Rob and Amy Hess know today’s beef prices, as good as they are, won’t last forever.
They also know, with degrees from Penn State and Rutgers, respectively, they have to create a unique niche for their 30-cow herd or they’ll have to view it as little more than a hobby spidering out of control.
The Hesses, owners of Bow Creek Farm and Cattle Co., Hershey, Penn., already were using all the genetic tools available such as A.I., embryo transfer and EPD selection to breed top-end Red Angus. But they needed an edge that would set them apart that could command premium prices.
“We wanted to create a brand so that our beef was not a commodity,” says Rob. “We wanted to be something other producers were not or could not be.”
So in 2011, they contacted the management at the famous, and popular, Hershey Hotel. It’s just a couple of winding miles up (and down) the road from their farm. If the hotel chefs agreed, it could provide a ready and steady market for their cattle.
Within the week, the Hershey head chef called back to set up a meeting. He had been looking for locally produced beef for some time, and was keenly interested. The rest is pretty much history.
Bow Creek beef is now the featured brand on Hershey Hotel’s Harvest Restaurant menu. The hotel takes up to four head during each of the busy, tourist summer months and five or six head at Christmas.
Uniquely, the hotel buys whole carcasses, not just select cuts. Even the bones are sought after by Hershey chefs making soup stock.
Each fall, the Hesses sit down with Hershey Hotel management and negotiate price for the coming year. (Along with selling cattle to Hershey Hotel, they also sell private party in 1/8 shares. These packages include about 50 lb. of meat, and currently sell for $439.)
The cattle are mostly grass fed. Calves are weaned at about 210 days, weighing 650 to 700 lb. They are fed on grass hay until they reach market weight at about 18 months. No silage is fed.
“We’ve been getting good results with grading and flavor with just the grass hay,” says Rob. Even though gains might be better with silage, he doesn’t’ want to risk flavor and tenderness.
For the final 30 days before slaughter, however, cattle receive 20 to 25 lb. steamed, rolled corn to ensure they grade prime or choice-fed.
“We market them as natural-fed, with no antibiotics or implants,” says Rob. “But they’re not organic. We simply could not buy organic feed here in this part of Pennsylvania cheaply enough or charge enough to be profitable.”
The Hesses also participate in the Red Angus Feeder Calf Certification USDA Program (FCCP). That allows them to ear tag cattle with their age, place of birth and that they are genetically verified Red Angus parentage.
For the past three years, the Hesses have bought additional FCCP calves from other sources and states to fill orders they can’t meet with their own herd numbers. They are currently building cow numbers to meet that increasing demand.
The Hesses farm about 600 acres, with about 200 acres in grass hay and alfalfa and the balance in corn and soybeans. This area of south central Pennsylvania, 15 miles southeast of Harrisburg, is congested, extremely hilly and cut up into small farms and fields.
Expansion is difficult. Buying additional ground is prohibitively expensive. So creating a unique brand of beef that commands a premium price is key to the Hess’ business plan.
They believe other small herds could follow their lead. “This is an opportunity to make more money and create something of value,” says Rob.