The handwriting was on the wall. The future of the commercial beef industry in and around Southern California's Imperial Valley hinged on having a local packing plant.

In the late 1980s, access to efficient beef processing facilities began to wane in the Southwest as packers moved toward the nation's interior. Meanwhile, the region's cattlemen were fine-tuning large-scale feeding programs using the region's ready supply of Holstein steer calves.

So, in 1999, Gary Oden of Wellton, AZ, and Bill Brandt of Brawley, CA, set the wheels in motion, and a group of area cattle producers (see sidebar on page 46) organized to take Brawley Beef, LLC, from idea to reality.

Through their efforts, the first cattle were harvested and processed in December 2001 at the new packing plant in Brawley.

“We needed a packing plant to survive,” says Paul Cameron, owner of Mesquite Cattle Feeders, Brawley. “It shows how people can work together if they really want to get something done.”

It also shows how a group of cattlemen can cooperate to produce beef through their own facility yet maintain independence.

Making Brawley Beef work hasn't been easy. The nation was still in a daze from the Sept. 11, 2001, disasters when the first cattle were harvested. At the same time, the firm found itself in the middle of a battle over anti-dumping tariffs placed on U.S. beef exports to Mexico.

Since April 2000, Mexico had imposed a complex set of specific duties on most beef carcasses and cuts on a company-by-company basis. Small- and medium-sized exporters were disproportionately affected. Eventually, a North American Free Trade Agreement panel agreed the tariffs were inappropriately applied. Those tariffs were lifted last October.

Meanwhile, the producer-owned meatpacker was able to keep its head above water due to the growing Pacific Rim beef market. But, just as that business was blooming, the BSE discovery in Washington state rattled the U.S. beef industry.

“We were beginning to do pretty well until Dec. 23, 2003,” Cameron says. “We've worked though that. When we get the export markets back, we'll be stronger than ever.”

The driving strength

The driving strength of Brawley Beef has been the alliance of partners that collectively feed about 420,000 head of mostly Holstein steers annually. In order to keep Brawley Beef's chains moving, it's imperative all partners stay on course.

“Egos were the first things that had to go on the shelf,” Cameron says. “We all talk with each other on a regular basis and we lay our management out on the table.”

The partners trade everything from production data to how they're addressing environmental laws and regulatory issues. It's part of sharing the responsibility for keeping Brawley Beef's wheels in motion.

“Each yard is obligated to supply a certain amount of cattle to the packing plant,” Cameron explains. “We have to stick with those commitments — or things begin to fall apart up and down the line.”

The Imperial Valley's highly organized beef industry (and that of the neighboring Salt River Valley in Arizona) begins at the region's dairies from which “calf ranches” pick up day-old steer calves on a twice-a-day schedule. The feeders have contracts to buy 275-lb. calves from the calf ranches.

The calves immediately go on a gain-not-grow, high-energy feed program. After 330 days up to 70% of them will grade USDA Choice. The process that ends at the fabrication line of the 1,650-head/day Brawley Beef plant results in a degree of production efficiency that's raising eyebrows across the country.

Food safety first

Ed Fitzgerald, Brawley Beef's executive vice president of operations, joined the firm last fall after a stint at the Iowa Quality Beef plant in Tama, which closed last September.

“These guys have put together a facility that's state-of-the-art in every sense,” he says. “From beginning to end, it's as well-organized and as efficient a packing plant as I've seen in 30 years in the meat business.”

Fitzgerald is especially proud of the plant's food safety record. Brawley Beef has received two Silliker Gold Stars in the past two years. Silliker Inc. is an international network of accredited food testing and consulting labs that contract to rate a meat plant's conformance with industry-wide food safety and quality standards.

At Brawley Beef, food safety is a holistic experience that includes a multi-hurdle pathogen intervention system of steam vacuums, lactic acid applications and hot water pasteurization. The attention to pathogen control even includes segregation of harvest employees from processing employees, alleviating any cross-contamination issues.

“We have separate locker rooms and lunch rooms to eliminate commingling workers,” Fitzgerald says.

Holstein-based quality

Brawley Beef CEO, John Pelton, says much of his plant's marketplace success lies in the innate advantages in processing Holstein cattle. While the quality of beef coming out of these systems might be one of the best-kept secrets in cattle country, it's not a secret in beef merchandizing circles.

“Our customers are very aware of how these producers operate, and recognize we have high-quality, consistent products,” Pelton says. “The efforts of the producers certainly make the job of marketing and merchandising our beef a lot easier.”

Testifying to the quality of Brawley Beef is that Costco Wholesale Corp. is its No.-1 customer. Costco is unique among the major U.S. meat retailers in that virtually all Costco's beef offerings are USDA Choice.

“We enjoy a great relationship with Costco and they want us to grow right along with them,” Pelton adds. “But, like any customer, they're very demanding.”

With 20 million people living within a few hours' drive, the market potential is enormous for Brawley Beef, especially with such a close supply of cattle.

To meet the growing, and ever-changing, consumer demands, Fitzgerald has his own vision for the future.

“We've got a lot of room to physically expand this plant,” he says. “One thing I'd like to see is a case-ready packaging operation attached to this facility.”

Case-ready meat is packaged in a centralized facility and shipped to supermarkets for direct display in the meat cases — bypassing in-store cutting and packaging.

In a great position

Also on the drawing board are plans to establish a source-verification/traceability structure. Beef producers who become “USDA Process-Verified” suppliers follow stringent standards for feeding, ancestry, health, recordkeeping and processing of cattle.

“The nature of our structure in this region makes the paper trail on these cattle second to none,” Fitzgerald says.

He believes that advantage puts Brawley Beef in a great position from which to start a full-bore traceability/process-verification system.

As a producer-owner of Brawley Beef, Bill Brandenberg, El Centro, CA, can't wait for the day the plant steps into this new era of beef production.

“We can already achieve nearly 100% traceback,” Brandenberg says.

Eventually, Brandenberg would like to place most of the calves coming out of his feedlot into a process-verified program.

“I'm convinced the future lies in being able to verify any claim you make — either stated or implied,” he says.

Adds Cameron, “Our relationship with Brawley Beef puts us at the front of the line to export to the Pacific Rim once those markets reopen. This entire system, from the type of beef we produce to the way Brawley Beef feeders work together, gives us a competitive advantage in both domestic and international markets.”

The Brawley Beef partners

  • Oden Family Cattle Co. is part of the operations of the McElhaney Cattle Co. group, Wellton, AZ. Gary Oden owns the operations and they-grown to a one-time capacity of 120,000 head.

  • William Brandt entities, Brawley, CA, consist primarily of Brandt Co., Brandt Pack and William Brandt Ranches, with an annual feeding capacity of more than 80,000 head of Holstein and crossbred beef cattle/year.

  • Mesquite Cattle Feeders, Brawley, was established in 1996 by Paul Cameron, Greg Braun and Bob Presley. Its one-time capacity is 30,000 head.

  • Moiola Bros. Cattle Feeders, located 11 miles east of Brawley, has grown from a 2,000-head operation to 30,000 head.

  • Bill Wiest Ranches is a Brawley-based family-owned business feeding more than 20,000 head of Holstein beef cattle/year.

  • Dominique Antchagno Cattle joined a partnership in Superior Cattle Feeders in 1987. Superior Cattle Feeders is located in Brawley and has a 45,000-head capacity.

  • Cattlemen's Feed & Milling/Meloland Cattle Co., El Centro, CA, began custom feeding in 1980. Managed by Bill Brandenburg, it has a 16,000-head capacity.