Taking Back Taste

Tallgrass Beef promises a great eating experience with its all-natural grass-fed beef.
There has been a perception that consumers could have delicious beef, or they could have healthy, all-natural beef, but they couldn’t have both. That is rapidly changing, though. As natural and organic meats continue their double-digit yearly growth, more and more companies are getting into the field, each looking to carve out its own niche.
One of those companies looking to bring together good taste and good health is Tallgrass Beef Co., located in tiny Sedan, Kan., a town with a population of about 1,300. Of that populous, Sedan’s most famous resident is Tallgrass’ chairman and founder, television journalist Bill Kurtis. He has joined forces with two scientists to find cattle that would thrive on being grass-fed.
Kurtis is the owner and operator of the Red Buffalo Ranch, an 8,000-acre working cattle ranch near Sedan that raises grass-fed cattle. When he first started Tallgrass about two years ago, he was looking for a way to promote the environmental sustainability of pasture-fed cattle, the human health benefits of natural meat and the benefits to local family farms who supply the cattle.
“It was hard, because there was no market at the time when I decided to go into it,” he recalls. “But it was worth the struggle, because I think it’s the future.”
Through the hard work, Kurtis says that one wonderful surprise has been the taste of the Tallgrass beef. “We find the taste is unique,” he says. “It’s sweet, it has been described as buttery, and there is flavor in the meat instead of the fat.”
“The commodity beef industry certainly does not have the market cornered on flavorful and high-quality beef,” adds Dr. Allen Williams, CEO of Tallgrass Beef. Williams, along with partner Dr. Matt Cravey, has been working to find ideal grass-fed cattle across the country. Finding the cattle that are best-suited to a grass-fed life isn’t as simple as going to the family farms and buying animals.
“Obviously, in both the commodity industry and the grass-fed industry, there is a lot of bad product out there,” Williams points out. However, Tallgrass has implemented procedures that eliminate as much of the poor eating experiences as possible.
“They had been testing the animals from Montana down to Florida, trying to find the genetics of animals that fattened quickly and tenderly on grass,” Kurtis explains. “We believe that, since all cattle evolved from grass-fed, if we found those original genes, they could give us a good product.”
Kurtis likens those family farmers who are preserving the grass-fed cattle tradition to line breeders of pedigree dogs.
Not only can Tallgrass genetically test which animals would develop good marbling and tenderness, but it can also determine which animals would develop poorly.
“We literally cull out all cattle that show the attributes of being tough, whether that’s having excess gristle, coarse-textured muscle fiber or excess connective tissue,” Williams says. He uses an ultrasound machine on each live animal, and through that, he is able to accept only the best into the Tallgrass herd.
“We can determine the Rib Eye size, the degree of back fat and the degree of intramuscular fat, or marbling, that these animals have,” he explains. “We can also determine the tenderness in the cattle using the ultrasound, and we can also determine what we call muscle shape, which is highly related to the yield of the carcass, and therefore probability.”
Stress scores — related to ability of the animal to be stress-tolerant of its environment or stress-susceptible — also are developed for each animal from the testing.
Tallgrass buys those cattle that pass the tests. All of the animals in Kurtis’ herd have favorable genes, as do the herds of the smaller family farms working with the company. Tallgrass cattle are raised in the Rocky Mountain region, in the Midwest and down into Georgia and Florida. Tallgrass does not own any processing facilities; its beef is processed in plants in Kansas, Nebraska and Georgia.
Proof is in the taste
Using cutting-edge technology and genetics to determine which cattle should provide the best eating experience is all well and good, but the true test comes in the actual eating of the beef. Judging by the demand for Tallgrass beef products, the company has passed the test.
A common misconception about grass-fed beef is that it is tough and gamey, Kurtis says. By placing an emphasis on correct genetics, he says Tallgrass has found the right formula.
“For one reason or another, we have bred out taste [in commodity beef], like every other thing we have over-processed, like tomatoes. That’s the price we have paid. Now the taste is back, and the tenderness, too,” he says. “That’s a surprise to a lot of people.”
One of the first trials for the beef came from Harry Caray’s Restaurant in Chicago. A renowned Chicago steakhouse, one of the restaurant’s owners is also an investor in Tallgrass. He suggested that they try it in the restaurant — in the “belly of the beast,” as Kurtis says. “If we could compete with Prime, then we could get a real test. Well, it took off beautifully. We can hardly keep them supplied.”
Tallgrass steaks and other beef products are now available in many restaurants, institutions and grocery stores in and around the Chicago area, as well as more than a dozen other states. Williams says the company is planning to continue to expand throughout the upper Midwest and reach out to the eastern seaboard. The company’s products, which vary from traditional cuts of beef to jerky, summer sausage and ground beef, are also sold from the company’s Web site.
“So the states where we might not necessarily have a retail or foodservice market, our customers do have access through the Internet,” says Williams, adding that the company has shipped product to every state in the country.
Changes in the industry
Tallgrass has some obstacles to overcome based on its commitment to keeping its herd to the highest standards.
“We don’t take them off the pasture, so during the winter, it’s a challenge to find food that will cause them to gain weight. It’s easy when you have corn. That covers up a lot of ills,” Kurtis says. In the Midwest and western states, where snow is a problem, ranchers can supplement their herd’s diet with hay, silage and other food sources aside from grain. Other alternatives for the company include relying on cattle from states like Georgia or Florida, where grass is readily available in the winter.
The good news is that grass is plentiful and can be managed cost effectively. Corn costs, on the other hand, are skyrocketing, thanks to ethanol gasoline production, and it’s still uncertain where it will level off. Kurtis notes that some people fear it will rise as high as $6.00-plus a bushel.
“The [corn industry believes] that it will stabilize at $3.50 to $4, but that’s still double from what it was a year ago, and they don’t think it’s going to go down.”
Ranchers, he adds, will ultimately pay for that rising cost of feed. Kurtis notes the contrast of the haves and have-nots. In Illinois, the corn producers are in the midst of a gold rush, while the ranchers in Kansas are suffering from rising costs.
“It’s amazing what’s happening,” he adds. “[From a journalist’s standpoint], it’s the biggest story to hit agriculture in the last 60 years.”
Some of those ranchers who are feeling the profit squeeze may be more likely to turn to grass-fed cattle, provided there is a market for it. Looking at the latest trends, Kurtis believes the market exists and is growing.
“The consumer is way ahead of the beef industry,” he says. “The consumer wants clean food, healthy food. They want to know what they’re eating, and they will pay more to get it.”
The company is quick to promote the consumer health benefits that come from eating natural beef. On the Tallgrass Web site, a news item points to a recent study showing that Omega 3 acids, which are tied to cardiovascular health as well as the prevention of type-2 diabetes, hypertension and arthritis, are more prevalent in grass-fed beef than in grain-fed beef. Williams points out that the natural and organic sales have been steadily climbing, averaging around 24 percent growth a year.
“Practically every retailer out there is trying to figure out a way to put this product in their retail cases on some kind of price-reasonable basis,” he says. Consumers are becoming more concerned about the health attributes of their foods, and their interest in the well-being of the environment and animal welfare is not going to decrease, he adds. The interest in Tallgrass’ beef is coming from the foodservice industry as well.
“It’s absolutely incredible the number of calls we get on a daily basis,” Williams says. “Everybody from fine-dining to casual, fast-casual, even QSR (quick-service restaurants), has an interest in this type of product. Again, they all want to know price points, but they clearly see the need to be offering some differentiated products that place them at a competitive advantage.”
Although the strong growth that the natural and organic markets have enjoyed shows that there is a definite interest in eating healthy, Kurtis carries no misconceptions about surpassing the commodity market in terms sales.
“I think we, in grass-fed, have a maximum expectation of 20 percent of the market. That’s a lot, and it allows for growth.
“We think there’s room for a number of products,” he adds. “A steak is not just a steak. It could be an Angus steak or a Hereford steak, or a steak from Argentina or a grass-fed steak. We think, just like wine, there should be many varieties, and it will help the overall beef industry.”
Tallgrass Beef Co.
Founded in 2004
Headquarters: Sedan, Kan
2005 sales: $505 million
Employees: 12
Operations: Tallgrass cattle are located in family farm ranches in the Rocky Mountain region, the upper and lower Midwest and the Southeast. The company’s beef is processed in facilities in Kansas, Nebraska and Georgia.