http://www.sanluisobispo.com/mld/sa...82.htm?template=contentModules/printstory.jsp Mooooooving to grass-fed Beef that comes from such animals is thought to have health benefits because the cattle are not fed a diet of grain By Julie Lynem At Fair Oaks Ranch, jet-black cattle roam among tall grasses, grazing the 1,200-acre Paso Robles property. The Angus herd rotates through clean, fresh pastures, feasting on Italian rye, clovers, New Zealand chicory and native grasses such as wild oats and filaree. After 18 months, the animals are taken off the pastures, loaded up and shipped to a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Creston for harvest. Fair Oaks is one of a small but growing group of San Luis Obispo County cattle ranches raising and selling grass-fed beef. The trend has gained momentum in recent years as people have become more aware of how their food is produced. Grass-fed cattle spend most of their lives eating in grass pastures. The beef that comes from such animals is thought to have health benefits because the cattle are not moved to feedlots, where they are fed a high-carbohydrate diet of grain for three to six months before being slaughtered. Beef producers tout its low-fat content. Some grass-fed ranches also use organic practices. That means the ranchers do not inject their cattle with antibiotics or hormones, or treat their pastures with pesticides or herbicides. There are no federal government regulations for grass-fed beef. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture will soon allow grass-fed beef to carry a special seal verifying that the meat comes from cattle exclusively fed grass. Fair Oaks Ranch owner Coco Collelmo and manager David Foss, who started selling grass-fed beef five years ago, said the grass-fed movement is a boon for the cattle industry. The ranch has been able to increase its net income by 46 percent since it started marketing and selling grass-fed beef in 2001. "When consumers support us by buying our product, it allows us to be good stewards of the land, and thatâs good for everybody,ââ Collelmo said. Growing demand Itâs unclear how many of the nationâs 800,000 beef producers are raising and selling grass-fed, natural or organic beef, which is regulated by the USDA. But ranchers across the country and on the Central Coast say more families are asking about and buying the beef online, at farmers markets and in grocery stores. Natural and organic beef sales comprised 1.7 percent of total beef sales in supermarkets in the fourth quarter of 2005, according to a research report released in April by the National Cattlemenâs Beef Association, a national trade group. Thatâs up from a low of 1.1 percent in the second quarter of 2003. Sales of natural and organic products are also increasing â a jump of 17.2 percent in the past year â compared with a 3.3 percent rise in all beef sales. In fourth quarter 2005, natural and organic beef sales in grocery stores were estimated at $59 million, compared to $3.6 billion for all beef products, according to the association. But those in the cattle industry say making a profit from beef sales isnât the only reason ranchers are grabbing hold of this niche market. Faced with increasing competition from large, corporate ranches, some family-owned operations have begun to fade, said Collelmo, whose family has operated the Fair Oaks Ranch since 1959. "What weâre trying to do is prove that ranches can be sustainable and viable on a small level,ââ she said. Beefy business In recent years, the countyâs grass-fed, family-owned ranchers have found success. Bob Blanchard, owner of 400-acre Old Creek Ranch in Cayucos, has been raising and marketing his grass-fed beef for three years. He expected to have about five to 10 head each year, but now he says the ranch is on track to finish 50 or 60 animals. The ranch is also in the process of being certified organic. "The interest in the product has really been phenomenal,ââ said Blanchard, who sells his grass-fed beef, lamb and goat meat at farmers markets, local stores and on the Web. "A lot of folks are interested in animal-welfare issues such as how animals are raised and handled. Our grazing operation is also focused on restoration and management of a healthy, functional grassland thatâs as close to natural as possible in terms of native plants and critters.ââ Blanchard said itâs his familyâs goal to turn the operation into a business that generates a healthy profit. However, he does not expect it to ever be much more than a small farm. "We want the next generation of owners to see the value in keeping the ranch in ranching and not turn it into real estate,ââ he said. Five years ago, Collelmo of Fair Oaks Ranch said selling grass-fed beef was "just a dream.ââ She got involved in the grass-fed operation after she was contacted by David Foss, a New Zealand rancher who bred grass-fed Angus cattle. At the time, Collelmo said the quality of the grass on her then-1,800-acre ranch had diminished. "I couldnât understand what I was doing wrong,ââ she said. Foss surmised that her pastures were so large that she couldnât manage the grazing. So, she sold 600 acres and sectioned the ranch into different pastures as part of a controlled managed grazing operation. She also planted a variety of finishing grasses for the animals. So far, her beef has attracted attention from local consumers as well as those in Huntington Beach, Bakersfield, Ventura and Pasadena. "Customers come from my neighbor base, and Iâm getting lots of hits off Google searches,ââ Collelmo said. "Some people are reaching me through the countyâs Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign and the ag tourism site. Weâve also affiliated ourselves with different wineries on the westside (Paso Robles).ââ This year she had 15 head of beef for finishing. Next year, she hopes to have 25. "Weâre building as we go,ââ she said. Going organic Some Central Coast cattle ranchers are taking their grass-fed business one step further. Nick Ranch in Santa Margarita is the only ranch in the county to be certified organic, according to the Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers, which follows USDA organic standards. The 1,200-acre family-owned ranch has been in operation since 1918 but became a certified organic operation in September 2005. It cannot label its meats as such because itâs waiting on Creston Valley Meats, where its animals are slaughtered, to get its organic certification. "Weâve been in the business of grass-fed beef probably my entire life ... for about 50 years,ââ said Juanell Nick Hepburn, daughter of owner Fred Nick. "We just always used it for ourselves and a few friends and family. And then, my dad started checking into it and realized that we had a health food.ââ So far, Hepburn said business has been slow but steady. Nick Ranch has about 100 head of Brangus and Devon cows, which are harvested at under 20 months. The ranch sells its meat to customers in California, Arizona and New York, she said. "Weâre selling online and doing direct marketing, and itâs been word of mouth,ââ she said. Hepburn understands why some ranchers may not want to be certified organic. Obtaining organic certification can be costly, with fees adding up to a few thousand dollars, Hepburn said. The record-keeping to prove that ranches are following organic guidelines also can be time consuming. Organic ranchers must adhere to specific regulations. For example, they must not use posts or fencing thatâs been chemically treated. "The chain of certification cannot be broken,ââ she said. "It has to be certified all along the way.ââ Cattle rancher George Work said heâs in the initial stages of starting a grass-fed beef operation. While heâs all for natural beef, he acknowledged that heâs not sure how big the organic market will be locally. "The bigger issue than organic is knowing where the food is coming from, who is producing it and where itâs produced,ââ said Work, whose ranch is near San Miguel. "To go pure organic is pretty pricey.ââ Passing fad? Whether ranchers choose to remain grass-fed or organic, those familiar with the industry say that local cattle ranchers are moving toward more sustainable agriculture. "While weâd like to see them take the final step over to organic production, we certainly respect their move toward more sustainable practices,ââ said Jake Lewin, director of marketing for California Certified Organic Farmers. "For us itâs about sustainable agriculture, and we really like it when we see operations bringing new production methods into the national consciousness.ââ Bob Delmore, associate professor in the Animal Science Department at Cal Poly, said there is no doubt that small cattle producers see grass-fed and organic as an opportunity to add value and increase their profitability. But he said it may be too soon to say where the trend is going. "It comes down to the fact that weâre going to produce products that customers want,ââ Delmore said.