INTERVIEWEE: Alan Birkenfeld (AB)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT)
DATE: October 14, 2002
LOCATION: Nazareth, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
Please note that the video includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s October 14th, 2002. We’re in the community of Nazareth in the panhandle. And we’ve got the good opportunity to be visiting with Alan Birkenfeld who is a—a livestock raiser in this area who a—a runs the Paidom Meats which produces grass fed beef, lamb and chicken. And wanted to take the—this chance to thank you for talking about sustainable agriculture. Thanks very much.
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AB: You’re welcome.
DT: Alan, I was hoping you could tell me about your family and how they came to settle in this area. And—and maybe some of your own personal background in—in agriculture?
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AB: Okay. I don’t know for what exact reasons they ended up here. But I know the bulk of our family came from the Midwest states like ah, Wisconsin, Nebraska. My dad’s side some ended up—some of the family ended up down around Rhineland, Seymour, Muenster, Windthorst in that area of—of Texas. And some ended up here around Nazareth. The whole things—my mom’s side of the family also have relatives up in the Midwest including Kansas and for what reason they ended up here in Texas I’m not particularly sure. But they all drew most of their living off the land. They were farmers and ranchers. And as far as my family I was the 11th of 12 kids. And in order to keep
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those—that many kids out of mayhem, you had to have a dairy. So I know dad was always fond of saying that diverse—diversity was one of the keys for them when they were raising us 12 kids. Diversity in terms of enterprises on the farm so that if one enterprise went bad, there were others to take up the slack. So one of things they had was the dairy of course. And it wasn’t big by any means. I think the most cows we probably ever milked was oh 120, which is pretty miniscule compared to the dairies these days but we thought was plenty of work then. We also had a crop enterprise where we grew corn, cotton, wheat, milo, even some hay crops, alfalfa, oats. We also—a third enterprise was
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they had a—in order to harvest things they had—you had to have combines, silage cutters, things like that. But dad also used those for custom work. He’d go out and farm for—or harvest things for other people wheat, corn, silage, things like that. So it was a third enterprise. And a fourth enterprise that he had was he had two—two cattle trucks. Then he started very early on he would get up early enough to go haul loads of cattle while mom took care of the dairy. So there’s four enterprises that they relied on. And I
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thought he said there was five but I can’t remember what the fifth one was but a—oh cattle, livestock. So at some point, particularly in the probably late 60’s and 70’s, they began bringing in a fair number of cattle from South Texas or Mississippi somewhere ou—non-local cattle and they would run them on our wheat pasture or sometimes they would lease grass out in New Mexico. But they were always generally cattle that we had brought in from elsewhere. So that’s the background that I was raised in. And by the time I got of age to sort of learn the trade, we were farming a pretty good number of
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acres. I would say about 3000 acres, I’m guessing maybe—maybe more than that in—in the heyday of—of dad’s operation. And so we—as soon as we could we learned to run tractor some high skilled job that we’d—that would get us out of the dairy barn. So I guess I—I—I learned in my childhood the very conventional, traditional way of this is the way you farm, this is the way you run livestock. And not that they were bad by any means and they served a—us well and they were the best knowledge we had at the time. And for the most part are very—very solid techniques for both financially and—and I’d say environmentally we’re pretty sound. There—there were problems with them but no
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one claimed it was perfect I guess. So that’s the—that’s pretty much my background. I eventually left and after I got out if high school I went off and educated myself for about oh seven years. I went to A&M, Texas A&M and got a—I got two degrees there a mas—I mean a Bachelor’s of Science in Ag Economics and also a Bachelor of Business Administration in Finance. And after I finished there in ‘91 I began a Masters of Range
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Science at Utah State University in—finally in ‘94 I—I—I went to Utah State with the full intention of getting my Ph.D. and eventually going into—to university establishment doing research. But I really liked teaching while I was there and I—I became—in—in my research, I became a little disheartened with the way the research establishment worked. And finally decided that I think I would like to come back to this area and give—give it a shot as far as my ideas of how to run a—an ecologically accountable agricultural operation. So in ’94—I came back here in the fall of ‘94.
DT: Alan you were telling us that—that after you got out of Utah State (inaudible) masters you decided to come back to Nazareth in this part of the panhandle. Can you tell us why you decided to come back and—and on your terms why you decided to do things a little bit differently from the traditional course of things?
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AB: Okay. I would say it probably began while I was at college. I—I—I would say one of my larger influences—or when I went to college, I was still very much in the paradigm of the get big or get out type agriculture. That in order to survive that you had to achieve this economy as a scale and that took x number of acres in this part of the world anyways, it took a large number of acres, took a large number of livestock, it took a large number of everything it was a—it was a volume game. If you’re going to play Chicago’s game, you had to get lots of units, make a little bit on each unit and that would earn you a living.
DT: What do you mean by playing Chicago’s game?
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AB: The Chicago…
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AB: Yes. The Chicago Board of Trade is the grain exchange and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is the—is the livestock. And that’s—essentially Chicago is telling you what your project is worth or—or the traders are setting that. In—in trading contracts or—or saying this is what the future of—future price of feeder cattle will be in February of next year. And it’ll fluctuate as—as maybe good or bad reports come in on the beef trade or maybe that find an outbreak of E. coli so nobody’s going to eat it—or people aren’t going to eat as much meat so that forces the price down and things like that.
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But if you’re going to—if you’re going to play that market, essentially there’s so many players in it, so many producers in agriculture that one person can’t affect the price by what they do. So there’s so little margin left in it that you’ve got to produce a lot of units with that small amount of mar—margin in order to make yourself a living. So…
DT: (inaudible) price taker (inaudible)?
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AB: Right you’re price taker not a price maker, which is generally the case with lots of things. But agriculture is—is—is different in terms of if you could collectively do what’s good for the entire group, say as producers if you could all collectively hol—hold back production it would be—in theory, it works nicely. You could curtail your production, price would go up, everybody would benefit. But the incentive—there’s so many people that are involved in it, the incentive is for one person to cheat and they—they can’t affect the price anyways. Everybody will still get the same price if Farmer L chooses to produce twice as much as he’s supposed to. Everybody still gets the same price cause
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there’s so many farmers. But then that—knowing that everybody else can cheat everybody’s going to cheat and produce all that can. Therein lies part of the problem, you know, it’s not like the car manufacturers if they can—if they can—if the five of them or however many there is can hold back or control production or OPEC for instance, can control oil production, they can influence the price and—and there’s so few of them that one of them can change the price. But farmers and ranchers, the—the incentive is if you somehow get everyone to do that, which you probably won’t but if you did, there’s so many that one of them—one of them cheating so to speak and producing more than they’re supposed to isn’t going to affect it until they all do it because the other person is. So anyways going back to your question about Chicago. Technically Chicago isn’t
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setting the price but it’s all—all the exchanges up there and if you’re going to a—a—be selling as a commodity producer where you produce a large volume, you’re going to have to somehow—somehow your commodities are going to get priced off of that exchange. So therein lies the—I guess the psychology behind, you know, if you don’t get bigger you’re only getting—you’re moving in the wrong direction. So anyways—so that was my mentality when I went off to A&M and in most land grant schools, that’s kind of the mentality that they’re—that they’re—they’re teaching to because in terms of
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influencing producers out there that’s where they’re going to influence the bulk of the land. Extension’s going to talk to those same people because if you’re—if you’re after influencing acres and how people—what they do on those acres and how they till them or how they take care of the livestock, well you got to do—deal with those people who own the largest amounts of land. And—and I think that’s why it’s always been slanted that way. The small guys the—what they would call the green—I—I can’t remember what the tax—tax word is but people who still have land that’s considered agricultural use but it may only be five acres. Well extension isn’t going to pay a lot of—of attention to
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them because they can pay attention to this guy over here who has 5000 acres and have a great—a much greater use of—of dollars. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, yes you’re going to talk to the big guys. But if you’re looking for—if—if—if the—if the goal of extension or the university—the land grant universities is to every—every producer is equal. Well they—they could have a lot more producers involved if they
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would talk to people who own small parcels of land cause there’s a lot more people that do that. But if they’re wanting to influence land management, they’ve got to talk to the big guys. So it’s all—I don’t know if that makes sense how I explained that. But I’ll get back to that in a minute cause that had to deal with my research in Utah. As far as how I got into or started moving in this direction, I think my brother, Darryl, had a big influence on that. Nothing that he really pushed upon me but I think one of the books he recommended that I read was Wes Jackson’s New Roots for Agriculture. Wes Jackson
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runs the Land Institute up in Salina, Kansas and I think that’s where I started wondering is—is the way agriculture’s headed is—is that a good thing? And I guess another problem I saw was here I was the product of—of this little town of Nazareth, Texas and I graduated in a class of twenty students and the bulk of them had left town. And it seemed like the—the road that most of our talented people who could really contribute to this community and keep it around for the next century were taking the road out of town. The opportunity to not lay here in Nazareth and to lay somewhere else Dallas, Houston wherever, that’s where the big dollars were, so I guess I was a little concerned about
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the demise of—of communities like this. And—and you could see it all around you in other towns as Main Street was falling apart and the Wal-Marts were coming in. So I guess that concerned me too so I got—I got more involved in that. And I think Daryl and I networked a lot about that throughout my undergraduate years. And then I—I eventually decided to go to work on my Master’s but not in an economic field. I went into
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more of a, I guess not a hard science but it was range—range science as opposed to economics or finance. And not that those aren’t important but I wanted to do—I think I had a feeling that I was going to end up somewhere on the land again. And when I went to Utah instead of doing a—a project that involved say plants, studying plants or studying soils, even the newer fields in range management, hydrology, watershed science, things like that. I went to work on—on this first year professor’s project. He had no experience with the student and I had no—there was no way for me to judge whether this was going to be a good deal for me except I felt right about him being interested in the peoples side
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of it, how—how producers make decisions on what they’re going do and why they chose to adopt some technologies and not others. And so that was the whole—that was the gist of his research project that he had me working on is—we’ve got Utah State University a land grant college putting out all of these technologies, all these techniques that ranchers should be using out there on a—on their own land, on a Bureau of Land Management land, on Forest Service land and a lot of them weren’t getting adopted. And they wanted to find out what have we done wrong in developing these? We’ve shown it to them to be cost effective all this good stuff why aren’t you using them? So that was what I –I
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started to work on there. And I did a lot of the interviews with these—with these ranchers from vi—via mail. But in the end I interviewed some personally and it was really interesting. Most of them were, of course, older folks because the average age of the ranchers out there is kind of like here in Texas, it’s getting older and older. But
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what—it was interesting to find out just what kind of pressures they were feeling from whether it was financial, whether it was from the university’s recommendations, whether it was from the fact they own only 10% of their land, the rest of it they had to lease from the government because Utah was a 85% government or state owned. So I think when I was working on that, some of the department probably didn’t think that was a worthy project because it didn’t concern animals, soil, plants, the—the mainstays or water of a—a the mainstays of—of range land science this was something different, where you were
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dealing with these less easy to study things called people, you know, when a plant runs out of water, it dies, you know, that’s a fact but you couldn’t—when you’re dealing with people it’s a much softer science I guess. So it was interesting to find out though in the end, how much money was spent on extension. And here we had all these—I forget how many more producers, how many times more producers there were that owned small acreages in Salt Lake City, owned five acres along the creek bank. But they weren’t getting any extension time because they were so small. Yet on the other hand, as I was arguing before, if you’re—if you’re trying to influence to most acres you can, well you’ve got to deal with the larger producers to get the most bang for your buck. So it was
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the whole issue of are we about influencing land or does every person—should every person get the same amount of time. So anyway while I was there I—I realized that I didn’t want to be involved in the, what would you call it, the great chase for dollars, research dollars and—and you had to be at—at a—at a university like that that was land
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grant and research based. And I really felt after doing my research and talking with all these producers that I—I thought I had a calling to go back and do something different directly on the land. And so I came back here in August of ’94, did—didn’t know what exactly I was going to do but that—that month I bought 11 head of cows out of the—out of the auction. That was the start of my herd. I realized very soon that that wasn’t going to work. I mean not that it wasn’t going to work but that wasn’t the only thing I could do. Because I had in—in October that year, my taxes on—the only thing I owed—owned was a—was a pickup and my taxes on that were $200 and some dollars and I didn’t have the
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cash to pay that after I bought these cows. So here I was kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel and so I got a job at the local bank down in Hart. And so for four years, I was a loan officer there. And in the meantime while I was doing that I continued to grow the beef business. Slaughtered my first calves in—in the fall of ‘96. And really didn’t have anywhere to go with them, no sales really I was just—had product there really for—trying to create this. And between the—a—the fall of ‘96 and the start of ’98, it had got to a point where I couldn’t live both those lives. I was—had grown a pretty good
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Houston clientele. And I was going there every few months with deliveries because they would pay me to drive down there cause they didn’t like to go to whole foods or it was pretty expensive there. And so I would leave on a Friday after work and get back dog tired, drive that 1200 miles, get back pretty tired on Monday. And after doing that a few times, I talked with my boss and decided that hey I don’t—I can always come back and be a banker. I’d like to give this a shot and how long, you know, and so that’s how I ended up in the…
DT: Well take this chance to explain what you were taking a shot at? You said you bought your—your first herd in ‘94 and—and I—I think you already—you were starting to think a little bit differently from the traditional way of raising cattle is—is that true?
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AB: Yes I think one of the big problems I had with conventional agriculture was—it was practically impossible for a young person to get in it. There was—I felt there was really only two ways to get in agriculture. Either you inherited the farm from the family somehow or you made your money elsewhere, neither of which are—I didn’t think were good ways of—of getting into it. There were—that left you with a lot of barriers for a guy like me. Yes my family was well entrenched in agriculture and farming at that time but—and that was the only way I would be able to get into production agriculture—I thought was to join the family operation somehow or wait until maybe it got handed
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down. And I don’t think that’s—like I say, I don’t think that’s a good way for such ind—for such an important industry to be hand—to be carried on cause it’s—it’s no wonder if that—that being the case it’s no wonder we such a consolidated industry today that where very big producers and they’re consolidating up and down the line from production to processing to the final marketing. So one of the goals that I wanted to do was not have to ow—buy a bunch of equipment. I wanted to find a way if—if—if year in, year out a cow
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calf producer makes $40.00 a head on their cows, some years they may lose $50.00, some years they may make a $120.00. But on average I—I don’t know the exact statistics but let’ say they make $40.00 a head, well I didn’t see there was any that I could buy 1500 to 2000 cows because if you wanted to make a 50 to $80,000 a year living, you would need that many and there would be some years where you wouldn’t make any money. But there would be years where you’d make better money. But the problem is how you going to buy that many animals right off—right at the start. Well naturally you have to go get a
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loan. Well unless you already have enough collateral built up where you already have a bunch of equipment or a bunch of cows already that you can pledge as collateral against that loan, there was no way that I was going to qualify for a loan like that. Nor did I want to because then you’re saddled with that debt to service for the rest of the time. And by the time you say maybe you’ve reached that magical year where you paid off the herd, well the next year you hit a—a bad year and you had to re-mortgage them and I didn’t want keep on going through that. Incidentally while I was at the bank, I saw a lot of that happen where…
DT: Please tell about what you saw at the bank…
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AB: Well that—that’s what would happen each year, you know, the farmers would—would come in—in December, January, farmers and ranchers, come in and—and set up their notes to farm the next year, whether it be $100,000, $500,000 some were a million. Just depended on how big a farmer they were. They would end up, most of them being that—that were that size would end up doing all right because they had established themselves well enough that a bad year wouldn’t kill them. But they may only come in with say they had a $500,000 line of credit, they may only come in making $20,000 at the end of the year. They may only make $50,000 which was probably enough for their
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family to live on but if you’re—if you’re taking the risk of a 5000—$500,000 loan and only making $20,000, $40,000, $50,000, that’s not very good return on that risk, I didn’t think. So that was one of the things I’d said hey I don’t want to end up like these guys. I don’t want to end up finally getting the land paid for or the equipment or whatever you borrowed money to buy and then end up having to re-mortgage it when the bad time hit. So…
DT: Say what happened when bad times did hit some of your cust—customers?
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AB: Well when the cattle market went south maybe if they were a cow-calf producer they would have these cows paid off. If the market went south, naturally it flows down the line. The—the feedlot person or the packer lets—let’s go all the way to him. He’s only going to pay so much for these calves cause this is what he knows he’s going to get so he forces—he—he cuts his price down. The guy in the feed lot has to take less so he
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pays less for the cows—the calves coming off a pasture, which would be guys like us who are growing them out on pasture. So we’re getting less money so we’re going to pay less at the sal—sale barn for them. So the guy’s who’s stuck at the end of the line is the guy who produced the calf, the guy who owns the cows. So he may have his herd paid for—paid for. Well he only, say this year he only got half the price he did the year before. And it’s not enough to pay for all his expenses. So he has to go and roll over part of his note that he didn’t get paid off. Does that make sense? So it rolls over to the next year and maybe the cow cal—the—the cow cycle runs about ten years normally, that’s
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the conventional wisdom I guess. So maybe it takes them a couple of years to get back to a profitable level. In the meantime, he’s rolled over two or three years of notes that he didn’t pay off which are being re-mortgaged back against the cattle—against the cows that he already owns. So finally he’s getting back on his feet but he’s, instead of getting to keep all that money he’s making in the good years, a lot of it goes to pay off what he lost in the other years. So I again I decided I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to saddle myself with that kind of—of –I mean that’s—causes a lot of sleepless nights I would think. So instead of going back to on average a cow-calf producer can figure to
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make 40 bucks a head maybe $30.00. So let’s say they make let’s be a little conservative and say they make $30.00 a head on 2000 cows on an average year. Well that’s $60,000 of income that they have, which is in this area, isn’t too bad. I was wondering is there a way to take—to—to flop that instead of having 2000 cows maybe only have 200 and
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make $300.00 a head instead of $30.00. And the only way I felt that that was possible was you had to control the end price, the—the price that you receive for them. And the only way I saw that possible was to start direct marketing to the retailer or consumer. So I—I—I would like to say—I would like to not give you the impression that I’m a saint or anything by what I do because it takes care of the land and is environmentally sensitive and things like that. Yes that’s important to me but I—when I first did it I—I would say it was more for economic reasons because I didn’t want to play the Chicago deal where they told you what your price is and you end up rolling dead around year to year and
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eventually getting it paid off only to re-incur it the next year. So a—a—a—as confident as I am in the environmental benefits of it when I originally did it—it was for financial reasons as much as anything but in terms of sustainability if—if a producer is not financially sustainable, you can forget ecological sustainability too.
DT: You told us a little bit about the financial sustainability side of it that you were going to go towards the direct marketing model. Can you talk about this regress that no additives, no an—antibiotic no parasiticides, that angle that is more in an ecological…
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AB: Yes I think i—in—in talking in terms of ecology, I think one of things that really bothered me about the way the livestock industry was at that time was if you trace the—the—the—the path of a calf from birth to slaughter, it makes a lot of miles. I mean when I was working at the bank there was—and our family was the same way, we bought calves from mo—a long ways away. But I could follow calves that—that a producer that I was financing bought in the auction at Zolfo Springs, Florida or Wauchula, Florida somewhere, you know, they had—its big cow calf country in the southeast part of this—of the United States. Florida raises a lot of them for some reason their comparative
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advantage in producing cows is better than our in the southeast because it’s warm, they have for forage, it rains more so they can produce them less expensively. So people will buy—that live here rather than buying out of our local auction will sometimes will sometimes buy from far off whether it Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Carolinas. Those calves going back to my example say come from Florida may go to wheat pasture or to a straightening yard to be back grounded. They’re—they’re weaned off their mother down there, the momma cow in Florida. So they need—after coming that long distance and coming off—right off the mom, they’re going to get sick probably. So they send them to
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a back grounding yard where for about a month they will feed them high qual—or real high nutrient feed and also do the doctoring on them. And then they may go out to pasture, wheat pasture say in this example let’s say around Vernon or Crowell, Texas or somewhere out there. Well by the time they get up to say about 750 pounds, a feedlot will come in or they’ll try to sell them to someone that is buying for a feedlot. So they may end up I don’t know in around Dodge City, Kansas and they’ll spend about four
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months there fattening and they may end up going to the Excel plant in Friona, Texas but they put on a lot of miles. And I guess that’s one thing that bothered me. The only reason we think about doing that these days as opposed to when my parents were kids is because of the cheap fossil fuels now. We can afford to bring those calves such a long distance. That’s why we can afford to not only pay for the freight, we can afford to pay for an animal that isn’t here and still it’s cheaper rather than go to Tulia, Texas and buy it. But one of the consequences of that is they’re generally need lots of care. And I thought
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people never considered this cow-calf country because it’s—we don’t grow enough forage and they eat year round. There’s no way to turn a switch off and make them quit. So I guess I wanted to challenge that a little and—and in retrospect, yes I would—I’d say its tuff because they—they do—they are eating all the time, that’s if you want to own that 2000 head of cows. But if you have a small amount, I think it’s very workable. But the big—the big things that it saves you when your—when your calves that you raise yourself come off the cow you can make sure they’re much less stressed in the weaning process. Plus you don’t have to ship them anywhere. Rig—right—right there you’re
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saving I figure I save $50.00 a head a year on medications that I don’t have to give them, which sounds like a lot but at every turn in the process when that calf comes out of the sale barn and—and I would finance them, this producer who was buying that calf, in the note you would out in $40.00 or $50.00 a head. At every—every time that calf was transported for medication just to keep it from—it wasn’t all medication, part of it was
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the feed but $10.00 to $20.00 a head were—were strictly medicine, antibiotics, wormers, implants, things like that. So I figure even if my calves don’t grow as fast, even if they don’t put on the weight that the other ones do, saving about over the course of their entire life, I don’t know $80.00 a head on—on that, I can—I can afford to give up a few pounds in a—in a little—I can afford to give up some of that efficiency. So…
DT: So just to make it clear in my mind the—you’re a cow-calf operation not a stock operation?
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AB: Right. I raise them right off my cows. Same way with the lambs they come right off the U’s.
DT: Can you take us down the line a little bit you—you talked about when they’re quite young how you treat them? But—but later on you don’t take them to a feedlot do you? Its—its grass fed all the way through to slaughter is that right?
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AB: Right I’m glad you asked that. Because in terms of the ecology again, that was something else that I really had issues with was—I guess in part of the reading that—that—the articles that Darryl sent me and things like that this whole, what would you call it this whole, what would you call it, this whole infrastructure that has grown up around
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growing steak in America not only the feedlots have been built but also the, what it takes to grow a bushel of corn. How much corn the eat and how much water it takes to grow that bushel of corn and all—it all gets washed into the equation of how much it takes to grow a pound of meat. Well it really wasn’t very efficient when you—yes in terms of finances, it was worth it for the farmers out here to grow corn to send to the feedlot. But in terms of I don’t know why we were able to do that because it really doesn’t—in terms of the resources it was using it really was I think a loss to the—to the environment. Maybe it was because we don’t really bear the full cost of fossil fuels, maybe it’s
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because we really don’t bear the full cost of the fertilizers that we put out, maybe it’s cause we don’t bare the full cost of the land that we wear out. At some point someone will. So anyway I did not like the—the idea of—of the feedlot in general. What really made me feel like I needed to do something different in terms of grass finishing was these animals have evolved over time to utilize roughages the rumen is set up—the rumen in a cows or any ruminate system, cow, sheep whatever, is set up to take bulky fibrous—a fibrous cellulitic material, break it down and convert it into meat. And here we were
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feeding them concentrates – grain, corn, milo, whatever. And that’s something—that granted this isn’t food grade corn that we’re producing out here but regardless it could produce food grade corn and—and that’s—you know, we were feeding these livestock something that humans could eat. And i—i—in—in essence, we were changing the ecology of the—the ruminant’s digestive track. I mean it’s a—the rumen is—is a pH
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neutral. It’s a seven we—when you put a—when you put lots of concentrates in there, it becomes much more acidic. And one of the consequences of that is, you have to treat the animals sometimes when you put them in the fed yard for acidosis because they aren’t use to eating high amounts of—of concentrates and then you end up with some bac—some organisms that can survive these high—somewhat high acidic environments not—not like our stomachs but somewhat high. And then the E. coli that would normally get killed in our system has been—has evolved to be able to handle large amounts of acid by
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surviving in that cow or sheep’s rumen. And there we get—therefore we get E. coli outbreaks that we didn’t have before. So I said well I wou—I would really like to go back to the way our parents did it when they were kids. The animal eats just pasture, it may be grass, it may be stocks, milo stocks afterma—aftermath from harvesting milo, it may be silage that you had to store up, it may be hay, it may be wheat pasture but something that they go out and gather themselves if—if at all possible. But by all—by no
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means would you feed them—they might get grain out there on the pasture because it’s that time of the year when the seed heads are—are bolting out of the plants but that’s the only way they would. It’s not something that you have brought to the bunk to feed them.
DT: I understand some of your forage comes off of pasture and that you rotate. Can you explain how that works, this intensive grazing that you practice?
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AB: Okay I think that the—the main reasons for that are probably twofold. For one thing, one of the big—when I was out in Utah, one of the big problems that the environmentalists had with ranchers grazing BL—Bureau Land Management land or Forest Service land which is publicly owned, one of the big problems they had was over grazing. But I think amongst the people that were studying issues like over grazing, the problem wasn’t—land doesn’t get over grazed, individual plants do. Within a area say a foot—square foot, you could have both under grazed and over grazed land because there
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may be two plants in there, one that hasn’t been eaten and one that’s been eaten three times as it grows back. In that instance, you have a plant that’s under grazed and one that’s over grazed. The problems is not with I think numbers necessarily. The problem is with controlling where they are. And that I think is essentially one of the ideas of rotational or intensive grazing, that they’re there for a specified period of time and then they move on. And they aren’t allowed to come back and regraze those plants until they’re ready to be regrazed again. So that benefits the land in that regard because the
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more often a plant is grazed before it’s ready to re—to be grazed again, the more likely it is to die because when it—when an animal first bits the plant, the reserves quit going to the roots and grow to put on—go to put on new growth on top—on the top of the plant. It needs time to go back and replenish its roots before it should be grazed again. Now as far—the second benefit of it is if you’re not going to use any medications, any kind of
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wormers, parasiticides, things like that, you need to be able to control the animals from going back over to where they’ve already grazed because a lot of the parasites, they’ll lay their eggs in the dung of the livestock that was grazing there. So when they hatch a lot of them may, depending on what parasite it is, some may end up crawling up the plant that is nearby and being grazed, ingested by the cow or the calf or the sh—goat or whatever and that’s how they get into the system. Well if the animal’s not there to do that it has no ho—host organism and eventually cycles out. So if you can keep them off that area
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they’ve grazed until the cycle is broken of the parasites, you’ve—you’ve helped yourself a long ways in terms of eliminating those kind of chemicals in your operation. So I think its—intensive grazing serves at least two purposes in that regard.
DT: Well there’s something else that I’ve understood about grass feeding is that it produces a different kind of meat than what’s produced at a feedlot and that’s in some ways healthier for the consumer. Is that true?
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AB: I would say there’s more and more research coming out all the time that—that supports that. In fact, if—if the universities are—are starting to get involved in that, there must be something to it or—or regarding the nutritional benefits. There’s numerous studies that show that the—in terms of omega three fatty acids, which are—as opposed to omega six fatty acids, the omega threes are the good ones, the desirable ones. The
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omega sixes are the not so de—desirable one kind of like good and bad cholesterol. There’s supposed to be—I’m not sure what the ratio is but there’s some balance in those two that you want. But in our diets in our meat particularly it’s much too high in omega sixes, in meat that comes out of the feedlot. And one of the causes of that is they’re eating a lot of grain and the longer an animal is on grain, this isn’t me saying this, this is research—for every day that you have them on grain, they convert those omega threes to omega sixes. And so it upsets the balance. Excuse me so that’s one of the benefits of
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finishing them out on pasture. Another one is conjugated linoleic acid [CLA] which is it—it’s a—it enhances the immune system; it’s been shown to inhibit cancer. Much higher levels in grass finished meat as opposed to grain finished. Very, very high in grass finished milk. CLA is very high in that. Anything that’s finished on pasture tends to be higher in CLA’s. Same is true for Beta-carotene, Vitamins A and E. I think to put it all in nutshell, it just—it just makes sense that these animals that were designed over time—that evolved over time to do this, go out and eat forage that it—it only makes sense that they would produce the more desirable meat. Granted maybe the public has been
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influenced to enjoy a good Nebraska corn fed steak, but I think they can be influenced the other way especially if they had dietary concerns. But I don’t know how to explain it other than—I mean all the research isn’t in on the nutritional benefits. But if you really got down and thought about it, this is the way it should be. This is the way it was meant to be. There’s nothing natural or there’s nothing natural about an animal starting off in
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Florida going here there and yonder and finally ending up in a meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado or whatever. It just, for some reasons unknown to me, that’s how the system came to be because of these uncontrolled forces that happen, one of them being World War II and the discovery of—of a—of nitrogen based fertilizers and things like that and just was a weird set of circumstances that took us from those sad depression days when everybody ate animals that were finished on pasture to where we’re trying to—or having to try to get that time back I guess you would say. So did that answer your question?
DT: You’ve sort of given the example of a calf and a cow going through this—this grazing process (inaudible). But I understand that you—you’re more diversified than that. You’ve also been raising sheep and poultry. Can you explain how your process works for them and why you felt it was worth developing those enterprises as well?
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AB: I guess mostly through—originally through demand. Also there’s some type of a complementary aspect to those enterprises. Having different for—species out grazing, they complement each other in terms of a parasite that influences one doesn’t influence the other. So having sheep come in after cattle have grazed won’t hurt—won’t hurt them in terms of the cycle of parasites on the cattle. If—if the—if the—the parasites are already in the cow dung, it won’t influence the sheep. But they may the—the advantages you may have different species of plants out there that the sheep prefer that the cows
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didn’t. And hopefully they will go eat those rather than them being unutilized or become a—a pest because you have too many of these weeds out here. So they complement each other in that aspect. As far as chickens of course, chicken consumption has a—I don’t know where it is relative to beef but it grown a lot more than beef has. But those were also chickens raised much the same way beef was in confinement in a factory setting, I guess. And so there was—there were people that I were—that I was selling beef to that wanted a different source of chicken. In terms of producing chicken I’m not—and I
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wouldn’t think that any producer who doesn’t like meat out on pasture is nearly as efficient as those who do it in the factory settings. I can be somewhat price competitive with the supermarket on my meat—I mean on my beef and on my lamb. The chicken there’s no way I could sell for what (inaudible) Tyson do, the pennies for pound that they get on whole chicken or—or the less desirable parts the—the wings and whatnot. But there’s such a disparity I found in—in terms of talking with my con—consumers, there is such a disparity between supermarket chicken and chicken raised out on the farm that they’re willing to pay that extra price. That pennies per pound price doesn’t make
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it anymore attractive for them to go to the store. And I don’t know why there’s such a big difference but there—it’s enough to where you can charge substantially more and you need that because chickens are a—are a fragile animal more likely to have a higher death lose than you are with are sheep. And the whole process of hand butchering them rather than send them through an assembly line type factory type setting it—it wears on you and
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makes you wonder if you ever want to continue doing that. So I—I don’t think that—I don’t think I would be doing it for any—any less than we are now. But anyway I don’t mean to get off the—off track here as far as how—how they are raised. A chicken unlike a sheep or cows, they aren’t ruminate so they must have—they’re—they’re going to need some kind of—of supplementation other than pasture. I don’t think they would strictly survive on pasture. But you can eliminate a lot of that supplemental feeding that a lot of that grain feeding by letting them go out and forage on grasses, forbs, weeds, insects and there’s another complementary benefit of that. You know, if they can eat grasshoppers
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or—or any other kind of larva that would otherwise infest cows or sheep. That’s just another benefit of having them around. And I was surprised—I didn’t think that—that poultry consumed as much pasture as they do. But w—when we got to butchering them, it was amazing how much forage you would find in their digestive tract. So they—they do utilize quite a bit of pasture and I—I would be interested to see—put a chicken in confinement and one out on pasture and see what the feed supplementation difference was. I bet they don’t eat a quarter of what they otherwise would of grain. So oh a final enterprise is eggs that I’m doing also now. Just folks who really want a good a supply of
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fresh eggs and it being local helps too. An egg is unlike meat is much easier to sell you can’t get a—there’s no different cuts. An egg is an egg regardless and—and you don’t have to worry about selling pieces or parts. You sell them a dozen eggs and they’re easy to market the worse thing is having to clean them and carton them. But that’s—that’s the latest enterprise I guess that I’ve taken on.
DT: It sounds like a lot of these—these enterprises have been driven by what your customers have told you and I was wondering how you find these customers and how you develop them and deal with them what they’re looking for?
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AB: Okay. I guess I’ll go back to the—to the start when I first slaughtered an animal in ‘96. I di—again I didn’t really have a place to go for it—with it. But that next I don’t know if that—if the Southern Plains Conference was in January or February that next year. But I rented a booth there and I was selling bits and pieces by that time, still probably hadn’t sold that whole calf yet. Probably had to end up eating most of it myself. But at that booth, there was a fellow there who just knew other people. He was not far away down around Lubbock. He knew a nutritionist from Dallas. Well this person, this nutritionist came up to visit them one time and they fed him some of the beef that I
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produced and she was so impressed with it that she recommended it to a lot of her customers in the Dallas—well I—I shouldn’t say that, she’s—she’s—she excuse me, she suggested it to another nutritionist in Houston. She ordered and told a lot of her customers. Eventually one of them was an alternative vet—alternative veterinarian who told a lot of their customers and it just kind of mushroomed into Houston for me, to the point where these folks were willing to pay me to come down with a basically with a ton of meat in my pickup. And that was part one—one of the fortuitous things that happened
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was being able to go out and shake hands with these people and give them a face to associate with the product. And I guess from there, I developed a website and I—one of the things I like to do is give people incentives to introduce other people to the product. And so I give them referral discounts, things like that. But basically when I started there was no mass advertising. It was just word of mouth. And that one gentleman from around Lubbock to somebody in Dallas to somebody in Houston to the website, which is only form of mass advertising that I have. In terms of how I chose my enterprises some
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of it had to deal with having complementary enter—enterprises that would help each other out or utilize different forms of forage. But a lot of it was people wanting those products. When I first started with lamb, I couldn’t hardly give it away. I didn’t I c—I had no reason to grow my lamb herd at that time because there was no demand for the product when I started it. Now I can’t keep them around because I guess the lamb eaters, they know everybody in their circle of other consumers of that meat and once word gets out it’s—it’s hard to try to build up your flock now because you’re wanting to slaughter those lambs that you could other wise use for part of your brood flock. So…
DT: And these consumers are interested in the taste or—or the idea of supporting local businesses or environmental aspects what is it?
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AB: Well it’s—I guess its some of all of that I think these people are part of the green movement, I guess you would say. But the people who are—they’re—they’re concerned about where their food comes from. They—they are not the type of people who the milk comes from the grocery store so that’s good enough for me. No they’re people who want to know where it was produced, how it was produced, and if they can, they want to know who produced it and they would like to meet that person I guess if the opportunity presented itself and they’ll pay more for that. Generally these are people who—they’re not all wealthy by any sense but they’re people who are willing to spend more of their
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income on food than what most of the American public is. We’ve gotten conditioned to the lowest, the cheapest food supply in the—in the world. So these people are—would rather spend more on food than they do on recreation. And for some of them food is recreation I guess. They enjoy cooking, things like that. Anyway I—I think in all of in—in talking with most of the people that are my customers, I have met most of them personally. I would say 90 % of them. Some that buy on the website I may not have met but I’ve at least talked to them on the phone. I’ve found maybe five or six reasons for
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buying from me. First—first off would be that it’s free of all drugs. There’s people who just are—are have heard too much about antibiotics or the overuse of them in—in the meat industry and are—just don’t want anything that has been tainted by drugs. And the fact that I have control over the animal from birth or as I like to say from conception to consumption, they know that it hasn’t had anything. Or I don’t know what they could do to verify it. Maybe they could take tests of the tissue or whatever, I’m not scared for them to do that. But if you can develop that relationship, that bond of trust, they feel
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much better about okay maybe there’s no way for me to verify this but I—I trust this person. They feed it to their family so I’m going to feed it to mine, that type deal. So the first thing I would say is the free of all drugs. Another thing is they may like the way you treat the animals. They don’t end up in a feedlot. They don’t end up going to a—they still end up going to a slaughter facility but this is another family owned slaughter facility where they try to take pride in the individual job. The individual—they—it’s not going down an assembly line where this person slices off livers and this person knocks off the hooves and this person takes off the tail. It doesn’t go in—into anything like this. One
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person does the whole slaughtering job. So there’s a little—a lot more attention to detail and also maybe a hopefully a more humane way of—of slaughtering these animals that there isn’t one that the system misses and are halfway alive still. They also like the fact that hey if these animals don’t get mass treated after they come off the truck from Florida or whatever, they don’t get crowded into allies, they don’t get branded. They don’t get—there’s not a whole lot of sorting and prodding and hotshots and things like that. So the hu—the humane treatment is of interest to some people. There’s folks who—third reason would be they like the way you treat the land. They like the fact that you see yourself not
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as a meat producer—as a—not as a commodity grower but as a—as a steward, as someone who—if I take care of this land right, it will take care of me by growing this product that I can sell and continue my livelihood. So it’s—they like the fact that you’re not tuned to agri business and mass production. Instead you’re focused on stewardship
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and husbandry, things that on a throw back from like I say from my—when my parents were kids and when my grandparents were around, things—things from that era. Fourth reason I would say that some people are very interested in the nutritional aspect. Most of them I would say are. The—that I mentioned earlier, the omega threes and the CLA’s, the things that pasture finishing can give to these meats. So there’s a few examples. I’m sure there’s others—other reasons why people buy. Getting to know the grower personally and know exactly where it came from, the fact that it’s source verified. They can say this steak I’m eating came from this person, grown at this—their farm is five miles east of Nazareth. And if I want, I can get in my pickup and go up there visit them. So…
DT: Well looking into the future what—what do you foresee for your business and for agriculture in this area of the country?
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AB: Well I—I—as far as one of the threats that I see for this business, as more and more money is thrown at the green market, a—a—at the organic or the natural or whatever you want to call it, as consumers throw more and more dollars at it and we’ve already seen this already, there’s going to be more and more cut throat tactics, more—you’re going to see more of the big guys getting into it and we’ve already witnessed that with supermarkets. I guess in the Austin area HEB, up here United, they’ve all their ecology friendly sections in their supermarkets. And I guess one of the problems I have with—
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with that you know, it’s not bad that there’s, excuse me, more—more interest in that but I think as—as—as those corporations chase those dollars, they’re still a corporation, a faceless entity out there, that people are—maybe they can do it cheaper but I still think in the end the consumer’s going to end up getting what they pay for which may not be all they—all that they think they’re getting. There is something to be—to knowing the person who grew it and being able to form that bond of trust.
End of Reel 2245
End of Interview with Alan Birkenfeld