By Barry Shlachter, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
GRANDVIEW, Texas — Jon Taggart squinted toward a dozen or so steers, all uniformly black-hided and docile, as they moseyed through a gate to an adjoining pasture of foot-high grass, unlike neighboring fields that almost looked as if the land had been scraped bare.
Forage is key to producing grass-fed beef, and it became an extremely limiting factor in drought-stricken Texas just as demand for the niche cuts may never have been higher. But Taggart has been at it since 1999, back when few consumers realized non-grain-finished steaks were available, and he knows how to maintain his ranch land in dry weather.
Whole Foods became an early purveyor of grass-fed beef starting eight years ago, followed by Central Market four years later. Kroger convinced College Station, Texas-based Nolan Ryan All-Natural Beef to join the pricey specialty market, while trying to further stoke demand by sourcing its own Simple Truth organic line with grass-fed beef from Uruguay. Nolan Ryan’s namesake operation, by necessity, has had to source its meat from Iowa and Nebraska.
Consumer demand is strong but neither the American Grassfed Association nor Texas cattle experts can quantify sales since they are so fragmented, with many small and medium-sized producers selling directly to the public at farmer’s markets.
“It’s growing but it’s still very small,” said Kevin Good, an analyst with Cattlefax, which monitors the industry. “Is it going from 1/2 percent to 1 percent? We don’t know.”
Ron Gill, a livestock specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, sees expansion but like others can’t quantify it. “The size of its production puts it in a niche category, but there should be increasing demand as long as they can maintain quality,” Gill predicted.
Grass-fed beef is marketed as healthier and leaner than grain-fed, and fanciers say it has a stronger, more intense flavor, which they find highly palatable. It can be tougher if not cooked right, however, and the association suggests cooking at a low temperature in a sauce, or coated with extra virgin olive oil before browning, if you like it well-done.
Taggart and his wife, who operate Burgundy Pasture Beef, are fearful of becoming overly committed to any single large supermarket chain. Instead, they sell to a few restaurants but concentrate on the retail market with a storefront in Grandview, 40 miles south of Fort Worth, Texas, and Internet sales with delivery in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Burgundy hopes to open a retail store — with weekend hamburgers — by March 1 in Fort Worth. Another retail outlet is planned in Dallas.
The couple, who finish cattle they get from a grass-fed operation in Henrietta, are the first to admit their luck, landing spreads in Time magazine and other publications, as well as numerous speaking engagements. Although born and raised in Fort Worth, Jon Taggart looks the ranch-bred cattleman and can talk effortlessly of the joys and challenges of the turbulent grass-fed beef market.
Right now the market is excellent for producers, reflecting extremely high prices for beef overall, thanks to the smallest national herd in half a century driven by heavy culling due to drought. And Taggart has used careful land management to avoid over-grazing and keep his pastures productive.
“This drought is separating the men from the boys, and the women from the girls,” Taggart said.