Ranch’s grass-fed herd a big success | TheUnion.com

Ranch’s grass-fed herd a big success

In a stream-fed meadow just east of Quincy, raising cattle the old-fashioned way has become a big success.

Before the first U.S. “mad cow” was discovered in Washington state in December, the Thompson Valley Ranch initiated a ranching alternative to cattle fed with animal blood and byproducts and injected with hormones and antibiotics. They offer cattle raised on grass only. And people love it.

With all of the concern over mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE), ranch Manager Bryan Roccucci’s phone has been ringing off the hook. The stories about beef processing make consumers want to know where their beef comes from, he said.

“We know every cow from the day it’s born to the day it’s slaughtered,” said Roccucci. “That’s what our customers like.”

But the arrival of mad cow disease has triggered an unexpected windfall that the Thompson Valley Ranch is not able to take advantage of, at least not yet. The demand for grass-fed beef far outweighs the supply, and it takes a while to raise a cow on grass from birth to a mature age. But by 2005, Thompson Valley Ranch expects to have more than 60 grass-fed cows ready for consumers. The projected quadrupling in supply from this year illustrates the success of the simple philosophy of raising cows the natural way.

Many of Thompson Valley Ranch’s customers are from Truckee. Some first tasted the beef after buying it at Truckee’s farmers’ market, where Roccucci usually mans the beef stand every Tuesday during market season.

The Thompson Valley Ranch is set on 500 acres of pastureland surrounded by the rising foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Thompson Valley Creek gurgles through the property. The cattle are black Angus, with a speckling of red throughout the herd that represents the black Angus recessive gene expressed in a reddish coat.

Grass-fed cattle ranchers tout the nutritional benefit of their beef over conventional beef, and they have studies and experts to back them up. Nutritionists have discovered that grass-fed beef is higher in the omega 3 fatty acid, which is healthier for the heart. Other research has shown that grass fed beef has a higher percentage of conjugated linoleic acid, which has been shown to fight and prevent cancer.

Roccucci puts it simply. “Basically, it is less of the bad stuff and more of the good.”

Thompson Valley Ranch is not the only operation that is raising beef this way. Nearby Neff Family Ranch also provides grass-fed, half grass- and half grain-fed, and purely grain-fed animals to their consumers. Over the Internet, by mail or by phone, customers can order the beef that they like, whether it be low-fat grass fed or higher-fat grain fed, straight from the ranch.

Dan Macon, coordinator for the High Sierra Resource, Conservation and Development Council, is spearheading an initiative called High Sierra Beef. It will act as a type of cooperation between many family, grass-fed cattle ranches in El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sierra and Yuba counties, pooling resources to market a product they feel fills a niche in the market.

High Sierra Beef, funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service, plans to have its beef to market by 2005.

Roccucci has mixed feelings about High Sierra Beef. He likes the fact that locally grown, high-grade beef will become more widely available, but is afraid that the idea may kill the very thing that attracts customers to buy from his ranch – the idea of buying directly from a ranch that has raised the cows from birth to slaughter.

Of course with added quality comes added expense. Buying a quarter of a cow, about 100 pounds of meat that includes everything from ground beef to roasts to filet mignon, costs the consumer about $550, or $5.50 per pound at Thompson Valley Ranch. Neff Family Ranch offers similar quantities starting at $4.75 per pound.

“We’ve only ever had one complaint,” said Roccucci, who found out the lady complaining was cooking the lower-fat meat as long as she would cook regular meat. “And it lasted all of five days.”

Steve Frisch, director of natural resources for the Sierra Business Council, is excited to see Sierra-area grass-fed beef hit the market, and thinks that consumers will love it.

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