I've had several conversations recently with ranching colleagues (both of whom operate much larger ranches than we do) about marketing meat versus marketing livestock. To some extent, each of us had started marketing meat for a variety of economic and philosophical reasons. Economically, we felt that by bypassing the "middlemen" in the meat business (cattle or lamb buyers, processors, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, etc.), we'd be able to capture more of the consumer dollar and enhance the profitability of our operations. Philosophically, we wanted to provide food directly to our communities. We wanted to shorten the distance between the ranch gate and the dinner table. In each case, we've recently concluded that the meat business is very different than the livestock business. We've concluded that we enjoy the work of caring for livestock and land far more than marketing meat. And we've each concluded that if we can't sell a live animal off grass and make a profit, no amount of value-added marketing of meat will make the business profitable. In other words, at least for this admittedly small sample size of family ranches, direct marketing alone cannot save the ranch.
The decision to sell meat rather than livestock had additional ramifications for our business. Converting a finished lamb into meat incurs additional costs - by the time I paid for harvest and cut-and-wrap services, transportation of live animals and finished product, storage of finished product, marketing labor, and other "value-added" costs, I had an additional $100-125 per lamb in expenses. The logistics of selling meat took more time away from production activities. A trip to the processor (which happened 8-10 times per year) meant 4 hours on Monday and 4 more hours on Friday were consumed with loading, transporting and unloading lambs (and then loading, transporting and unloading meat). Finally, selling meat instead of selling live animals meant I would defer receiving payment for my work until the last package of meat was sold. When I sold lambs to the processor or at an auction, I had a check within 3-4 days; when I sold meat, I might not receive final payment for that load of animals for 3-4 months. The expenses were due when they were incurred; the revenues took much longer to obtain.
Even though we were capturing a higher price for our retail products, I came to realize that direct marketing meat was a volume-dependent business. Economic "laws" are difficult to break - and the law of economies of scale is especially severe. I used just as much fuel hauling 25 lambs to the processor as I used hauling 2. Other expenses were similar - the unit cost of storage, labor, and processing were all affected by the volume of lambs I was marketing. Volume impacted the demand side of my equation, too. Restaurants wanted to buy lamb chops by the case (for example) - and they wanted all of the lamb chops in the case to be identical in terms of size, thickness and quality. Such uniformity was difficult when we were harvesting just 15-20 lambs at a time. Every rancher who has sold meat has bumped up against the reality that there are only 2 tri-tips in every steer - or 2 racks in every lamb. Selling steaks and chops was easy; selling chuck roasts and shoulder roasts was far more challenging.
Without question, there is demand for locally produced meat products in the community where we ranch. My colleagues would agree - they've observed similar interest in their communities. That said, each of us has realized that the greatest driver of profitability in our ranching businesses is in the production of a live animal. As one friend said, "If I can't make money grazing my cattle, selling steaks isn't going to turn my business around." I'm not sure how to resolve this seeming contradiction. Consumers, increasingly, want to directly support those of us who produce their food. At least for me, I haven't figured out how to make this work on the production side of the equation.