When buying meat in New Mexico, one has many options—grass-fed, grass-finished, natural, organic, grain-fed, Slim Jims—but only approximately a 1 percent likelihood that it’s from here.
That could change. A 2008 report commissioned by Beef Industry Improvement of New Mexico—a coalition of groups affiliated with the New Mexico beef industry and whose members range from the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association to the state Department of Agriculture to La Montañita Co-op—says branding (the marketing kind) would be a huge boon to the local beef industry.
Just as Idaho pawned off its potatoes and Florida put the squeeze on the orange industry, BII-NM hopes “New Mexico Beef” can become the meat to beat.
According to BII-NM estimates, more than 7,500 New Mexican families and businesses raise cattle, contributing almost $1 billion to New Mexico’s economy. But as costs to ship and process meat have risen dramatically over the past decade, the industry has seen steadily decreasing returns.
As it stands, there are not enough local processing plants to handle the cattle raised here, and thus a majority of the state’s ranchers are cow-calf operators who raise calves in New Mexico but sell them to stockers and feeders, typically in the Texas panhandle. Until they are sold, most calves raised in New Mexico are grass-fed, according to New Mexico Beef Council Executive Director Dina Chacon-Reitzel. “They’re out on the range, so that’s what they eat. They eat grass,” she says.
But the BII-NM report concludes that the current business climate and the modest number of calves in New Mexico do not warrant a large processing facility, which would keep the state’s branded beef cows from leaving the state for slaughter. Additionally, it claims that converting the industry to a grass-fed and -finished method is not feasible, citing the under-established market and inconsistent forage.
Jerry Hawkes, an agricultural economist for New Mexico State University who conducted the BII-NM report, estimates the state would have to decrease its cattle production by 50 percent to support the foraging of grass-fed beef.
But the study is one of immediate economics and relies largely on the status quo.
Laurie Bower, director of the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance (grassfedlivestock.org), takes issue with the study’s all-or-nothing approach. “It’s not that there wasn’t enough demand, there just wasn’t enough infrastructure to support a 100 percent conversion to grass-fed.”
Bower believes New Mexico’s beef industry could offer a “spectrum of options” that range from selling calves to feedlots to developing beef that is grass-fed, grass-finished and processed in New Mexico.
But Bower emphasizes that the state also could support a much larger grass-fed beef industry.
She says a combination of better practices—including holistic range management, green technologies, climate- and terrain-appropriate breeds—could increase the number of grass-fed animals that could survive here.
To get more grass-fed beef processed here, she says it’s necessary to create cooperative relationships between ranchers and small- to mid-size processors for economies of scale. And since most ranches in the region are over 100 miles from processing facilities and their consumer base, Bower suggests a mid-size government-funded processing plant centrally located in Albuquerque.
“New Mexico couldn’t support a large, 40,000-head a week [processing plant], but really it’s sort of a mid-sized one that would be more appropriate for New Mexico,” Ilana Blankman, the farm to market specialist for Farm to Table, says.
Farm to Table is an organization whose mission is to promote local agriculture by bringing local foods into institutions such as public schools.
Blankman says a New Mexico branding initiative would be profitable to the entire local beef industry, allowing it to “achieve economies of scale, making [meat] more affordable while still adding value back to the ranch.”
For Farm to Table, price point is a more pressing issue than whether the meat is grass-fed. For many, the perceived high cost has kept them from the grass-fed bandwagon.
The grass-fed calves that are spared from the concentrated animal feedlots of Texas and live their lives in New Mexico are frequently sold directly to consumers at farmers markets or more inexpensively “on the hoof,” a transaction in which animals are processed whole and possibly split among several people.
SWGLA estimates this sort of beef costs $6 to $9 per pound, compared with feedlot beef found at the supermarket that costs $3 to $8 per pound.
Bower says that with the higher cost come the myriad benefits of grass-fed beef—SWGLA credits the meat with being everything from tastier and nutritionally superior to less harmful to the environment and animal than other beef.
So if New Mexico were to brand its beef, regardless of type, what’s the difference between feedlot beef from here rather than elsewhere?
“There would be no difference,” Chacon-Reitzel—who claims not to believe there is factory-farmed meat anywhere in the US, despite there being only four corporations that handle more than 80 percent of beef processing nationwide—says. “Because, overall, what we’re trying to do is feed them a ration of grain, grass and so forth to be able to produce more beef per animal.”
She adds, however, that for New Mexicans, not only is New Mexico beef perceived as fresher, “there’s value to some consumers in knowing who produced the beef, knowing the families who produced it.”
Hawkes also concedes there may not be much of a difference between local beef that is sent to feedlots and beef from elsewhere, aside from perception.
“A commodity is a commodity. An apple out of Washington we like better than an apple out of Wyoming. I don’t know why; we just do,” he says. “Branding and marketing: We are all susceptible to it and we all react to it.”
Hawkes cites a survey by the New Mexico Beef Council done at the 2009 state fair. “A vast majority indicated they would like to buy New Mexico beef and, secondly, they’d be willing to pay more for that product.”
Bower believes that if it were more readily available, grass-fed and -finished local beef would also meet a high demand.
Hawkes additionally suggests the local preference stems from safety considerations. “The ability to supply a locally grown product [is] perceived as fresher and safer.”
And perhaps it is.
“If it was produced, processed and distributed locally, it could be safer because you’ve kept the animal out of large-scale industrial operations, where diseases spread and where unhealthy confinement patterns exist,” Bower says. “If you knew the beef came from your neighbor’s cow [but it] went to a feedlot in Texas for a few months, then I don’t know.”
And though she thinks New Mexico beef marketing will be helpful to the industry, she is wary it’ll be a meat industry like any other. She questions: “Are we going to market a product based on consumer perception or based on value?”