One of the purposes of this blog was to present the multiple faces of agriculture and how different producers and businesses operate within the laws and regulations that affect such producers or businesses. One of those faces of agriculture that I recently met is Keith Gregerson; owner and operator of Little Red Barn Beef. Little Red Barn Beef produces and sells all-natural locally produced gourmet beef out of Omaha, Nebraska. I had the opportunity to sit down with Keith and ask him some questions about his operation and the legal issues that govern his operation.
Starting off, Keith can you give us a rundown on the production process for your beef?
The production process starts with contracting with local farmers and ranchers in eastern Nebraska to grow Angus beef in what we consider an all-natural manner. Although the producers are to provide pasture at all times, the cattle are finished with grains in the last 150 to 160 days before processing. From these producers, we schedule so many head of cattle to go through a production facility on a monthly basis. We use C & C Processing out of Dillard, Nebraska which is a federally mandated USDA inspected facility that processes private labels, such as ours. We also
use C & C Processing because it has the facilities to hang the beef for the
proper dry-aging period.
Before we talk about the all natural side of your operation, could you give us an explanation of the benefits of finishing with grain and dry-aging
Sure, we find that finishing with grain establishes the marbling effect that most Midwest consumers desire in their beef. Dry-aging simply means allowing the beef to hang for a period of 14 to 21 days before cutting and processing. Dry-aging naturally adds tenderness and flavor to the beef.
Keith what is meant by all-natural and why did you decide to produce all natural beef rather than conventional?
To be approved as all-natural you have to be able to show the USDA your beef is “minimally processed”. Admittedly, all-natural and minimally-processed means something different to everybody. It is kind of the gray area between organic and what I refer to as conventional. For Little Red Barn Beef, all-natural means specifically no antibiotics, no growth hormones, no steroids, and no animal by-products are used in raising the cattle. Taking it further, we require the producers to provide the cattle with access to pasture until finishing. During finishing we require confinements which are large enough to allow the cattle to move about freely without crowding. We also require the cattle to be delivered to the processing plant 18 to 24 hours prior to processing to allow the cattle to de-stress.
My wife and I decided to produce all-natural beef to
provide the consumer a product that comes from local producers grown in a
manner that we believe creates a relationship of respect between the producer and the livestock. In addition, there is a level of concern with the overuse of antibiotics and growth hormones in cattle and the potential effects these products have in the food cycle. By providing all-natural beef we can
alleviate that concern for the consumer.
How is All Natural different than Organic?
Although I applaud those that are able to produce organic beef, organic would not work for our business model. With organic there is a long certification process that requires certified organic beef come from certified organic cows, fed certified organic feed (including pasture grass), which are then processed in a certified organic manner. In light of the fact that a large majority of the food supply in Nebraska comes from genetically modified crops, we felt that organic would be logistically and cost prohibitive for our business.
All-natural, on the other hand, allows us to minimally process the cattle while using the locally produced food supply to feed the cattle. The all-natural label allows us the flexibility to raise and produce beef in a manner we believe is more healthy and sustainable than conventional beef without all the regulatory requirements of certified organic beef.
Is there an all-natural certification process that your beef has to be approved for?
Currently, there is not an all-natural certification process. I think a
certification process may be difficult since the term all-natural has different
meanings for different producers. Given that there is no certification process or “stamp” we need to take additional steps to support our all-natural label. At Little Red Barn Beef we try to promote transparency in our production process by detailing the process and providing the information directly to the
consumer. That way the consumer can decide which product is best.
How do you ensure that the cattle are produced as required under your process or more specifically, how do you ensure that they are not given growth hormones, steroids of antibiotics?
We use livestock production contracts which spell out how the cattle are to be raised and produced. Obviously, we cannot personally oversee the production of each head of cattle. The contracts give us the legal avenues to fall back on in the event a producer tries to short-cut our requirements. We
are also developing a test which we will use on random herds to ensure that
antibiotics, steroids, and/or growth hormones are not found in the cattle’s
As a proponent of all natural beef, what are your thoughts on the government regulating hormone, steroid and anti-biotic use in cattle production?
Being a proponent of all-natural beef we believe that antibiotics, steroids, and growth hormones are being over used in the beef industry. There does not seem to be a current consensus on how these agents may alter the food cycle or affect the end consumer. It seems logical to us that these products are not necessary if cattle are raised in a more natural manner.
How would a ban on the use of those products affect your business?
I am not sure, although I would be in favor of such a ban given our philosophy. Hypothetically, I guess, it would level the playing field between our business and all the other livestock producers to some extent. However, I do believe that our product would still be superior considering the other factors we put into beef production such as the cattle selection process, access to pasture, and dry-aging the beef.
Do you have any advice for a producer who may be looking to get into all natural production of beef, where they may go to find a market, how do they get started, and whether there are any breeds that may work better than others for all natural beef?
Well, anybody looking to get started can contact me. But that is a great
question. Currently it is still a niche market but the industry is changing and consumers are becoming more educated. They want to know where their
food is coming from. So in that regard, an individual looking to get into producing all-natural beef needs to educate themselves as to what all-natural production means and how to raise cattle in that manner. Second, they have to have the right herd of cattle; cattle which are genetically disposed to producing quality beef that an all-natural retailer will want to sell. Third, they will need the facilities, and by facilities, I mean space to raise their herd in minimally invasive manner. We pay our produces a premium for their
cattle, and the process takes a bit more time to get the cattle up to the
weight we desire. In the end, the producer has to do the math and determine whether the premium we pay will be worth the extra effort and time it takes to raise the cattle in the manner we require.
Producers across the Midwest have different opinions on the best way to raise and process beef. Keith stands by his approach and his all-natural label. Although this author and does not take sides on the matter, I can vouch for the quality and taste of Little Red Barn Beef steaks. If you want to know more about
Little Red Barn Beef, please check out their website, www.littleredbarnbeef.com.