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County ranchers strive to promote grass-fed beef

Becky Trout

Jim Gates loves his ladies.

“C’mon, ladies, c’mon. Get in there,” the veteran cattleman said on a recent day as he ushered his herd of more than 100 cows into a corral on a Bitney Springs-area ranch.

A native of Nevada County, Gates spends hours each day ensuring that his ladies – cows and their babies – are dining on delectable grass. He moves them regularly, keeps close track of their health, and he’s spent many a night helping them give birth.

Gates, along with other ranchers, fuels Nevada County’s $2.8 million cattle industry. Not as muscular as it was in the ranching heydays of old, the industry still managed to whomp wine grapes’ $1.8 million income in 2003, the most recent year for which data is available.

And although beef remains a staple in many American diets, the profit isn’t trickling down to most Nevada County ranchers, who, along with other foothill ranchers, could often make more money by subdividing and selling their land.

Creating cul-de-sacs isn’t of interest to Gates, who grew up in these hills before they were pocked with mini-mansions. He remembers driving cattle along Highway 49 before it was a heavily trafficked speedway.

Cattle raising doesn’t pay living wages, however, so Gates has another full-time job, but he returns evenings, weekends and other times to the 440-acre ranch abutting the south fork of the Yuba River. There his 100-plus cows graze, thanks to property owners Bill and Anna Reynolds Trabucco, who have prevented development on the ranch by selling their development rights to the Nevada County Land Trust.

The tale is much the same for other area cattle growers, who spend hours in the fields only to eke a bit of money out of their months-long investment. They sell their cattle at auctions in Roseville, Galt or Redding, their earnings dictated by the vagaries of the market.

To boost their take-home pay, a group of ranchers from the six-county area (Placer, Nevada, El Dorado, Yuba, Plumas and Sierra counties) began meeting in 2002 to investigate different ways to market their animals, said Roger Ingram, a farm advisor at the University of California Extension Service.

With some grant money, the ranchers formed a corporation called High Sierra Beef and hired agricultural consultants, who urged them to produce grass-fed beef.

Feeding cattle grass – the food they evolved to eat – bucks industry practice, which stuffs cattle full of calorie-rich corn enriched with protein and supplements to fatten them quickly.

There’s a growing demand for natural, locally produced, still-tasty beef, the consultants pointed out, a recommendation High Sierra ranchers verified by conducting several taste tests at community events.

The eventual goal is to produce high-quality meat, identified with an attractive “High Sierra” label, that would be available at local restaurants and stores, said Roger Ingram, a farm adviser with the UC Cooperative Extension.

That won’t be available for at least a few years, Ingram said.

First, the 20-plus ranchers need to find some start-up money to hire at least one full-time staffer.

Now they’re designing a label, and, in conjunction with the University of Nevada, Reno, researching other types of products, such as beef sticks or beef jerky, to boost the profit from the cattle.

What will really distinguish High Sierra Beef, however, will be its use of ultrasound technology, said longtime rancher David Gallino.

One of High Sierra Beef’s directors, Brittney Keema, has purchased an ultrasound machine, which can reliably predict the quality of beef a young animal will produce, Gallino said.

Usually, the quality isn’t known until the animal is “hangin’ on the rail” in a packing plant, Gallino said. Then, an inspector walks around, dubbing a carcass “choice,” “high-select” or “low select.”

But if the quality of the meat and the animal’s ability to thrive on an all-grass diet are known months earlier, ranchers can ensure that High Sierra Beef produces only top-notch meat, Gallino said.

Now, the plan is to ultrasound cattle from each individual rancher’s herd and then sell the top animals to the corporation, Gallino said.

The ranchers would continue to raise the animal, but High Sierra Beef would market it once it was slaughtered, Ingram said.

Although the already cash-strapped ranchers still need to raise a lot of money before High Sierra Beef appears in neighborhood groceries, the ranchers remain optimistic.

“What we’re trying to do is keep the foothill rancher where he is,” Gallino said. “The costs of everything are just extreme.”

To contact staff writer Becky Trout, e-mail beckyt@theunion.com or call 477-4234.


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