CORTLAND, Ohio – Northwestern Ohio cattlemen haul their fat cattle to northeastern Ohio slaughterhouses and pocket premiums up to $80 per head.
Why aren’t local cattlemen stopping them and taking the money instead?
The answer is simple: Because northeastern Ohio feedlot operators haven’t signed up to take advantage of the price powerhouse called the Great Lakes Family Farm Cooperative.
Premiums are currently paid to members who raise fat cattle for the Ohio Signature Beef program.
Why signature? The signature beef program is designed to get more money back into the pockets of a dwindling number of Ohio producers, according to Dan Frobose, an Ohio State Extension beef marketing specialist.
“We’re trying to strengthen the position of cow-calf, feedlots and family packers that are left in Ohio,” Frobose said.
“Instead of thinking that we produce a straight commodity and take the price anyone will give us for it, we’re producing what consumers want and going backward through the production line,” Frobose said.
Frobose is among a variety of Ohio State specialists in Extension and research who have strived over the past five years to help Ohio beef producers establish a specialty market that tailors itself to consumers.
The work, along with a $1.26 million USDA grant supported by Ohio congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, has resulted in the Great Lakes Family Farms cooperative – a group of about 50 Ohio producers who carry the Ohio Signature label on their fresh, freezer and beef jerky products.
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The Ohio Signature Beef label isn’t without meaning. Marketing specialist Dan Frobose explains:
Ohio. Appeals to consumers who want to buy a product raised close to home.
Signature. Implies the product is upscale, a little better than the product next to it in the meat case.
Silhouette of the farmer. Consumers have a romanticism with farm life, learned from a young age from storybooks. Consumers want to buy a product with a story behind it. The farmer on the label reminds them they’re buying a specialty product, not a commodity.
Silhouettes of cattle. Consumer focus groups told brand image developers they didn’t want to see a close-up of a cow; they didn’t what to know what they were eating personally.
Ribbon shape. Implies classiness, winning attributes.
Packaging. Ohio Signature Beef is packaged on black foam trays, a move that brings out the meat’s color to make it look more striking than other brands. The label’s color works with the scheme.
Adding value. Producers in the cooperative grain-feed cattle that are traceable from the calf supplier to the processing plant, are hormone-free and all natural, and are raised under animal welfare requirements.
Individual farmers are required to keep genetic, health and management records on all animals marketed through this program.
The cattle are required to be corn-fed at least 140 days, which is at least 30 days longer than a typical feedlot, Frobose said. That extra time puts marbling into the meat and pushes the carcass up the grading scale.
The packaged meats are federally inspected and carry a USDA grade that mirrors the quality of Certified Angus Beef, he added.
“The difference here is we don’t have a black hide requirement. We’ve found a lot of reds and smokies that kill just as well [as black cattle],” Frobose said.
Organizers suggest British-by-Continental crosses to keep dressing percentage high, and recommend 1,100- to 1,300-pound live weights.
Frobose said as high as 90 percent of the cattle going to market meet the qualifications of choice and prime cuts, some of the highest quality meats consumers can buy.
Ultrasound. “The management provides more accuracy in selecting cattle ready for harvest,” said Frobose, who noted the program uses ultrasound to sort cattle at the farm before they’re shipped to slaughter.
The ultrasound measures backfat thickness and ribeye area, is input into a computer, and can tell producers the number of days until the animal is ready for harvest.
“That’s important because it reduces the days cattle are in the feed lot and it screens out those cattle that are too heavy or too light and the ones that never reach ideal quality.”
With the ultrasound check, animals that don’t meet the program’s requirements can be sold on the hoof instead of through the program, eliminating potential discounts.
Get involved. Frobose is currently traveling the state spreading the word about the signature beef program.
Right now most growers are concentrated in western Ohio, but the cooperative wants to expand membership.
“It’s our goal to have production cells scattered in several counties, so there’s one fairly close to anyone who wants to join,” Frobose said.
The program is suitable for feedlots of any size, and is a great way to add value to row crop operations, Frobose said.
The producers in the co-op raise, on average, 50 head of cattle a year. As a group, members can pool cattle to market in larger groups and receive the premiums reserved for bigger feedlots.
This year, producers are looking to market 1,200 head of cattle. In five years, the group hopes to increase that number to 5,000, Frobose says.
Already making money. Beef producers like Roger Boyle of Weston, Ohio, are grateful such a program exists.
“It’s a good program and it’s a good thing for the area,” said Boyle, who has seen local outlets to sell his cattle diminish over the years.
“No longer are there places around here to sell my beef. This program provides me those market opportunities, keeps me in a business that I like doing, and gives me the opportunity to provide a good product to consumers.”
“Consumers tell us that they can’t find the quality of our meats anywhere else,” said Larry Warns, a beef producer from Perrysburg, Ohio. He has been in the beef production business for over 25 years.
“Some have even told us that once they start buying Ohio Signature they don’t switch to anything else. They are hooked on it.”
Boyle and Warns are founding members of the group.
Northeastern target. Northeastern Ohio producers are really missing out, Frobose said.
“This area of the state has tremendous potential, maybe even more than any other area of the state,” because of high-population centers, he said.
Frobose said a one-time membership fee of $250 offers several services to finishers, including the ultrasound check and group buying programs for feed, supplements, fencing and other supplies.
Frobose also said interested feedlot operators can try out the program before paying the membership fee.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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