SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) – Missouri State University’s agriculture program, which includes a working 3,300-acre cattle ranch, has moved toward its goal of bringing MSU beef to local dinner plates. MSU ground beef, steaks and roasts were offered for sale at a specialty meats store in Springfield.
Ground beef was $4.88 a pound. The sign on the freezer Friday at Hörrmann Meats, touted that the meat was “locally produced, no hormones added, grass-based diet, frozen for freshness and dry aged.”
The main reason for extending the beef program to include retail sales is educational, not financial, said MSU President Clif Smart.
“We want students to be able to follow and understand production from the animal to the plate,” Smart said.
In 2010, the Journagan family donated the cattle ranch including buildings and about 1,000 head of Hereford cattle to MSU. The ranch is in Douglas County, 60 miles from Springfield and 10 miles south of Mountain Grove, The Springfield News-Leader reports.
In January, Dr. Norman Shealy donated his 250-acre farm in Fair Grove to the university. Near the Shealy farm is a small meat processing plant, the Hörrmann Meat Company. Rick and Andrea Hoerman own the plant, and their son Seth owns the specialty store in Springfield. (They use the old German spelling of their name for the businesses.)
“From the Journagan Ranch to the Shealy Farm, we have an opportunity very few colleges have,” Smart said.
Anson Elliott, head of MSU’s Darr School of Agriculture, had been looking for a practical way to extend the Journagan Ranch program to retail sales when Shealy made his donation.
“What we have is a realistic teaching experience at the Journagan Ranch, and it goes all the way to the plate and making money in the process,” he said.
In addition, Elliott said, MSU will conduct research. In particular it will track the results of finishing off cattle with both grass and grain. “Finishing off” means increasing the weight just before slaughter.
The cattle at the Journagan Ranch are fed only on grass. At the Shealy Farm, they will be finished off with both grass and corn or soybeans. The university will track the results.
“I’m thinking there are a lot of possibilities,” he said. “They could find a lot of ways to employ their marketing program. I think it’s a great way for a university to get into the local community.”
The MSU program is small and local producers of beef need not worry, Elliott said. In fact, what MSU learns through its operation should eventually help others.
Arbindra Rimal, a professor in MSU’s ag department who teaches marketing, said the plan is to create a niche market focused on MSU staff and alumni and to process only 20 head of cattle per year.
In the spring, he said, he had a class of 50 students working on the overall marketing plan.
The general public, he said, will spend 10 percent to 15 percent more for local beef that, for example, is grass-fed or hormone-free. The question now is to gauge the “brand loyalty” of those closely affiliated with the university.
In other words, how much are MSU staff and alumni willing to pay?
Washington State University, for example, sells its ground beef for $9.50 a pound, Rimal said. (In the Midwest, a pound of regular ground beef sells for about $3 a pound, according to federal statistics.)
MSU graduate student Micala Penton, 22, has interviewed those who buy specialty beef at farmers markets as part of her master’s thesis, which is to develop a marketing plan for MSU beef.
She has encountered people who believe MSU beef will be better since it’s associated with a university, she said. Others believe it will be lower quality because it’s produced by a university.
“And some people believe you should not eat beef at all because they don’t trust what’s in it,” Penton said.
One thing she has noticed is that most of the sellers of specialty beef she finds at farmers markets are new companies.
“It is a growing market,” she said.
Last month MSU moved 30 head from the Journagan Ranch to the Shealy Farm. The cattle temporarily stayed at another MSU property. Elliott preferred the other location not be identified out of a fear of cattle rustlers. The Shealy Farm has a farmhand living on the grounds. The other location does not.
How’s the beef?
Elliott has sampled the MSU beef and calls it “wonderful.”
“We have got a lot of pounds of burgers in freezers, and I can’t wait to get it out there,” he said.
MSU’s meat freezers are at the Darr Agricultural Center on Kansas Expressway and at Karls Hall on campus.
Details of the retail beef program are still being worked on, Elliott said. The university, for example, is also in contact with retailers Price Cutter and Harter House.
Elliott said the meat is offered hormone-free for marketing purposes. It’s what customers want.
“I get hit from some of my colleagues: What are you doing not giving implants?” he said.
Elliott does not personally believe hormone implants adversely affect the animal, the taste or the person doing the eating.
The university weighed the pros and cons and decided to sell the meat frozen. Elliott said he realizes many consumers don’t equate “frozen” with “fresh.”
“It’s better to age it from the start, 14 to 21 days,” he said. “Cut it up and freeze it. Then it is stable. We will be freezing ours and selling it that way. That way you don’t have to worry about the shelf life. It will be a more dependable product.”
It takes about 20 minutes to transport the cattle from the Shealy Farm to the meat processing plant, just west of U.S. 65 in the corner of Dallas County.
The Hörrmann Meat Company has five employees and slaughters hogs, lamb and quail on Mondays and cattle on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Rick and Andrea Hoerman are excited about MSU’s program.
“Consumers want to eat local,” Andrea Hoerman said. “They like to know where their food is coming from. We are that bridge between the producer and the consumer.”
The Springfield retail store opened 18 months ago. Like his parents, Seth Hoerman is an MSU graduate.
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