Jared Kerr gets up before sunrise and puts on his boots, jeans, and chaps. He saddles his horse. A well-worn cowboy hat shields his already-tanned face from the early spring sun. Then, sitting high, one gloved hand tucked into the pocket of his vest for warmth, Kerr and two neighbors ride out to the pasture land of Harvey Ranch. Three hundred head of cattle slowly raise their eyes, their bovine expressions wary. Something is up.
The 1,200-acre Harvey Ranch in southeastern Oregon was donated to Oregon State University in 1987 by Glenn and Mildred Harvey. The original homestead provided pasture for sheep, and since 1917 the ranch has been producing beef cattle. For the last quarter century, OSU's Harvey Ranch managers have kept the ranch profitable, even during volatile times for the industry. Kerr, a graduate of OSU's Department of Animal Sciences, took over management of the ranch in early 2011.
"H'up, h'up, cows," Kerr calls as he gathers the herd for the slow drive up the valley toward the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Moving cattle from low-elevation private lands to high-elevation public lands is one strategy Oregon ranchers use to manage their cattle and forages. With public land permits for spring and summer grazing, ranchers optimize available nutrition for their herds and give their low-elevation land a chance to grow the grass hay and alfalfa that will get the animals through the winter.
By late morning the cattle are settled onto Bureau of Land Management land and Kerr's family has joined him in a pick-up truck. His three-year-old daughter, decked out in jeans and chaps, peppers him with questions about the morning's cattle drive. When Kerr saddles up to hunt a lost calf, she wants to go with him. But she can't find her hat, and it's hard to be a cowboy without a hat. It's even harder to be a cowboy without cows.
"Cattle ranching is not easy," Kerr says. "It's not a life that many young people are able to get into on their own, and nothing comes without a cost or a trade."
Surviving as a rancher in Oregon means finding a way to add value to the product, says John Williams, staff chair of OSU Extension Service in Wallowa County, a hotspot for Oregon value-added ranching. High costs associated with ranching, including fuel prices, may be a breaking point, despite increasing demand for beef in the U.S. and abroad.
"Last year was the first time since 1947 that more beef was exported from the U.S. than imported," says Williams. "We should be doing pretty well, but our costs often outpace sales. We need better infrastructure and the ability to capture new markets."
Markets and infrastructure are in many ways related. In Oregon, developing new markets means developing "branded beef," says David Bohnert, an OSU ruminant nutritionist and beef cattle specialist at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns. Branded beef is sold under a certain description, such as natural, organic, or grass-fed, or more specifically under business names such as Painted Hills Natural Beef and Country Natural.
"There is definite growth in natural, organic, grass-finished, and branded products," says Bohnert. "It's a challenging way of ranching, but it's attractive because of the associated premium price. If our ranchers can get into these markets they can make it profitable, but it's not for everybody. Right now maybe five percent of beef operations in the state target the niche markets."
The Harvey Ranch isn't one of those operations. Harvey cattle are sold mostly through online auction to larger beef operations. After purchase they are shipped to feed lots where they spend the last few months before slaughter eating a grain-based diet that results in increased body weight and changes in body composition to include a higher percentage of rich, marbled fat. This is different from the lean, grass-finished beef being sold in many specialty stores and high-end restaurants today.
Most people have been raised eating corn-finished beef, says Lea Ann Kinman, the manager of OSU's Clark Meat Center, an on-campus facility where students learn livestock anatomy and butchery, and where the public can purchase OSU-raised beef and other meats. She sees a shift in consumer demand toward grass-finished.
"The consumers we're hearing from really want beef from the niche markets," says Kinman. "We see a high level of concern for the welfare of the animal. Consumers want to know more about how the cattle were cared for prior to harvest."
The transition from traditional ranching operations to those that respond to demands for new, value-added products is not easy, according to Chad Mueller, an OSU researcher focused on beef cattle systems from conception to consumption.
"To be competitive and to give consumers what they want, we have to take advantage of what we have," says Mueller. Although beef cattle and forages make up the number one agricultural commodity in Oregon (with farmgate sales of $709 million in 2010), Oregon isn't great year-round cattle country in regards to available feed, says Mueller. OSU research is focusing on how to help producers succeed in the market.
Mueller is studying the genetics of marbling in beef cattle. Increased marbling is usually related to increased economic potential, and it is possible to select for hereditary traits that result in more marbled, intramuscular fat deposits, says Mueller. Fat is also related to taste, and for people used to eating corn-finished beef, it's something that they find lacking in some of the leaner branded products.
"We want the taste and the management practices to be what the consumer is demanding," says Mueller. "However, we have to keep an eye toward the overall efficiency of the animal in this landscape." Efficiency in beef cattle is related to the amount of food a cow needs to put on a specific amount of weight. Corn is almost twice as efficient as grass to put weight on most cattle. But not all cattle are the same, and Mueller is studying a breed of New Zealand cattle that are highly efficient on grass.
Other important challenges facing niche market producers take place off the grazing grounds. Closure of packing plants, a lack of small processing facilities, and a growing list of regulations face niche market cattle operations throughout the Pacific Northwest, says Lauren Gwin, a resource economics research associate at OSU. In the last three decades, there has been a steady decline in meat processing facilities across much of the West. These are the facilities that turn animals into food, and despite the necessity of their work, many communities have prohibited their presence, says Gwin. Existing small processors also struggle, because there hasn't been enough year-round demand for their services.
"Beef is a seasonal crop, although we don't usually think of it in those terms," says Gwin. Most ranchers in niche markets, especially those finishing animals on grass, process their animals in the fall. The winter months can be slow for processors, so it's risky business, with high costs and thin margins, says Gwin.
The need to support a small processing industry led to Gwin's work as co-coordinator of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network. "Our goal is to expand small-scale processing, so that meat processors and the people who depend on them thrive," says Gwin.
"It's easy to blame the lack of local processors for the hardships of some of the specialty producers, but that's not the whole challenge," she says. "Commercial buyers and consumers have grown accustomed to inexpensive, readily available, safe meat. Now it will cost more, and many aren't yet willing to pay for it."
Back at the Harvey Ranch, Kerr has temporarily left the cattle to graze, as he heads back to the ranch where haying is getting underway. In a few weeks he'll again saddle up and move the herd higher into the mountains, providing the land with rest and the animals with fresh forage. It's a cycle that will continue for months, and if everything goes well, for years.