Nebraska Star Beef is a ‘cut above’ in the beef market
Rare, medium or well-done? How do you prefer your steak? Beyond the temperature of the meat on the grill, what other information is important to you?
Nebraska Star Beef, a central Nebraska family-owned company, wagers that you, like most patrons of fine-dining restaurants prefer beef that is a “cut above” the average and are willing to pay more for source-verified beef, beef raised initially on grass and fed an all vegetarian diet especially designed for cattle and free from antibiotics, hormones, and growth stimulants.
According to a 2011 Beef Tab insert published by Nebraska Press Service, research shows that restaurant patrons will pay extra for Nebraska beef and in addition the taste-testing participants were willing to pay more for the steak that named farm of origin and state of origin. The state-of-origin and farm-of-origin steaks were most ordered regardless of price.
University of Nebraska at Lincoln Meat Scientist, Chris Calkins says, “That is huge. They were literally willing to reach into their wallets and pay more for those steaks. They view Nebraska as a great source of quality beef.” Lynn Gordon, livestock promotion coordinator with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, said, “This tells producers a little bit about the demand out there for information about their products.”
A brand is born
The Klute family owns and operates Nebraska Star Beef, a cattle business located in central Nebraska. The Klute family has been farming in rural Nebraska for four generations. About a dozen years ago, owner Dale Klute and his son Joe started collaborating with the Whole Foods Corporation to define a new standard for a line of “natural” beef products for Whole Foods. Their close connection with Whole Foods inspired the origin of the Nebraska Star Beef company that markets beef to customers throughout the U.S. via their website www.Nebraskastarbeef.com .
A difference in taste, tenderness and quality
Steve Johnson, spokesperson for the company said, “The Nebraska Star Beef process is concerned with every aspect of breeding, raising, feeding, and shipping the cattle. The process is important because it is what ultimately makes the difference in the taste, tenderness, and quality of the overall product.”
“If you know what you’re looking for, you can see the difference here as soon as you drive up,” says Steve Johnson, spokesman for Nebraska Star Beef near Holdrege. “The standard for space allowed in feed lots is supposed to be 120 square feet per animal, but we allow 180 square feet because it’s more natural for them and they stay healthier without requiring antibiotics in the feed.”
The large, well-kept pens are just part of an overall program focusing on nutrition and animal husbandry and designed to help Nebraska Star Beef carve out a new marketing niche in the competitive beef cattle industry — one that’s already starting to make some headway on the national level.
A new way of doing things
Steve Johnson had plenty of chance to interact with cattle when he was young and admits they did things differently back then. “We yelled at the cattle, we flapped our arms to get a bunch of them running so they would go through a gate,” he said.
By contrast, employees at Nebraska Star Beef are taught techniques to move cattle without stress and at a walk whenever possible, both when they’re growing up in broad Nebraska pastures and after they come to the feed lot to be finished. Johnson said that studies show that animals in low-stress environments are healthier and gain weight easier.
Gaining weight and minimizing the number of “days on feed” is the name of the game in the feedlot business, but how that’s accomplished is another area where Nebraska Star Beef differs dramatically from standard procedures.
Cattle in typical operations are given a diet that includes prophylactic antibiotics to keep them healthy and growth additives to accelerate growth and reduce the number of days on feeds, improving profitability.
“We feed our animals a completely vegetarian diet, consisting only of silage, steam-flaked corn and hay,” Johnson said. The silage, he explained, is the entire corn plant that’s been chopped and fermented. The hay is ground and the grain steam-flaked to create a diet that’s nutritious and easy to digest. If an animal gets sick and has to be treated with antibiotics, it’s moved out of the Nebraska Star Beef program and into a standard feeding operation.
A vertically integrated operation
Standing next to a chute which is dispensing corn still warm from the flaking process onto a 15-foot-high pile, Steve points out a heap of silage that dwarfs the front-end loader scooping it up, underscoring the scope of the operation.
“We grow, harvest and process all of our own feed. That way we can keep track of the quality and always know what we’ve got,” Johnson said, noting that the company had also been experimenting with small amounts of the corn byproduct left over in the production of ethanol.
The company contracts with a select group of ranchers in northern tier states for stock, Johnson said, because they seemed to be genetically healthier and staying healthy without antibiotics is key to the operation.
Branding has always been important in the cattle industry, but not in the marketing sense until relatively recently. Johnson said that Dale and Joe had started taking steps to develop a Nebraska Star Beef brand two years ago and since developing the logo, website and packaging, the marketing has been gradually expanding.
Nebraska Star Beef markets only high-end meats under the Nebraska Star Beef name, including a filet, ribeye, sirloin, and New York strip as well as a brisket and tri-tip. In addition to the natural Angus that makes up the lion’s share of the business, Johnson said the company raises Wagyu beef, a breed similar to the Japanese Kobe that naturally creates a meat that is finely and consistently marbled with fat.
“It’s expensive because Wagyu develop more slowly and have to spend more time on feed,” Johnson said. “But believe me, it is delicious meat.”
The company has also created the Lucky brand of specialty products which includes stick and slab jerky, and six-packs of Angus/Wagyu Fusion ground beef patties. The company markets most of its products over the Internet but is also exploring other avenues of distribution.
The bottom line
“What it all boils down to is that some people prefer to have a steak from a cow that’s been raised without growth additives or antibiotics, and they’re willing to pay extra for it,” Johnson said. “The way we raise beef, animals stay healthy and reach their full growth potential because we give them more days on feed, because we handle them gently, and because we give them plenty of personal space. It’s really not rocket science but not very many people are doing it this way.”
Does the Nebraska Star Beef method produce a better steak? Johnson doesn’t like to run down other producers or production methods, but says they have legions of fans and they’ll stand the quality of their meat next to anyone’s.
“We feed our animals differently, we give them flaked corn. We treat them differently,” he said. “I certainly think it makes a difference in the taste but I guess you’d have to do your own comparison. Whether the way we raise cattle is better for the meat or not, it’s certainly better for the animals providing it.”
For more information…
Nebraska Star Beef
73934 J Road
Holdrege, NE 68949