Through My Own Beef, you pay $3,000 for your own steer calf ($2,800 for a young heifer) that's raised to your specs on Hollingsworth's ranch in Bingham, Nebraska, about eighty miles from Sterling. The cows are usually fed a blend of grass and grain, but a strictly grass-fed cow can be yours for an additional $1,000 and a few extra months' fattening. The cattle are already hormone-free, but if you want one that's antibiotic-free, add another $250 and you've got it. Once the calf has reached 1,200 pounds, the ranch ships it to a Colorado processor that butchers, packages and freezes the beef, which Hollingsworth delivers to the customer.
"We're creating a new niche for marketing our beef," explains Tami Meadows, sister of founder Lynn Hollingsworth and head of the company's Colorado Springs marketing office. In light of the recent mad-cow scare and concerns over commingled beef , the best benefit to having your Own Beef may be knowing its history. "The main idea is that the beef can be traced. You know what cow it came from; you know where it was and what it was fed," she says. "You can go to the ranch and visit your beef if you want to, and we'll send you a digital picture."
The cows also come with an insurance policy of sorts: a "standby" cow is raised in the same fashion as the one you order, in case your future dinner drops dead in the pasture for some reason.
Each animal yields about 450 pounds of meat, packaged in an array of cuts that would thrill even the most devout Del Frisco's fan. You can expect about 28 T-bones and 28 ribeye steaks, as well as various roasts, sirloins and miscellaneous meats that include stew beef, soup bones and roughly 140 pounds of ground beef. Meadows says an order will last a family of four about a year and end up costing between $6 and $7 per pound; a standard fifteen-cubic-foot freezer can hold the load.
In addition to getting meat with a verifiable pedigree, it should also be very tender, Meadows says. The entire herd of Hollingsworth cattle has been tested for the "tenderness gene," a genetic marker that predicts tenderness. Lafayette-based Bovigen Solutions carried out the testing, which involved breaking down a tail hair from each cow and testing it for the favorable, low-level form of the calpastatin gene. Calpastatin inhibits the benefits of calpain, a second enzyme that breaks down beef tissue post-mortem; lower amounts of calpastatin and greater levels of calpain in the meat mean more-tender beef. According to Bovigen's Tom Corah, meat that tests well for these traits registers a pound or two more tender in the Warner-Bratzler shear-force test, which measures the power needed to slice the tissue.
Still, let the buyer beware. "We guarantee the cows have the gene," Meadows says. "We don't guarantee the meat is tender." But those cattle that didn't pass the test when Hollingsworth culled its herd "have gone to heaven," she adds. "Or the grill, though they were a little tough."
The testing cost the company about $30,000, but the results allow Hollingsworth to boast of having the only herd in the country tested for a genetic predisposition for tenderness. That herd now includes about 800 head, divided between calves and cows. This year, the family hopes to offer up about 200 calves for the My Own Beef program, which would give Hollingsworth something rare for a ranch: money up front for its livestock. "We're happy to handle the packaging and management," Meadow says, "because our bills have already been paid."
Or would be paid, if someone would just sign up. Even though the program would provide not just quality beef, but peace of mind for even the most paranoid consumer, so far the meat market remains unmooved. Two months into the My Own Beef campaign, details of which were posted on the company's website, www.myownbeef.com, the response has been "nothin,'" Meadows admits. "We don't know if our ads were crummy or if our idea is crummy."
Having to order -- and pay for -- over 400 pounds of beef at once might be a hurdle for the average family. Waiting until fall for the first taste of your Own Beef could be another issue, she suggests. Even samples of the beef are not yet available.
Then again, maybe people aren't interested in an Adopt-a-Pet program that ends with the animal on a plate. "There's a possibility," Meadows concedes, "that people don't want to look into the eyes of their beef."