Willowcreek rancher Matt Rockwell talks about his specialty beef operation recently at his ranch. Rockwell is part of Desert Mountain Grass Fed Beef LLC, a coalition of Oregon and Idaho ranchers that are expanding into markets in several northwestern states. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

VALE — Willowcreek rancher Matt Rockwell is betting on the finicky tastes of urban American beef consumers.

So is Riverside rancher Rob Elder and more than 20 other producers in Oregon and Idaho as part of Desert Mountain Grass Fed Beef LLC.

“We are a new co-op. Just been going for a few years,” said Rockwell.

The two Malheur County ranchers and their partners of Desert Mountain plan to take advantage of the desires of a growing number of Americans who want to know where their meat comes from and that it is free of hormones and antibiotics. 

Rockwell, who is also the president of the Malheur County Cattlemen’s Association, said the Desert Mountain template is a simple one.

“In our group, we require that our cattle are owned from birth all the way to harvest. We don’t buy cattle out of the program and they are all natural. We are actually going after a non-GMO label,” said Rockwell.

The Desert Mountain cattle receive no hormones or antibiotics.

Rockwell and Desert Mountain use a special breed of Japanese cattle called Akaushi.

[ KEEP YOUR LOCAL NEWS STRONG - SUBSCRIBE ]

Known for their tender, juicy flavor, Akaushi are a smaller breed than the average American cow.

Rockwell, who runs about 100 head of Akaushi, said the grass-fed only program does spark higher production costs, but it also delivers higher profits.

The key to Desert Mountain beef isn’t just its grass-fed classification. Hamburgers and steaks made from Desert Mountain beef carry a richer taste, Rockwell said.

“You are also getting less fat in it. It is not going to have a big pool of grease in your pan when you are done so you get a much better yield out of it,” said Rockwell.

That’s because Akaushi is a leaner animal, said Rockwell.

Willowcreek rancher Matt Rockwell focuses his operation on grass-fed only, hormone free Akaushi beef. The Akaushi are smaller and leaner than American cows. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

The retail price of a pound of Akaushi, grass-fed beef runs around $7 a pound and goes for about $5 a pound in wholesale.

“They are not as big or fat as a feedlot beef but the tasting experience is very good,” said Rockwell.

Desert Mountain ranchers focus on “regenerative” land practices. That means, for someone like Rockwell, no fertilizer on his pasture.

“I feel like my soil has improved and I am not throwing a bunch of chemical on it,” said Rockwell. “It is interesting as we go along we are finding that a lot of us just started out trying to make a few bucks but we are finding we are doing some good things for our soil.”

While the Akaushi cattle play a pivotal role in the program, the feed they eat must be free of unnatural ingredients. That focus helps the land, said Rockwell.

The Akaushi cattle of Desert Mountain also cannot spend time inside a feedlot or corral, said Rockwell.

“They have to have access to pasture,” said Rockwell.

Demand for grass-fed beef, said Rockwell, is growing.

“Our buyers, they tell us they want more. We haven’t begun to tap the market. We are just a small speck in the grand scheme of things but we talked to people that are sort of in the big meat packing world and they are telling us the market is huge,” said Rockwell.

Finding a way forward

Rockwell said right now Desert Mountain sells about 40 Akaushi cattle a week.

“And there are more cattle in the pipeline,” he said.

The rate of production in Desert Mountain varies, said Rockwell.

 “Within the company we have producers who have 900 head going through and other producers who have 50,” said Rockwell.

The specialized nature of the program, though, takes planning.

Because Desert Mountain beef must be only grass-fed, pasture for the animals is at a premium. Especially when winter hits, the search for the proper type of feed is a priority.

The co-op, said Rockwell, tries to finish its cattle in specific place – such as McCall in the summer – but often must use specific alfalfa feed in the winter. That technique boosts costs, said Rockwell, because it is hard to finish cattle with hay.

The co-op also rents pasture around Grandview, Idaho, said Rockwell.

“They have a little longer growing season,” said Rockwell. “You just have to plan and have the feed lined up.”

The ranchers in Desert Mountain meet every quarter and decide how many cattle they want to market. Desert Mountain beef are then slaughtered by an outside vendor in Wendell, Idaho.

“We commit ourselves to do everything we can to market every one of those and so far, we’ve been able to do that,” said Rockwell. Desert Mountain, he said, uses a marketing team to sell the beef and a production team that “runs the finish pasture and they market the cows.”

“So, if I wanted to run more next year, I’d say, ‘Hey I have another 100 head,” said Rockwell.

Demand remains consistent

Rockwell said what Desert Mountain is doing isn’t for every rancher.

But for his operation, the program works.

“We are doing something different and we think there is a deep niche where we can get paid,” said Rockwell. “The market is way bigger than we can produce.”

For Malheur County rancher Rob Elder, the Desert Mountain experiment is about building for “long-term sustainability, which ties back to profit and everything else.”

Elder and his wife, Kristi, still operate along conventional lines at their ranch at Riverside as most of their cattle are not grass-fed.

But that will change, said Elder.

“We own 12 Akaushi bulls so we have got a bunch of capital we keep in generic markets. But our goal is eventually, as it builds, we will convert it all over to grass fed,” said Elder.

Elder said Desert Mountain is “targeting specific, high-end markets” and the co-op will market more than 3,000 head this year.

Elder said the co-op has “to get some of our costs down as far as finishing and feeding.”

Yet, he said, Desert Mountain is already building a market share across several western states.

“We are not marketing anything in Portland so our priority markets are in Seattle, Whole Foods in Boise and we are going into Salt Lake and Denver,” said Elder.

Elder said while the co-op wants to expand its market, it will remain focused on attracting family ranching operations.

“Just something we can support. And then we can generate profits, learn while we are going,” he said.

The grass-fed, non-GMO cattle market is vibrant, said John Nalivka, of Sterling Marketing Inc., a Vale cattle broker firm.

“That is really where the extra dollars are. I constantly tell cattlemen’s groups that is where you have to look to get extra dollars,” said Nalivka.

According to one industry report, retail sales of grass-fed beef expanded from $17 million in 2012 to $272 million in 2016.

Nalivka said the growth can be traced to a new paradigm with consumers.

“A lot of people want to know where it came from. It is where we are at now,” said Nalivka.

Elder and Rockwell emphasized the grass-fed philosophy works for them but it might not be the right fit for all producers. 

“We are just trying to fit the niche market and the customers in these fancy places in Seattle and places like that. They think it’s important so we are trying to give them what they want,” said Rockwell.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: pat@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377

For the latest news, follow the Enterprise on Facebook and Twitter.

SUBSCRIBE TO HELP PRODUCE VITAL REPORTING -- For $5 a month, you get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news produced by a professional and highly trained staff. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.