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As cattlemen gather round the bright glow of record prices, there is a marked divide about what it will take to keep demand strong. One camp is staking the future on hamburgers, the other on premium bone-in rib eyes.
Steve Whitmire believes beef's future is tied to quality. He's convinced it's beef's high-end cuts and a reputation for consistent quality that will keep U.S. product on plates for years to come.
The North Carolina producer's seedstock operation, Ridgefield Farm, is based at Brasstown, where he raises Angus and Braunvieh cattle. His bulls are sold with the agreement that he buys back calves at a premium, which he feeds out and carries into the marketplace as an "all natural" product. He feeds out about 1,800 head annually, giving him the unique perspective of having an operation that goes from conception to consumption.
Whitmire has developed one-on-one connections with top chefs and buyers across the country through his branded business, Brasstown Beef, started about eight years ago. He supplies Whole Foods, Buckhead Beef and eight Sysco companies across the Southeast. Listed on the menus of many top-tier restaurants and clubs, Whitmire's beef has been cooked at the Beard Foundation -- the holy grail for professional chefs -- twice in the past year.
His relentless drive to market the best beef possible combines the best of genetics and technology, going so far as to ultrasound animals to determine which he'll harvest each week.
"This is about controlling genetics on the front end, pasturing and feeding for uniform flavor, and then predicting the optimum harvest point for a given animal," he explained.
Whitmire credited the American Angus Association for promoting the use of genetic markers to help breeders develop a consistent, highly desirable product. He believes every breed association today should be focused on finding and identifying seedstock animals carrying traits that may make their progeny's meat tough, and getting them out of sire groups.
Two things have Whitmire worried about beef's future. First, he was told by a chef in a high-end restaurant that his product was getting too pricey. Wholesale pricing for his tenderloins is at $19.95 per pound; ground beef, $5.10; rib eyes, $13.50. Whitmire said he has had an increased cost of about $500 per calf he buys; it has been a challenge to recover this at his wholesale price, even with feed costs down by about a third.
But there is something Whitmire sees as worse than price resistance, and that's a bad eating experience. The cattleman experienced this firsthand in a Kansas steak house, where the $40 bone-in rib eye he ordered was so tough he couldn't cut it. He wondered how many other people had a similar experience and whether next time he would order chicken. He gave up on the rib eye and asked for a pork chop.
"Our reputation, our market in the world, is tied to quality. If we walk away from that, we might not ever get it back," he said.
Whitmire believes talk of moving the industry toward more of a "commodity" beef program, aimed at developing cattle strictly for the ground beef market, could be a major misstep.
"My concern is the big picture," he explained. "Are we going to end up in a ground beef world five years from now? And if we become a ground beef commodity producer, how can we compete with countries like Australia, Brasil, Uruguay or Paraguay in terms of cost of production."