Pride and Preservation
By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
Premium Gold Angus starts at the genetic level to make a quality product.
Dwight Hartley jokes that ranchers who raise Black Angus cattle have a virus that can never be cured. He is very familiar with that virus, being a fourth-generation Angus rancher. As the founder of Premium Gold Angus Beef, he is as dedicated to preserving the integrity of the Angus name as he is producing quality beef.
Hartley’s family started in the Black Angus business in 1879, when his great-great grandfather, a German immigrant who came to the United States and fought for the Union Army during the Civil War, brought in some Angus cattle from Kansas. “He was one of the fortunate ones who survived, although after being shot twice at Gettysburg, I’m not sure how he did,” Hartley remarks.
Black Angus beef is recognized as the best beef-eating experience a consumer can have, and that popularity has led to a premium price for Angus beef. That premium, Hartley says, led some companies to call their meat “Black Angus” solely because the animal had a black hide.
“Some say that if there is a black hide, then there has to be some Angus influence somewhere,” Hartley says. “We’ve proven that not to be the case. Just because an animal has a black hide doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s one drop of Angus blood in that animal.”
Pulling out a Beef Directory  from ABS Global, a top genetic supplier, Hartley points out breed after breed that can look very much like a Black Angus — Limousins, Simmentals, South Devons, and more. Another problem is cross-breeding; Angus cattle crossed with strong Brahman heritage will result in a tougher steak and a poorer eating experience. “Consumers turned to Black Angus twenty years ago because it was a brand they could trust. Now, they go to their retailers and might or might not get a good steak,” Hartley remarks. “The whole house of cards we’ve created around the Angus breed, if we’re not careful to protect the breed, could all come tumbling down.”
Better beef through science
Premium Gold Angus, based in Austin, TX, is the second-oldest branded Angus beef company in the country. It purchases Angus cattle from across the West and Midwest, maintaining strict standards on the cattle that it accepts from ranchers. Its products, which are processed in a Tyson Foods facility in Norfolk, NE, are then sent to retailers and foodservice operators across the country. About 5,000 cattle are slaughtered each week, and that number may increase to 7,000 to 8,000 by the end of the year. The company does about $300 million in sales, and Hartley expects that to increase to $450 million next year, thanks to the addition of several large retailers to the company’s Angus beef program.
Hartley is a firm believer in improving his Angus cattle through genetics, and he works with his ranchers to produce the best cattle possible. When PGA cattle are slaughtered, the company receives a report on each animal, detailing their grade and quality of meat. PGA then sends that data back to the rancher, along with a check for the cattle, based on the Nebraska Cattle Market. For every animal that exceeds low-choice, the ranchers get an additional premium payment.
“Each week we send out about two-hundred thousand dollars that’s money above the Nebraska Cattle Market,” Hartley notes. “I often write personal notes if somebody does really well to congratulate them on what they’re doing with genetics. We treat them right, and we feel like the longer we hold onto these people, and the more they use this program, the better cattle we are going to get.”
PGA has an exclusive contract with ABS Global, so ranchers who need to improve a certain aspect in their cattle, such as a marbling score or the ribeye size, have access to ABS’ extensive catalog of bull semen. “When the producers get the data back and see that they need help, they can sit down with their ABS rep, who has a long list of bulls in the stud. The rep can make suggestions on what bull they use the next time,” Hartley explains.
PGA also ultrasounds its cattle after 90 days in the feed yard to determine how many more days of feed they need. The cattle are given different ear tags and are sorted in the feed yard according to when they will be finished and ready for slaughter. Using this system, no cattle are overfed or underfed. “It eliminates the yield-grade fours and fives,” Hartley says. While the process may seem overly expansive, he explains that because he’s eliminating cattle that won’t grade well and maximizing the grade potential of the remaining animals, it actually doesn’t cost PGA any extra money.
“We’ve got some people who have been on this program for six or seven years, and they give me back one- hundred percent Choice every time, and as high as forty-five percent Prime,” Hartley adds. “We can do that with superior genetics.”
Advanced genetics
As an additional test on its products, PGA also has an exclusive agreement with Viagen Inc., an Austin-based provider of advanced livestock genetic technologies.
Prior to meeting with PGA, Viagen had pulled different brands of Angus meat from store shelves and tested them for Black Angus purity and for the influence of Brahman. They discovered meat with the Black Angus name that had less than 50 percent Angus or less. Viagen now pulls hair follicles from PGA’s cattle at the feed yard for testing.
“We use them to continually test our own product and test our producers,” Hartley explains. “Our goal is zero Brahman influence. If we find Brahman influence, it doesn’t go in a PGA box. We send that data to the producer and make him aware of it.
“If we have cattle in the yard that fail the test, then every animal in the yard that producer has given us has to be tested,” he continues. “Two strikes, and he’s out; we never buy cattle from him again. All of our producers know that.” Viagen also stores those follicles for 60 days post-harvest. If a piece of raw meat is ever returned to PGA as being questionable, the company can trace the meat right back to the ranch and the animal.
Working with Viagen has given PGA the genetic proof to back up its words, as far as the quality of its Angus beef. The company’s Angus program has been consistently grading around 40 percent high Choice. Viagen has also developed an “AnguSure” trademark, and that trademark will soon be on every box and package that PGA distributes.
As a result of the company’s rigorous testing and genetic procedures, Hartley says he weeds out any questionable or mixed-breed cattle that might lead to a poor eating experience for a consumer. “I don’t want to see a bunch of mixed-frame cattle; they will not work for our program,” he notes. “When you go to one of my feed yards, I want you to see nothing but straight backs across a line of thousands. All of the rumps are going to be the same. They’re going to be solid black. They’re not going to have long ears.”
Product diversity
Among the types of Angus products that Premium Gold Angus offers, aside from a variety of raw steaks, are fully-cooked or raw frozen hamburger patties, hot dogs, lunchmeats, and barbeque. The company also controls about 70 percent of the Berkshire hog breeding in the country. “Our customers asked us for a higher-performing pork,” Hartley explains, “and we say all the time that Berkshire pork is to the pork industry what prime is to beef. It’s incredible quality.” A line of no-hormone, no-antibiotic lamb is also available.
PGA has utilized high-pressure packaging in its deli meats, which allows the products to have an extended shelf-life of 75 days. That led to a relationship with Calavo Growers Inc., an avocado producer, which has given PGA the marketing contract on Calavo’s high-pressure guacamole. “The longer we’re in the business, the more diverse we get,” Hartley comments.
The company’s workforce has expanded right along with its product offerings. A year ago, Hartley says he employed five or six people. Now, there are 25 employees, and the office is expanding.
Prior to being hired by PGA, its employees also worked in the retail side of the meat industry. If there is ever a problem on the retail side, be it yield, quality, or something else, one of the employees can fly to the retailer and observe the problem directly. Based on that employee’s experience, he can call Hartley, and PGA can make a decision that day.
All natural popularity
Premium Gold Angus’ products are offered in retail stores and restaurants across the country, from the Seattle Space Needle to the Chicago Chop House to the Peter Luger Steakhouse in New York City. Retailers such as HEB’s Central Market division and Marsh Supermarkets also carry the brand. PGA’s Angus steaks are served on all of Norwegian Cruise Lines’ ships, through the Chicago-based company, Meats by Linz.
Hartley says that the foodservice side of the business will be a key element to the company’s growth. “Chefs love it,” he says, noting that if a chef opens a box of ribeyes that are different sizes, he will end up with different-sized steaks. That can cause problems in both the cooking time and the presentation of the cooked product. In the PGA boxes, he notes, “All those pieces of meat are the same size, and they’re going to have the same marbling score, the same texture, and the same youth of the meat. Once you get a chef hooked on this, they’re not going back to anything else.”
Hartley’s son, Justin, serves as the company’s president. Justin graduated from Harvard three years ago (“He was the only calf roper at Harvard,” Hartley jokes) and has developed two fast-growing brands in the PGA line, an organic beef and an all-natural beef line.
“We did not create an all natural brand until a couple of years ago, and the reason was that I thought it was marketing based on fear tactics about hormones that the USDA has no problem with,” Hartley says. Also, organic cattle require organic corn, which is much more expensive than conventional feed. All-natural cattle also feed slower, and if the animal gets sick and requires antibiotics, the cost of keeping it in the all-natural program is wasted. Still, a consumer response led PGA to adding the organic and all-natural lines. The results, Hartley says, have been extremely surprising.
Currently, the all-natural products account for about 25 percent of PGA’s sales. “I can see that balancing out as early as the first quarter [of 2006], with all-natural possibly taking the lead. It’s growing that fast,” he says.
“The biggest shock to me was how much difference there was in the quality of the beef,” Hartley adds. “It just tastes better, and it holds more moisture. It’s a phenomenal product. What I’ve been told is that the muscle fibers in all natural beef have been allowed to develop naturally versus artificially, and that makes all the difference.
“What brought consumers to all- natural beef were the concerns about health, and what’s going to keep people to all-natural beef is the absolutely incredible taste and tenderness,” he says.
The all-natural program is popular at several retail outlets. In Texas, Central Market has gone over completely to PGA’s all-natural Angus products. The foodservice industry is also starting to pick up on the trend. As consumers become more educated about natural meats, they are beginning to look for the product when they go out to eat as well. Hartley notes that while foodservice companies don’t typically convert their entire menu to all-natural beef, they will offer an item on the menu that is specifically listed as being a no-hormone, no-antibiotic beef.
Hartley notes that cattle given excessive hormone treatments will not grade. Given that almost 40 percent of PGA’s conventional beef program grades as high Choice, he says that his Angus cattle are not being abused. “I’m very happy with my conventional beef, but I will say when I go to the market now, I buy the all-natural beef. I never thought I’d say that.” NPUSDA approves ViaGen Angus testing
The USDA has given its approval to ViaGen’s independently “Certified AnguSure” genetic testing program to validate the Angus genetic heritage of beef, meaning that Premium Gold Angus will have the only genetically-verified Black Angus program on the market. “This is something we have been working toward for twelve years,” says Dwight Hartley, founder of PGA.
“We want to deliver what the brand promises,” he adds. “To be able to do that, you need to be able to do a DNA analysis. ViaGen had to prove absolutely that this testing would show through DNA that these are the Black Angus genetic markers.”
The USDA consulted with the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Agricultural Research Service before concluding that ViaGen’s testing supported the label claims. Starting immediately, all PGA’s boxes will bear ViaGen’s AnguSure logo, as well as the line, “Angus heritage verified by independently scientific testing.”