Biz Buzz: Owners of family-owned beef business seeing greener pastures after turbulent year
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Local beef business thriving after turbulent year
ST. ANTHONY – More than a year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a major shift in the way people think and behave. Many industries have experienced adverse effects, including the beef cattle industry.
Paige Nelson of Rigby opened ML Brand Beef, a direct-to-consumer beef cattle business in St. Anthony, with her brothers, Rick and Zak Miller, in May 2020. She tells EastIdahoNews.com consolidations in the beef industry over the last 20 years were compounded when nationwide shutdowns went into effect.
“There are only three or four national companies that even own plants to harvest beef,” Nelson says. “When those workers got sick with COVID, and everybody had to start quarantining and slowing down production, that really hurt the cattle industry because there were no options to take our cattle to be harvested.”
A nationwide meat shortage resulted, causing stores and supermarkets to ration beef for consumers. Beef prices skyrocketed because there was not enough supply to meet demand. Meatpacking plants were thriving, despite the shortage, but farmers were losing money.
“Packing plants, on average, were netting $1,000 per head of beef,” says Nelson. “Cattle ranchers are being paid pennies compared to that. That’s a huge price disparity.”
Despite this trend, Nelson says ML Brand Beef has weathered the storm. Many people got wind of her business and started reaching out for locally-produced beef.
“I was really surprised at how many people bought beef from us last year,” she says. “We had a lot of our friends and family order beef from us, but we also had complete strangers. They found our ad on Craiglist or Facebook or through word-of-mouth … and we’ve never met them.”
With COVID restrictions lifting, Nelson says the beef market is starting to recover. Grocery store shelves are fully stocked with beef again, and prices are starting to level out, but she’s encouraging people to buy directly from ranchers.
“If you’re buying your beef from the grocery store, you’re paying many middlemen,” says Nelson. “If you buy it straight from the rancher, you’re getting it at a wholesale price, you’re getting higher quality beef and you’re supporting a local family business.”
Nelson and her brothers own 1,000 head of Black Angus cattle that are sold directly to the consumer or to a packing plant in Utah. Nelson describes it as a birth-to-finish operation, which means all the cows are born or bought locally and raised on their property. All the meat is Prime or Choice grade, Nelson says.
Customers buy a quarter, half or whole animal through the company’s website, which Nelson and her team send to Silver Star Custom Meats at 3636 North Main Street in Iona to be butchered. Once it’s been harvested, the customer picks it up there. See how the process works in the video player above.
Nelson says the birth-to-finish model is a critical part of producing quality beef because it reduces stress for the animal.
“Studies have shown every time you stress an animal (by constantly introducing it to new people and a new environment), cortisol is released through their body. The energy (the cow uses when they are stressed) comes directly from the marbling (fat) … which is what makes the beef tender, juicy and flavorful,” Nelson says. “We’ve done our best to minimize that stressful event (as much as possible).”
Each animal is hand-picked for the best marbling and customized to the consumer’s needs. At $1.75 a pound, Nelson says they’ve worked hard to keep their prices affordable for almost anyone.
A tradition going back five generations
Nelson’s ranch has been in the family for five generations. The brand, ML, originates from Nelson’s great-grandfather, Melvin Leonard Miller. It became a cow-calf operation once her grandfather, Emerson “Buzz” Miller, took it over.
Rick says they’ve made a few changes over the years to increase the profit margin for their cattle.
“In 2014, we had a bunch of rain, and the seed in our standing grain crop sprouted as if it was in the ground, which made all our grain worthless,” Rick says. “At that point, we started feeding all of our own inputs (crops) into our cattle. Now we control more of the food chain … and that’s made it all work.”
Nelson and Rick say it’s rewarding to watch the cattle grow and develop and ultimately see the quality of the product because of their efforts.
Going forward, Nelson is looking forward to educating people about the beef production process. She and her brothers love sharing their passion with others and would like to see the farm continue in their family for future generations.
Nelson and her family are designing a float for the Pioneer Day Parade in St. Anthony later this month, and they’re inviting you to try some of their beef throughout the day, which will be on display in front of Dusty’s Pit Stop at 33 South Bridge Street.
“If you’re interested in trying some of it before you buy, that’s a great opportunity to come and taste it. Come buy a few pounds of ground beef or roast or steak, take it home, cook it and see what you think. Get in contact with us later when you’re ready (to buy),” says Nelson.