar, the goal is to use each type when they are at their nutritional peak. For example, Perennial Peanut, while categorized as forage (bulky food such as hay), offers a higher carbohydrate to protein ratio, allowing more marbling.
“We spent several years switching out the grass types and taste testing the meat,” Bill says. “In the start, we gave away a lot of meat to family and friends. We wanted to see which type of grass and forage produced the best flavor in the meat.”
The Grass is Always Greener
As shoppers stroll through the grocery store, they will notice an abundance of meat choices including organic, natural, and grass-fed. The terms can be confusing and sometimes misleading.
While it is true that all cows spend the first part of their lives grazing in pastures, grain-fed cows are moved to a feedlot at about eight months of age, where their diets consist of mostly grain to fatten them up as quickly as possible.
However, 100 percent grass-fed cows, also referred to as grass-finished, spend their entire lives eating grass and forage. This requires a longer timeframe for the cows to reach their ideal finishing weight.
“The biggest part of the flavor in meat comes from the fat,” says Bobby. “A true grass-fed cow will have more yellow in the fat and not pure white.”
So how do consumers know they are getting authentic grass-fed beef?
In 2016, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, discontinued its certification or endorsement of beef as grass-fed; however, the government agency still inspects and approves all meat, including grass-fed.
With the USDA no longer verifying beef as 100 percent grass-fed, ranches across the country, including Grady Ranch, have turned to the American Grassfed Association (AGA) for certification.
“We immediately applied for AGA certification as soon as we knew we wanted to be grass-fed producers,” says Bobby, who graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in dairy science. “We felt like it was important to have a third-party accreditation and set our standards high from the beginning.”
As a certified member of AGA, Grady Ranch is committed to ensuring that all its cattle are fed a diet consisting of 100 percent forage, are raised in a pasture and not confined to pens, and are never treated with hormones or antibiotics.
Grady Ranch is also certified Step 4 in the Animal Welfare Rating system through the Global Animal Partnership (GAP).
“The GAP is another third-party verification that shows Grady Ranch follows a high standard of animal husbandry,” says Bill. “The AGA label and GAP rating assures customers they are receiving a quality grass-fed product.”
A Healthy Choice
With a healthier mindset, consumers are becoming more aware of their dietary choices. Free of antibiotics and growth hormones, many nutritionists are touting grass-fed beef as a better choice than traditional grain-fed options.
Current research supports the findings that grass-fed beef is lower in calories and has less total fat, and higher amounts of omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is a type of fat that reduces heart disease and cancer risks.
Where’s the Beef?
While grass-fed beef represents only 1 percent of the U.S beef market—an approximately $68 billion industry—small-scale producers, like Grady Ranch, are selling grass-fed beef through independent retail outlets, direct marketing to customers, and locally owned restaurants.
Starting close to home, the family first sold Grady Ranch beef at a small farmers market in Bainbridge.
With a positive response, Grady Ranch expanded its direct to consumer efforts 30 miles to the south in Tallahassee.
“We started at The Downtown Market, a beautiful sip and stroll style event with a variety of vendors and artists, for a year before settling into the Tallahassee Farmers Market,” says Catherine. “The Tallahassee Farmers Markets offers only agriculturally produced products, so it functions like a pop-up grocery store on Saturday mornings. We quickly learned this type of market is more productive for us in terms of selling meat.
“Discovering where to locate our customer has been part of the learning process for us. We are grateful to everyone who has helped us with this along the way.”
Grady Ranch grass-fed beef is also available at the newly formed Bannerman Road Farmers Market, a mid-week market located in Tallahassee.
As a member of the Red Hills Online Farmers Market—a group of farmers and producers within a 100-mile radius of Tallahassee—Grady Ranch grass-fed beef is now readily available to customers throughout North Florida.
“The Red Hills alliance has provided valuable networking in the Tallahassee area and more opportunities for our product and brand to be seen by consumers,” says Renee. “Additionally, with approximately 60 farms coming together to market themselves, it gives us a louder voice to be heard by potential restaurants and consumers.”
While 100 percent Angus grass-fed ground beef is the biggest seller, Grady Ranch supplies consumers, restaurants, and private chefs with a variety of cuts including whole tenderloin, New York strips, tomahawk steaks, short ribs, chuck roast, brisket, beef shank (Osso Bucco), ribeye, rib loin, and flank steak, just to name a few.
There is a small stampede of grass-fed beef options showing up on restaurant menus across the U.S.
Grady Ranch burgers got its restaurant debut at Vertigo Burgers and Fries in Tallahassee. A popular choice with hamburger connoisseurs, Vertigo offers a grass-fed “Round Here” burger topped with Sweet Grass Dairy Green Hill cheese, Vidalia onions, and locally farmed arugula.
“Vertigo was our first restaurant client,” says Bill. “A word of mouth referral from a chef is very valuable in the restaurant industry.”
The word spread quickly in Tallahassee, and Grady Ranch grass-fed beef is now available at Grove Market Café, 319 Wine and Cheese, and the Cypress Restaurant. Also, in nearby Quincy, Florida, locals can enjoy Grady Ranch grass-fed brisket sandwiches featured daily at Damfino’s Café.
Not to be out-cooked, local chefs in Southwest Georgia are creating their own Grady Ranch recipes from gourmet burgers and braised short rib sandwiches to New York strips and tomahawk steaks.
At The American in Bainbridge, Grady Ranch short ribs are a local favorite. “The braised short ribs are definitely one of our most popular menu items,” says Chef Tyler Thomas, who owns The American with his wife, Heather. “We sell about 40 servings a week.
“The quality is excellent, and the meat is very tender. We are using the short ribs in several different ways, and also starting to introduce the New York strips and ground beef.”
Described as having “unmatched flavor,” Chef David Scarbrough, who, along with his wife, Jennifer, owns The Local Kitchen and Bar in Tifton, recently featured 32-ounce Grady Ranch tomahawk steaks as a dinner special.
I have never put a piece of meat in my mouth that taste like the ones we get from Bobby Holden at Grady Ranch,” he says. “It is bar none the best steak I’ve eaten, and I’ve eaten a lot of steaks. They have a flavor profile with their meat that is indescribable.”
Bobby says having Grady Ranch featured on restaurant menus is a plus and helps expand their beef distribution.
“It definitely raises awareness of our brand,” says Bobby, “which helps to drive customers to our retail points and gives us creditability with customers that professional chefs are using our products.”
With the restaurant sales representing one-third of Grady Ranch’s total revenue, feedback from the chefs is highly valued.
“Most of the chefs we work with have shared their appreciation for being able to source a local, fresh quality product from a family farm,” he says. “They value the culture of farming and the passion we possess for it. We have received valuable feedback from most of the restaurants regarding how our farm and products can better serve their needs as professional chefs, recommendation on cuts, insight into the restaurant business itself, and different uses of our products.”
Grady Ranch grass-fed beef is available for purchase in vacuum sealed packages direct from the farm, online through the Red Hills Online Farmers Market, Tallahassee farmers markets, and private retail stores throughout Southwest Georgia in Bainbridge, Thomasville, Albany, Camilla, and Ashburn. Visit the Grady Ranch website for a complete list of restaurants and retail outlets that feature Grady Ranch grass-fed beef.