Following nature's lead

Rockin' J Ranch finds niche in health-conscious food market with grass-fed beef

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— When the Rockin' J Ranch was being restructured four years ago, new owners and partner/managers Keith and Wendi Lankister wanted to head in a slightly different direction with their beef.

"It's a commercial cow herd with an emphasis on grass genetics," Keith said. "There's a growing market for healthier beef as people become more knowledgeable and health conscious."

According to the new owners, hormones and supplements that speed up growth are nowhere to be found on the Rockin' J Ranch, located in the Little Snake River Valley.

The ranch tries to "mimic nature as much as possible," Keith said. Rotating the herd among pastures keeps them in good grass, and the ranch's location, straddling the Colorado-Wyoming state line, helps that process.

"The first thing was to try and match the cattle with the environment," Keith said. "We needed cows that could perform well in the weather here."

The Little Snake River Valley's elevation produces more carbohydrates in the grass, and the cattle eat more grass when it's sweeter, the Lankisters said, adding high quality grass transfers to high quality meat.

The Lankisters constantly seek to improve the make-up of the primarily Angus herd through genetics, and individual cows are monitored through ultrasound testing.

The ranch's computer database records the sex, breed and weight of each animal, and also measures marbling and meat quality, especially in the rib-eye area.

Being in touch with nature means calving comes later at the Rockin' J than at other Northwest Colorado ranches.

Following nature's lead has the cattle in the same calving cycle as the local deer and elk herds.

This schedule has the cattle reaching their highest nutrient requirements at the same time the grass is at the peak of its growing cycle.

"We only feed them hay if the snow is too crusty," Keith said. "Last winter we fed maybe 45 days, and the winter before that was mild, and they didn't need any hay."

First-year beef sales were constrained by an uninformed public, but articles about grass-fed beef in the New York Times and other media outlets have increased public awareness. And that has created demand for the product.

Wendi said clients purchase the beef for a number of reasons.

"Some customers had parents or grandparents living on a ranch and they say the beef tastes like they remember it as a child," she said. "Others read books such as the 'Omnivore's Dilemma,' (a look at American supermarkets and fast food), and that also helps drive the market.

"We had a client last weekend that was buying beef after seeing the movie, 'Super Size Me,' and deciding to eat healthier," Keith said.

Health food stores in Craig and Steamboat Springs have supported the business by selling the Lankisters' product, and Freshies Restaurant in Steamboat features their beef in its burgers.

Wendi can be found selling the beef Wednesdays in Craig near DeVries Market on Victory Way, and she said she enjoys meeting her customers face-to-face.

"People want to know where their meat comes from," she said. "It's a niche market, but there are several niches."

The key to marketing, Wendi said, is customer relationships.

"Our contacts with the public are direct contacts," she said. "People meet us face-to-face and buy the beef. We can tell them how it's grown."

Tourism in Steamboat Springs also has helped business as visitors returning home place orders on the RockinJCattle.com Web site after discovering the product during a visit to the Yampa Valley.

Christmas was especially busy for the ranch, as beef packages were sent to customers around the country using high-tech ice sheets to insure freshness.

Keith said the biggest part of their cattle operation is being able to manage the land in a natural way.

"It's management-intensive grazing, and it takes a little longer to get where you're going," Keith said. "We are able to harvest solar energy to make a high protein product, and the fertilizer from the cows goes right back into the ground."

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext.207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com

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