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Settling a Beef With American Cattle Productions

Taking a page out of cattle-raising's past, an old breed from Britain is invigorating American herds with healthier meat that's more sustainably produced.

Why did Chuck Lacy and Ridge Shinn charter two 747s to fly 87 bovines from New Zealand to New England?

For healthier beef.

Lacy and Shinn are founders and principles of Hardwick Beef, a leading distributor of 100 percent grass-fed beef in the Northeast. In building their business, they faced a challenge: most beef cattle in the U.S. are bred to fatten up quickly under industrial farm conditions, which means standing around in feedlots and eating corn and other grains for concentrated periods of time.

But after decades of selection for these traits, few cattle fattened up nicely and profitably solely through grazing, which produces healthier meat that can, in turn, sell for a premium.

Grass-fed beef is healthier not because it's lower in fat—  it isn't, Shinn says, though cattle put on weight more slowly on grass — but because of the near 1-to-1 ratio of the essential fatty acids omega 3 (the "good fat" that's often hailed as a reason to eat more fish) and omega 6. By comparison, in grain-fed beef, the ratio can be as low as 1 to 10.

But because of the dominance of feed lot bovine, anyone who wanted to graze cattle, whether for environmental, moral or commercial purposes, saw their choices severely constrained.

So Shinn and associate Gearld Fry armed themselves with ultrasound and linear measurement tools (better to gauge intramuscular fat and tenderness) and traveled throughout North America and the globe looking for a breed that could prosper as a grazer. They zeroed in on the Devon, an English breed. (Fry is now the president of the North American Devon Association.)

Devons had become quite rare, with only 200 head in the U.S. in 2002. The animals are too "easily fleshing" — which means that they get so bulked up in industrial feeding operations that excess fat needed to be cut off. But put the Devon on a grass diet, and it produces superb meat. Not for nothing was the Devon called the "Butcher's Breed."

Shinn and Fry found some good females, but the quality of the bulls did not meet their standard. At that point they began importing bull semen from New Zealand and Australia. (Restrictions on genetic products from other nations, such as the Devons' home in the United Kingdom, required this look Down Under.).

In this quest for bovine perfection, they encountered the Rotokawa Stud, named for a lake that abuts the stud's ranch in New Zealand. "The breeder, Ken McDowell, had never heard of ultrasound," Shinn recalls, but had nonetheless produced an extraordinary herd. When McDowell decided to retire, and no one in his family wanted to maintain the stud, he contacted Shinn and asked, "Do you want the herd?"

To this point, Shinn and Lacy had focused their genetics operation on the Rotokawa females. They had brought in 12 Rotokawa heifers in 2003 and, through harvesting embryos, had created five U.S. herds, but they wished for more genetic purity. (One quality of Rotokawa Devons, Shinn says, is their "pre-potency": the ability of the sire to put its genetic stamp on its offspring — hence the emphasis on individual bulls.)

And so, in July 2008, the 87 animals came to the U.S. While they didn't need the full body scans of their human fellow travelers, the process was rigorous. First came 60 days of quarantine in New Zealand. Then they had to be fitted for custom-built wooden crates that fit in the jumbo jets' fuselage. Once in the States, they spent 45 days in a privately owned center in California, behind 8-foot-high fencing so they wouldn't interact with the local cattle — or wild elk.

Prized bull No. 93, whose large (i.e., meaty) front end has been passed onto some 5,000 progeny, weathered the trip fine. The herd is now happily grazing at Shinn's farm in Hardwick, Mass.

One goal of the Hardwick Beef Company and its new sister company, Rotokawa Cattle Company, is a different kind of cattle propagation: to create opportunities for rural farmers in the Northeast, many of whose businesses have been devastated by low dairy prices. The grass-fed beef industry, Shinn says, "will be almost impossible to industrialize. Since it's dependent on grass [rather than feed], you'll need smart people to manage it."

In June, Rotokawa Chairman Chuck Lacy, former president and COO of Ben & Jerry's, presented to the Slow Money Alliance for a loan to help keep the firm in bulls. They're looking to build their asset — mother cows — from about 60 to 100 before selling them to the general public, and there are maintenance costs of hay for the winter, fences, equipment and labor. "It's collateral you could visit — you can even eat one," he said.

Lacy referred to the fact that conventional beef has depended on cheap petroleum, with far more energy going into producing it than is in the meat itself. Shifting to grass-fed beef is smart, he said, adding, "We've been substituting oil for intelligence in this country for a long time."