Down On The Grass-Fed Farm: The Beef May Be Better, But It's Still Damn Hard Work

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Sweat pours down Marguerite's sun-baked face. She feels briars scratching through her dusty jeans. The buzzing and biting of mosquitoes is maddening. So is the old fence lining one of the back pastures. It's broken again.

Marguerite stops what she's doing. Why in the heck am I doing this? she asks herself.

Running the 142-acre east Texas cattle ranch she owns near Greenville with her husband Doug is back-breaking work. Marguerite, 55, does it mostly alone, but that doesn't deter her. "I don't actually mind it all that much," she says.

The Robbinses have been raising grass-finished cattle for five years. Ranches like theirs that raise grass-finished cattle make up a small fraction of the national beef industry, however. In Texas, the biggest cattle producing state in the country, most cattle at the 149,000 farms and ranches statewide are finished in feedlots and fattened on feed before being shipped to market. Grass-finished beef differs because cattle consume only their mother's milk, grass or hay from birth until market. They are never fed grain, or given hormones or antibiotics. It has surged in popularity over the last decade as demand for feedlot finished beef has fallen, taking prices with it.

Therein lies the struggle--the annual bout with prices and growth rates. In mid-August, the average price for beef cattle nationally was $80.30 per cwt (per hundredweight, or 100 lbs. in the U.S.), $15.50 lower than the same time last year. Prices in Texas have followed a similar pattern. According to Dr. David Anderson at Texas A&M's AgriLife Extension Service, prices in southern Texas have dropped because drought is forcing ranchers to sell off cattle they can no longer support. But on the flip side, smaller herds could cause prices to soar once demand goes back up.

At least five dozen ranches in Texas naturally raise beef, poultry and pork for farmers and restaurants. Grass-finished beef is more expensive than beef purchased in most grocery stores because of the time and effort required to raise cattle naturally. Despite the price, sales for grass-finished beef have grown, riding the herd of consumers seeking healthier food choices.

Most calves eat grass for at least a few months, but mature cattle at feedlots eat grain, like corn, and hay along with vitamin and mineral supplements. Ear implants release small amounts of hormones to produce faster weight gain. As a result, feedlot cattle are ready for harvest much quicker than their grass-finished counterparts.

But the wait may be worth it. Many health professionals contend grass-finished cattle produce beef products with lower total fat and calories as well as higher Omega-3 levels, similar to those found in fish like salmon, trout and herring. The Food and Drug Administration says Omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent coronary heart disease; other research suggests they may also prevent stroke and some cancers. All of which explains why hundreds of customers have bought from the My Rancher meat market since the store opened in May 2008.

Most of My Rancher's patrons live within a 50-mile radius of the Robbins' ranch, but around 10% of the business comes from the Internet. Before the 2008 summer Olympics, a former professional athlete expressed keen interest in the Robbins' hormone-free beef for athletes competing in Beijing. They turned down the opportunity, realizing they weren't equipped to process or ship an order of that size.

Standing behind the counter at the My Rancher store in Greenville, Doug is dressed like the businessman rancher he is: blue jeans, ostrich boots and a cowboy hat. Shelves along one wall are filled with a variety of canned goods with the My Rancher label. The rest of the small room is taken up by refrigerators packed with meat and specialty cheeses. Doug owned a chain of prime and top choice meat markets in the sixties and seventies. Now, thirty years later, he's come full circle.

Doug and Marguerite bought what was an old cotton farm five years ago intending to hobby ranch with a dozen head of cattle. Marguerite, a molecular biologist and chemist, found herself absorbed in ideas for improving the quality of the pastures. Soon the ideas sprouted into a plan. Working with the Noble Foundation, she developed her own grazing system that requires planting a smorgasbord of different grasses throughout the year. She nicknamed the technique the "salad bowl" effect: clover and Bermuda in the fall; rye, wheat, and turnips in the winter; tall fescue during the transition between seasons; and hay when it doesn't rain. Dining on these "salad bowls" all day long, Doug says, produces meat with a more pronounced flavor than beef from grain-fed cattle.

"Very few people actually, in this day and age, have ever had real, all-natural, grass, ranch-fed beef," says Doug.

Cattle ranching is deeply rooted in Texas history and mythology. Spanish settlers in 18th century Texas raised longhorns for their hides and tallow. Cattle drives on the Chisholm Trail after the Civil War are the stuff of cowboy legends. During its peak in 1871, a total of 700,000 cattle were herded along the trails to Kansas from the Lone Star state.

With the arrival of the railroads and refrigeration, the trail drives disappeared. All that remains of the legendary trail drives are storybook versions told by Larry McMurtry in Lonesome Dove and on the silver screen in Giant.

Despite the modernization of the cattle industry, it remains a dicey bet for any hardy rancher. A small plane from a nearby airfield in Greenville flies low overhead the Robbins ranch, but the cows don't notice. The pastures, laced with crabgrass, are dotted with a hundred head. Paddocks sectioned off by electric fences are tucked behind a single story house with a large porch and a wood burning stove. During the spring and summer the pastures are lush with green grass and wildflowers. The sunlight reflects off a small pond nestled amongst the fields, a postcard image of tranquil country life.

But for Marguerite, a tall woman with a blond bob, the ranch requires hard work, demanding her constant attention and buckets of sweat. As the only ranch hand, she chops wood, fixes busted fences and with a degree in medical technology, handles most veterinary duties. When she's not working out in the pastures or tending to the cattle, Marguerite keeps the books for both the ranch and the store.

She seems equally at home in her 4x4 truck as in her cherry red sports car. "It's not a glamorous kind of life and I'm not too concerned anymore whether I have a designer pair of jeans," she says. "The cows don't really care if I come out in the field with a skirt or not."

A typical day at the ranch begins at 6:30 a.m. After breakfast and coffee on the back porch, Doug heads to the store and Marguerite to the pastures. On her way, she feeds the chickens (some lay eggs with light blue and green shells perfect for Easter) and depending on the time of year, she'll spend the day planting or otherwise tending to her pastures. The grass is just now recovering from years of cotton production that ravaged nutrients in the soil.

The only help she has is Harley, a black and white border collie, who coaxes the cows from paddock to paddock. "He mostly controls them with his eyes," Marguerite says. "Without him I couldn't do what I do."

During a truck ride around the ranch Marguerite points out one of her biggest problems: holes dug by feral hogs. They spend all night plundering her pastures and rooting up her grasses. Droughts, such as the severe one currently parching south Texas ranches, are another formidable foe. "My daughter says I have a four letter word in my vocabulary. And that's rain," she says. When it rains--in moderation--that's heaven for Texas ranchers: the grass grows and so do the cows.

The cattle graze, gaining from 2.5 to 4 pounds each day until they reach a specific weight. Thirty Angus heifers and a Limousin-Angus cross bull are kept on the ranch to breed calves, which are weaned from their mothers in as stress-free a manner as possible. When it comes time to harvest, the cattle are taken to a USDA facility where Doug supervises the processing and the cutting. "It's a reality you have to butcher your animals to have meat. But we don't have to do it inhumanely," Marguerite says. The beef is dry aged for at least three weeks for flavor, then cut into sirloin, T-bone, New York strip, rib-eye, filet mignon, brisket and roast.

"There are certain ways of cutting meat," Doug says, that affect the flavor of the meat even after it's taken off the grill. The way meat is handled during processing is also critical. Doug says My Rancher's steak burgers are tested at an independent lab to make sure no contamination occurs during processing.

Marguerite and Doug didn't expect their mom and pop business to become an all-consuming operation when they started it. And they're not ready to push the envelope any further than they need to. "Ranching is the biggest roll of dice," Doug says. "And Marguerite doesn't gamble. If we go to Vegas she has a fit if five dollars goes on the table. But she'll put a half million on the table in ranching."

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