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14R Goes To Its First Native American Beef Symposium

14R Goes To Its First Native American Beef Symposium

Beef Symposium11Labatt hosted its first Native American Beef Symposium, featuring educational topics ranging from genetics to herd health. Native American Beef producers were able to learn a variety of techniques from qualified experts on producing optimum cattle.
14R Board President Elwood and wife Nora Pahi, Bill Inman and wife along with NRCS agent Felix Nez, other native cattle producers, Billy Hall, Al Silver, and Labatt staff in San Antonio, TX Dinner.

The dinner was sponsored by San Antonio’s Labatt Food Service, a family-owned distributorship that in 2013 had more than $1 billion in sales. The celebration marked Labatt’s rollout of a ranch-to-plate quality and distribution system that in three years has made Native American beef one of the top sellers at Native American casino restaurants.

Native American Beef is produced by just a few tribes. Jicarilla Apache, The Pueblo of Isleta, Padres Mesa Demonstration Ranch, and 14R. As of now 14R is leading the chase. The foundation of the Native Beef Program was build on the skill, know-how, and hard work of 14R Ranch Inc.

Native American Kurt Sandoval has raised cattle on Jicarilla Apache reservation land in New Mexico since 1984, but don’t make the mistake of calling him a cowboy. He wears a beaded medallion rather than boots and a Stetson, and takes a philosophical turn when asked about veering from traditional grazing practices. “I believe in the concept,” Sandoval said. “The way I look at it, it’s almost like promoting sovereignty, promoting an animal for consumers, and the consumers can actually be my people.”

Not that there isn’t something in it for Labatt. As the first private enterprise able to take the Native American beef vision to execution, Labatt potentially has a market lock on a niche product that sells as much on emotion as on quality.
“We have what is called a product that has a halo on it,” said Al Silva, Labatt’s general manager and chief operating officer. “It doesn’t only just feed you, it actually creates a social good. … You’re actually creating jobs.”

Beef Symposium12Al Silver center with red tie, Felix Nez left, Bill Inman between the two, at processing plant.

For now, the main customers are reservation casinos with high-end restaurants. For later, Labatt envisions selling Native American beef to restaurants and high-end groceries throughout its growing territory, if not nationally and globally.

It’s been a challenge. Some reservation land is so poor a tractor wheel can wipe out the vegetation on its path for several years. The meat has had a reputation for being stringy and low-grade. Lacking the negotiating power of the mega-ranchers, operators have had to settle with selling their small number of head as a commodity that fetches only the lowest price.

Labatt’s approach has been to gain trust with the producers, bring in experts who teach how to improve genetics and meat grade, and oversee the feed lot, processing, tracking and shipping so they can then sell Indian nations back a verified line of Native American beef.
“Somebody had to put all that together, and so that’s kind of what we did,” company CEO and President Blair Labatt said.

Beef Symposium13aPrepping for dinner

Monday’s dinner capped the second of a three-night educational and networking conference that brought ranchers from several Indian nations into the same classroom at Labatt. The symposium featured discussions on genetics, herd health, feed-yard economics, tracking and record keeping, and producing higher grades of beef. It was also a chance to discuss two years of data.

“We’ve been compiling all of the data, the performance data, the health data, the carcass data,” said Jason Byrd, operations director for Labatt’s Direct Source Meats division. “Now is a good time to get all of the producers that have contributed to the program together and talk about where we need to go.”

Labatt’s Native American beef journey started in 2009, when the company acquired Zanios Food Inc. of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Until then, Labatt’s growth had been organic. An acquisition was uncharted territory.

Labatt believes it’s critical to get to know one’s marketplace, and for New Mexico that included 23 Indian tribes.
“When you’re in this kind of business, you have to think about why would some group of people who don’t know you want to know you. What do you have that’s going to help them?” he said. Buying local was catching on, and there was a concept of selling New Mexicans some New Mexican beef.

PrimeRibWhat Navajo Beef look like on the plate

Working on the Navajo Nation was completely new.
“Here’s the deal,” The land is poor, there is high unemployment, virtually total unemployment. The root systems on the land is so narrow, and so shallow, that the land actually has to be worked on horseback. You can raise an animal, (but just) one for every 200 acres”. … But, you know what, guess how many acres they have — 25 million!”

The company connected with a federal demonstration ranch called Padres Mesa, a 60,900-acre ranch It is a part of what was first called “New Lands” now know as Nahata D’ ziil of the Navajo Nation. Padres Mesa Ranch was set up by the Office of Navajo Hopi Indian Relocation (ONHIR) to teach and assist Navajo families that were relocated to the area from their original homes.
Labatt met with reservation ranchers and convinced them they could be their own best customer. Padres Mesa could teach techniques and genetics to improve their product. Labatt could provide the assets needed to get the meat to market.

Labatt described the initial meetings as “Henry Kissinger diplomacy.”
“Literally, you’re kind of having to overcome doubt and uncertainty and explaining why it’s valuable,” he said. “They have a reason to be cynical. They’ve been exploited for many, many years. So you come in — why are you any different?”
Next was partnering with a feed lot operator, in this case, Billy Hall of Premium Sourced Cattle LLC in Chappell, Nebraska, and Eckley, Colorado.

“When I take ownership those calves weigh 500 pounds and then we own them all the way through till they’re harvested,” Hall said. “All of our employees are BQA (Beef Quality Assurance) certified. They are trained in low stress handling, sorting, different things like that.”

Beef lableThe lot pays a premium for the calf, Hall said, then returns data from performance to harvest. It pays an incentive premium for choice and prime grades. Hall is pushing Angus genetics over popular American breeds that include Brahman.
“That’s another thing that’s real important on our spec, just because those cattle genetically don’t tend to marble near as well,” Byrd said. “When you’re talking about Brahmans, they typically fall in the select category, whereas this program is choice and above.”

 Beef Symposium14a  Beef Symposium-2
 Felix Nez NRCS Agent on Navajo  Nora and Elwood Pahi