Lately, it seems like struggles in the food supply chain have been all over the news. Understandably, people are worried. Worried about costs. Worried about access. Worried about being able to provide healthy meals for their families.
We hear you. We know. It’s scary to feel like something so basic as access to food is out of your control. Farmers and ranchers are struggling with the rising costs of feed, the outrageous cost of fuel to move that feed and livestock from place to place, shortages of labor and issues with packing houses.
The consolidation of our industry into a few large packers where a tremendous amount of our nation’s beef supply is processed, leaves us at the mercy of a small group of people. Currently the “big 4” packers in our country control 85% of production. A fire in 2019, at one of these packing houses actually reduced beef supply by 6%. The pandemic has further exposed the crumbling foundation of our system.
Sometimes bigger, cheaper, and faster is just not BETTER.
You may have read articles, I’ve certainly heard straight from the source, about how beef prices are so high but somehow, ranchers are not seeing any of that.
Today’s headline read, “U.S. Beef Prices are Set to Rise Further as Ranchers’ Cost Soar.”
Here’s How it Works
Some of you probably know all of this but for those that don’t, let me explain how the process typically works. Ranchers will breed cattle and the calves will stay out on the ranch, grazing on pasture until they are old enough to be sold to a feed lot. Some of these feed lots hold and feed 50,000 plus head. At that point, the rancher is out of the process and is likely expecting his next calf crop to start the loop again.
The feedlots, are obviously the most efficient and effective way to get cattle ready for harvest. Don’t be fooled, there are “grass fed” feedlots as well. They just offer different feed. That’s a story for another day. The lots typically have a nutritionist, vets, and very able caretakers. With the ability to care for and feed thousands of cattle at more economic prices, the public can save money with this method. When we first started selling beef directly to consumers, we used a feedlot in the panhandle to finish for us. They did an amazing job. Really. The beef quality was very good. We’ll come back to this topic but long story short, we don’t truck our animals up to the panhandle anymore.
When they are ready for harvest, the cattle are sent to a packing plant where they are killed and processed. Then, the beef is packaged and trucked back out to whatever restaurant or grocery store they end up at. That’s where the consumer comes in.
So, you can see, there are lots of steps-lots of hands in the bucket between the rancher and your family's Taco Tuesday at the dinner table. Changes in fuel affect the cost of growing corn, which then affects the cost of feeding animals and transporting them. So that makes beef more expensive. To add to that, the consolidation of our food system means that one of four packing houses can shut down and greatly affect the market. Less supply = higher prices. Today, even the conflict in Ukraine is affecting worldwide grain prices - grains that are used to feed cattle (and people). Drought in parts of the world, certainly here in West Texas, mean that ranchers may be more likely to sell off parts of their herd due to lack of grass.
There are factors, here, out of our control. But you know what? There are plenty of ways that farmers and ranchers can take back control of the beef supply. Local food systems are healthier for communities and the economy. This leads me to where we are now. How do we choose to deal with the frustrating situation with higher input costs and shortages? How do we deal with the low price paid to ranchers and feeling like we are at the mercy of a huge, consolidated food system controlled by a few people?
Simple. Choose not to participate in that. We choose to do it ourselves, the hard way. Sometimes the hard way is better for everyone. In this case, that’s proven to be true. So, our calves stay here. They graze our pastures and we wait to wean them until the most beneficial time for mom and calf. After about a year, they begin to eat a mixture of grains, hay and essential minerals- which we grow ourselves or source locally from other farmers. We work with a nutritionist to be sure they get every single thing they need to turn into nourishing beef for your family.
Choose Local Foods
We are in a sort of unique position here on the farm. We already grow the things we need to feed our beef. These glitches in the supply chain just do not apply to us. That’s by design. We took control back.
They are under our care until the day they head to the butcher.
The butcher. That’s another piece of the puzzle. Our world needs more local butchers. Can you imagine eating locally raised meats that you picked up from your local butcher? Ah..the way things used to be before we chose cheaper and faster. There are still plenty of butcher shops but lots of them are shipping in meats from a packing house because the system just isn’t set up for “local” anymore. I would challenge you to ask your butcher (or even the grocery store meat counter) where the beef under his counter came from. Ask him or her where it was raised and finished. I’d be interested to hear the answers.
After a long, hard year our partners at Old Barn Butcher are on the verge of opening a local USDA inspected processing plant. You can imagine the red tap and attention to detail required to get a plant up and running. This week we were able to test out our very own jerky flavors and the possibilities are just endless.
This has been a huge project and our partners in it have shown how scrappy and hard working they are. We could have just decided to be happy scrambling for dates and making do with driving hours and hours to get our beef processed but, again, we chose the hard path. But it’s the right path.
There’s nothing wrong with grocery store beef. It’s not bad for you. If you aren’t interested in where and how your food was raised, that’s okay. I’m just saying that the system is not healthy for our country. Where possible, local food systems are better for everyone involved. If you are interested to know how and where your food is grown or raised, you are my people.
Your choice to support us really does make an impact. It helps us to continue to expand and grow access to local foods. It stabilizes our local food system so that we aren’t so reliant on the outside factors. It helps us to take back control. There's still much work to be done.
For now, though, if you want to support local beef and help to build back our local food systems, we've got you!