New S.D. company launches grass-fed beef effort

Farm Forum

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — NuAgra, a Brookings-based company, has begun selling grass-fed South Dakota beef directly to households throughout the United States — and the company’s beef starts out in central South Dakota.

Formed just 10 months ago by John and Kyle Robinson, NuAgra seeks to carve out a niche by trying to enhance “consumer health and lifestyle through a holistic, sustainable approach to food products,” according to the company.

Once a dominant practice, grass-fed beef production is an alternative to the traditional corn-fed beef most people are used to, Kyle Robinson told the Capital Journal.

“The product represents what many desire — high-quality nutritious food that is traceable and raised with sustainable values,” she explained. “We also make it convenient for families by delivering directly to their doorstep.”

In contrast to grass-fed beef, the meat from cattle finished with a corn-based diet tends to be higher in saturated fat and omega-6 fat and lower in omega-3 fat, said Dr. John Robinson, an M.D. who also has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular genetics. A healthy diet includes fewer saturated fats, according to 2010 USDA dietary guidelines.

“On average, grass-finished beef has 8.3 times more protein than fat,” John Robinson said. That is 5.4 times higher than salmon and 4.2 times higher than tofu, he added.

Grass-finished beef dominated the U.S. beef industry from its beginnings in the 1800s until the 1960s, according to Eric Mousel, a cow and calf specialist at the University of Minnesota.

“Feeding corn to cattle during the last two months of the finishing stage began on a larger scale in the 1960s. Corn-finished beef was deemed a more cost-efficient method of producing beef by producers and a higher-quality eating experience by consumers. Thus, as grass-finished beef was gradually replaced by corn-finished beef, grass-finished beef has become a niche market for restaurants and enthusiasts who prefer the sharper flavor and more rigid texture of beef finished on grass,” said Mousel, a former range livestock production specialist at South Dakota State University.

Approximately 3 percent of beef consumed in the United States is grass-finished, he explained.

The Robinsons said research on the effects of grass-fed beef is what led them to create their business. Then in March, Robinsons were introduced to Carter Johnson and Cody Zilverberg of EcoSun Prairie Farms. The Colman-based nonprofit corporation has been restoring wetlands and native plants on its farm since 2007. The farm explores ways to turn a profit from restored grassland, including through such products as grass-fed beef.

The Robinsons said the cattle being grass-fed on EcoSun land were supplied by former South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association president Todd Mortenson of Eagle Butte. A Leopold Conservation Award winner, Mortenson previously entered into a three-year agreement with EcoSun to finish his cattle on native prairie grass.

After tasting EcoSun’s beef, the Robinsons said they knew they were on to something special. “EcoSun had so many things worth admiring — an entrepreneurial spirit, a passion for environmental stewardship and the willingness to step outside conventional comfort zones,” said John Robinson.

Shortly after their tour of EcoSun, the Robinsons formed NuAgra. By May they had established a relationship with another Leopold Conservation Award winner — Pat and Mary Lou Guptill, from a ranch in Quinn that would later become a part of the process involving EcoSun and NuAgra.

The Robinsons later attended the Grassfed Exchange Conference in Bismarck, N.D. The conference reinforced their ideas. “It helped us become part of a network that was interested in pursuing change,” said Kyle Robinson.

After developing relationships with members of the grass-fed beef industry, the Robinsons turned their focus to the consumers. With a background in marketing, Kyle Robinson determined the best entry point. “The beef industry very much focuses on the male,” she said. For that reason, Kyle Robinson said she wanted a totally different approach for NuAgra. “We needed to market to women because 80 percent of food decisions are based on the head-of-household purchases,” she explained.

Upon identifying their new approach, Kyle Robinson determined through market research that a market for grass-fed beef existed in metro and suburban areas. The East Coast became their main focus due to the fact that grass-fed beef is difficult to find in that area of the country, she said. Robinson also said the potential health benefits for consumers in a region with high rates of obesity was another factor she considered.

The company will send 5,000 pounds of premium grass-fed beef from South Dakota to a fulfillment center in North Carolina this week. It will then be shipped directly to the doorsteps of clients in cities throughout the East Coast, including Washington and Atlanta.

Although the East Coast is NuAgra’s initial primary focus, the company can ship anywhere in the United States.