How the freezer could save free-range cattle

by Ari LeVaux

Arapaho Ranch produces the kind of beef your inner cowboy wants to eat. With 595,000-acres sprawling across Wyoming’s wild and rugged Owl Mountains, the ranch is home to native grasses, wolves, mountain lions and grizzlies. The cattle are herded by Indian cowboys, each with his own fleet of seven horses – one for each day of the week.

It’s the largest certified organic cattle operation in the U.S., which isn’t saying much given what’s permitted under today’s organic standards. While organic cattle can be confined for up to eight months a year without losing certification, the cattle at Arapaho Ranch spend their entire lives grazing outside. They follow the melting snow up the mountain in springtime and retreat to lower ground in fall. The cattle breed naturally, without the help of artificial insemination, as do the ranch horses. The word “organic,” while applicable to the beef produced on Arapaho Ranch, doesn’t do it justice.

When the Northern Arapaho tribe, which owns the ranch, made a deal with Whole Foods, it was a dream come true: an economically and ecologically feasible way for the tribe to steward its land in stark contrast with gas drilling and casino gambling.

Whole Foods celebrated the agreement with great fanfare, featuring eagle feather headdresses and traditional Arapaho prairie chicken dances in the parking lot of a Denver store. “(It) was a great idea,” says David Ruedlinger, Whole Foods’ meat coordinator for the Rocky Mountain region. “They could supply us with beef 52 weeks a year. Their cattle grazed knew their way around the ranch, which microclimates would have grass in winter.”

Everything, it turns out, except the bottom line. In March, barely a year in, Arapaho Ranch pulled out.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better situation,” explains David Stoner, general manager of the ranch. “They’re beautiful stores. They presented our product beautifully. But it’s a difficult product to produce. We’re keeping cattle until they’re 30 months old, through two winters. It takes range-fed beef that much longer to grow, and we’re still 300 to 400 pounds less than the ones that come out of a feedlot.”

The move to gain organic certification was a big investment for the ranch. Then the bank that helped finance the operation backed out. A sizable percentage of the meat’s retail price was going to Panorama Meats, which handles the slaughter, packaging and distribution of Whole Foods’ beef. The ranch was getting squeezed, Stoner says, and when the price of conventional beef shot up by 20 percent last spring, Arapaho asked Panorama for a commensurate increase in the wholesale price. Panorama declined.

Arapaho then tried to strike a deal directly with Whole Foods. But that wasn’t as simple as the tribe had hoped, according to Whole Foods’ Ruedlinger.

“They might view Panorama as a middleman, but they’re more than that. Panorama provides services I can’t do myself. They have a market for the bones, offal, livers, bench trim, etc. You don’t see us selling tripe, tongue, or oxtail, but all that stuff is marketable and should be used if you’re trying to get the best carcass utilization. And carcass utilization is important not just for economics, but to honor the animal.”

For a large, publicly traded company like Whole Foods, it’s more efficient to deal with one supplier – Panaroma – that works with several producers. “In winter, sometimes the roads in Wyoming are closed, and we can’t get the product,” Ruedlinger explains.

All parties claim no hard feelings.

“We have no ideological differences,” says Stoner, “I believe in Panorama’s integrity, that they try to provide what they promise and treat their producers with respect.

It’s not their fault, it’s not Whole Foods’ fault, and it’s not our fault. It’s just unfortunate. It’s pure economics.”

Ruedlinger says he has “all the respect in the world” for David Stoner and what they’re doing on the ranch.

And Mack Graves, chief executive officer of Panorama, told “I feel horrible about it. They were such good folks. We could have worked it out, and we didn’t.”

So why can’t these sympathetic parties make a deal?

Stoner is correct to blame economics. And the root of this problem is a marketplace where consumers want meat fresh rather than frozen. This is due in part to the inconvenience of waiting for meat to thaw and also to the false assumption that freezing meat lowers its quality.

If consumers warmed up to frozen meat, ranchers could slaughter cattle during the growing season when the quality of forage, and consequently the meat, is higher. They wouldn’t have to overwinter as many animals or contend with bad winter roads. And it would make range-fed operations more competitive with feedlots, which can finish their animals on high-quality feed in winter and guarantee fresh, marbled meat year round.

Arapaho Ranch is currently exploring other markets for its range-fed beef, but it’s running out of time. “We could be making a lot more money selling calves to feedlots,” Stoner says. “Do we believe in that model? No. Are we going to be forced into it? Possibly, yes. By fall we’re going to have to make a decision.”

The willingness of consumers to step up to the plate could make Stoner’s decision a lot easier.

“If we could get shoppers to buy beef at the peak of the season and freeze it themselves, or buy frozen product off-peak that was harvested at peak season, all these problems would be solved,” Ruedlinger says.

But that’s a big if. “We tried putting together frozen value packs, which offered an assortment of burgers, sausages and steaks for a discounted price,” he says. “The program met limited success.”

This is a shame. Stoner and his cowboys would like nothing better than to keep working their tails off to keep America’s freezers full of good meat. But as they say on the range, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. •



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