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Big frames, big grass-finished flavor

Baldwin Charolais beef doesn’t require fat to produce quality

by Mike Hillerbrand
Yanceyville, North Carolina
— Most of the buzz in grass-finished beef circles today is about the benefits of small frame sizes, English genetics and marbling ability. This, it is said, is the sort of beef genetics required to produce profits straight from pasture.

Meanwhile, Baldwin Family Farms is producing lean, large (frame score 7-8) Charolais cattle on grass and selling critically acclaimed beef to loyal retail and wholesale customers.

With their Baldwin Charolais Beef sold in 11 Whole Foods stores, and a recent win in the Wall Street Journal’s national grass-fed beef taste contest, V. Mac Baldwin, wife Peggy, son Craig and grandsons Steven and Patrick aren’t just talking big. They are delivering outstanding lean beef from big cows to customers who are waiting in line to buy.

What’s so special about the Baldwins that allows them to break modern grass genetics “rules”? Nothing, really — they just focus on the fundamentals. The Baldwins breed for reproduction and fast growth while employing good animal management. They work hard at producing top-quality forages. They don’t waste money aiming for a grade of beef that is too difficult or costly to produce. And the Baldwins focus on supplying their target market with a product it wants to buy.

Genetics are essential to the operation, but V. Mac doesn’t blindly follow trends. Having successfully raised large-framed Charolais for more than five decades, he doesn’t buy into the small-frame argument. “Last time I checked, all cattle were sold by the pound,” chuckles V. Mac. “Which size steer would you rather sell — a thousand-pound small-frame breed, or a thirteen-hundred-pound Charolais?”

While he doesn’t hold any grudges against small frame proponents and doesn’t discount the need for some breeds to downsize a bit, V. Mac does have strong opinions about cattlemen in one part of the country pitching their ideas as a magic bullet for everywhere else. “My father always quoted Teddy Roosevelt: ‘Do what you can, where you are, with what you have,’” he relates. “You can’t copy a program that works out West where there is eight inches of annual rainfall and it takes 40 acres to carry a cow/calf pair, and expect it to work in an area that gets 56 inches of rainfall and only takes an acre or two. Every cattleman has to do what’s best for them, where they are.”

V. Mac’s perspective on genetics was triggered decades ago when Craig was active in the local 4-H club. V. Mac and Peggy were raising Angus and polled Herefords at the time. “For a 4-H project, we AI’d some Charolais genetics to some of our black Angus cows,” he recalls. “They produced awesome, mousy-colored calves. We knew then that Charolais/Angus crosses would work great for Southern ranchers.” Baldwin sold his black cattle and started raising registered Charolais for breeding stock.

V. Mac credits a big part of his current success to “providentially” stumbling across strong grass-based genetics in the 1990s. In asking ABS about a bull he was using (Bar HR Performer), he learned that it came from the Rogers Bar HR Charolais Ranch of Collins, MS. Owner Harlan Rogers was both an innovator and grass man, demanding that his cows raise their calves on grass alone. Their genetics were developed over years of selection for excellent maternal characteristics, high weaning weights and fast growth. Rogers’ breeding philosophy was simple: “Select the cows for grass, select the grass for cows, and let the cream rise to the top.”

“We built up a nice business selling registered Charolais bulls in our region of North Carolina,” says V. Mac. “We saturated our market at about 50 bull sales a year. At that point we had to choose between advertising nationally or staying small.” Stay small is what he did until opportunity came knocking in an unexpected way in the mid-’90s.

“One day a guy in a white pickup drove by the farm, stopped his truck and came up to the house asking if we had any Charolais steers to sell for beef,” V. Mac recalls. It turns out that he worked for Laura’s Lean Beef. V. Mac had visited visited Laura’s Kentucky farm in the mid-’80s and knew she was making a big bet that America’s health-conscious housewives wanted lean beef, but the two had lost touch. This time he stayed in touch.

V. Mac branched out from the breeding stock business, buying Charolais steers from his bull customers and raising them with his own cattle on grass. Laura bought his steers by the tractor trailer load and finished them on grain.

Producing for Laura’s worked well for Baldwin until once again providence intervened. “We were loading up the last tractor-trailer load of cattle for Laura and didn’t have room for about 15 steers,” V. Mac says. Not sure what to do, they decided to turn them back onto grass.

The steers grew as well on grass as they would have on grain. V. Mac knew he was on to something. But since Laura’s wasn’t buying grass-finished beef, he needed another market. It was 2000 and the internet was just starting to become mainstream. “American housewives could research what was the best meat for their families. There was a market ready to buy kitchen-ready cuts,” V. Mac recalls. By 2001, they had stopped selling to Laura’s Lean Beef and were finishing everything on grass.

V. Mac notes that American Charolais genetics are not the same as French Charolais, which produce double-muscled cows up to 2,000 pounds and bulls up to 3,000 lbs. His cows top out at about 1,400 lbs., with bulls at 2,100-2,200 lbs. Yet this is still a large-framed animal that is supposed to be expensive to grow and maintain on forage, and which some say won’t produce the overall quality of beef said to be preferred by American consumers.

V. Mac isn’t totally against fat — he believes there will always be a market for Choice and Prime beef for white tablecloth restaurants. But the Baldwins have decided not to produce a product that they can’t (and have no desire to) deliver. V. Mac calls his beef “Select-plus,” and he has found that Baldwin Family Farms customers are very happy with what they’re getting.

“We sell lean beef because that is what America’s housewives want,” V. Mac explains. “Our customers don’t want to pay for fat and we don’t want to feed grain to our cattle to grow it.”

If “lean” is the main message, then “quality product” is right beside it. Again, V. Mac doesn’t believe that fat is required for quality. “Quality starts with flavor,” he explains. Aside from struggling to meet demand, further proof of Baldwin Charolais Beef’s quality came in 2010 when the Wall Street Journal ranked it No. 1 in a competition among five of the nation’s premier grassfed beef brands for flavor and overall quality.

V. Mac also says his USDA-inspected butcher, Chaudhry Halal Meats in Siler City, NC, is an important part of the equation. Owner Abdul Chaudhry dry ages Baldwin beef for 21 days, thus aiding tenderness and flavor. Says V. Mac, “His work quality is great and service is outstanding.”

Halal is the Arabic term for “legal.” Halal meats must be processed in a pork-free facility where a ritual blessing is said before each animal is killed by severing a major artery. V. Mac says that while some customers are concerned about Halal’s connection with Islam, others like the fact that it represents careful slaughter. V. Mac and Peggy, both very committed Christians, don’t worry about such issues. “I consider Abdul Chaudhry a very good friend. We talk about spiritual things and we talk about the beef business,” V. Mac explains. He appreciates the company’s honesty: “I would trust Abdul with uncounted money.”

V. Mac says his Charolais herd is well adapted to the North Carolina heat and his management methods. “We don’t baby our mama cows,” he notes. About 500 bred cows are placed on tall fescue pastures until shortly before calving, making the best use of the area’s least expensive forage. “We’ll make sure that coming into the winter they have plenty of hay on their backs, or ‘fat’ as some people call it,” chuckles V. Mac. The cows may lose up to 10% of their body weight over the winter, as nutrition is not a priority. Heifers are kept on good grass to gain weight all winter.

“We start with spring calving — it’s the way nature intended,” says V. Mac. Calving begins with the heifers in mid-March, while cows start in May and continue through September to help spread out harvesting. He says the white Charolais settle easily in the summer heat. “Angus people in the South can’t do what we do (because) the heat and fescue endophyte toxicity kills their conception rate,” V. Mac says.

Cows are bred on the hoof from the selection of about 25 bulls kept on hand, but heifers are bred artificially: V. Mac says AI is easier without a calf at side. AI also offers the opportunity to introduce new genetics. The Baldwins are focusing on developing longer-bodied steers to increase the number of loin steak cuts. Heifers are generally bred to calve at 30 months instead of 24, as V. Mac doesn’t want to have to spend money to supplement winter growth for pregnant heifers.

Close to calving time, cows are moved to pastures planted to high-quality annual forages with a goal of replacing lost fat reserves, gearing up for milk production, and getting them into shape for breeding.

Calf weaning and management depends on the grass. Ask V. Mac about his target weaning weight, and he’ll tell you he doesn’t care. If grass is in short supply, weaning might be at five months and about 450-500 pounds. If there is plenty of rain and grass, the calf may stay on its dam for eight months, reaching 650-700 lbs. Steers and females destined for harvest are grown exclusively on annual pastures. They are generally harvested at 24 to 28 months, weighing approximately 1,300 lbs.

Producing the highest quality forage possible for as long a season as possible is a key component of the Baldwins’ business.

“Years ago everyone around here did the same thing: plant perennial fescue and clover pastures,” recalls Baldwin. He was doing the same thing until 1995, when he heard R. L. Dairymple speak at a North Carolina Ag-Extension conference. Dairymple, a grazing expert from Oklahoma, promoted crabgrass and winter annuals for nearly year-round grazing. The Baldwins planted their first winter-annual pastures in 1996.

With about 500 acres of his own land in annuals, V. Mac can get 2-3 lbs. of weight gain a day on young cattle. All 2,000 acres of leased pastures are in fescue. While he would like to have more annuals, converting the leased ground wouldn’t be cost effective.

His blend of winter annuals — two bushels/acre Canadian grazing rye, 25 lbs. ryegrass, 10 lbs. crimson clover (with 5 lbs. red clover and 1 lb. white clover added every other year) — is seeded in the fall, either over prepared land or into standing crabgrass. In North Carolina, this means sowing starts around the third week in August with a goal of finishing by October 1. The annuals are mixed in the seed box of a grain drill pulled behind an Aerway aerator. A double-roller cultipacker is pulled behind the grain drill.

V. Mac favors rye over wheat due to its winter hardiness. The rye furnishes most of his grazing in early winter and matures in the early spring. The annual ryegrass and clover make great companions, increasing dry matter. The crimson clover is very winter hardy and matures early, fixing significant nitrogen. It also provides good grazing in February and March when it is most needed.

For new pastures, crabgrass is oversown the following spring with a broadcast spreader mounted to a truck or ATV. The crabgrass provides forage from mid June until the first frost, when the winter annuals pick up again. Baldwin gets two or three grazing rotations on crabgrass through the summer and then grazes it short to prepare for the fall over-seeding of winter annuals. The crabgrass re-seeds itself.

V. Mac says his seeding management isn’t being copied by the neighbors. “It’s too much work and too much money for farmers that have already established their fescue pastures,” he says. But based on published data, annual production from the annuals/crabgrass combination virtually doubles that of fescue and clover, providing an additional three to four tons of dry matter. V. Mac figures the additional production from the annuals program is well worth the $100/acre annual cost (about $60 for seed and $40 for fuel and labor). There are two other distinct advantages. “The endophytes in fescue can produce off-flavors in beef, and my steers grow twice as fast on my annuals program as they would on fescue,” he explains.

Beef isn’t the only Baldwin enterprise, as V. Mac and Craig have steadily built a hatching operation with eight poultry houses producing 16 million hatching eggs a year. The eggs are important for farm cash flow and the litter that is produced serves as the farm’s primary fertilizer and is an important contributor to beef profits. “It was Harlan Rogers who first talked me into getting chicken manure,” explains V. Mac, recalling a visit to the Rogers Bar HR Ranch. Rogers emphasized the importance of maintaining top-quality forage. “Harlan told me to go find some chicken manure, and I told him I would have to truck it more than 50 miles. Harlan said, ‘So? Go get it!’”

At about 2,400 tons a year, the egg operation produces all the litter the Baldwins require. New pastures typically get five or six tons of litter per acre applied as a jump start, and three tons are applied annually for ongoing maintenance.

Baldwin Charolais Beef is sold through both retail and wholesale channels. Retail sales are through their on-farm store and the internet (www.baldwinbeef.com), although as of this spring there was a four-month waiting list.

Wholesale accounts for 75-80% of total sales, with Whole Foods one of the biggest customers. After winding down the relationship with Laura’s Lean Beef, the Baldwins began selling their products at the farmers market near Chapel Hill, NC, and customer testimonials helped open the Whole Foods door there. Now Baldwin Charolais Beef is sold at Whole Foods markets throughout North and South Carolina. Their processor delivers fresh primal cuts to the Whole Foods warehouse.

“We have always liked wholesale customers because of the cash flow,” V. Mac notes. Of course a cut of the profits goes to the middleman, and buyers have an influence on price. “In an ideal world we would sell everything direct,” he says. But wholesale demand is also strong, so V. Mac feels he needs to balance both channels. The Baldwins found that wholesale marketing also drives retail sales growth. Whole Foods promotes the Baldwin Charolais brand, and shoppers seek them out to buy direct. Their location on a state highway made starting a farm store an obvious choice. The store also is the base for the online sales shipping operation, which was started in 2005.

The Baldwins’ selling approach is the same for both retail avenues. “We encourage new customers to try our ‘Family Pacs,’” V. Mac explains. These offer a wide selection of cuts and ground beef, giving newcomers a sense of the Baldwin quality. Each of the three different Pacs has a different selection of cuts and is sold at a different price point. The Baldwins also sell quarters, sides and individual cuts through the farm store and online.

Another unique option for customers is the “Home Delivery Plan.” Customers select the cuts or Pacs they want delivered to their homes every month, paying a flat rate that includes shipping costs. Basically, the Baldwins will sell quality beef just about any way their customers want it.

Most of the online sales are from east of the Mississippi River, but customers are as distant as California. “We have a lot of customers in the big cattle states of Texas and Florida,” says V. Mac. “But they like our beef better.” All sales are backed by the unconditional “Baldwin Guarantee.” If a customer is not completely satisfied, Baldwin refunds the purchase price plus shipping costs.

All said, the Baldwins have avoided many of the trends of a very trendy business, building a successful grass-finished beef operation by sticking with fundamentals and adopting practices that work for their location. Avoiding trendy shortcuts has helped them weather the lean times and prosper in the good ones.

V. Mac gives the credit where he thinks it belongs. “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart,”’ he says, quoting Psalm 37:4. “We have worked hard over the years, but the Lord has blessed us in a big way!”

Mike Hillerbrand farms and writes near Cary, North Carolina.

 

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