Coleman Natural Beef keeps health food stores stocked with natural product.

Seventeen years ago Jim and Mel Coleman had a crazy idea to try and market natural, hormone-free beef. Turns out, the idea wasn't so crazy. In fact, after dozens of branded-type programs have failed, theirs is thriving.

"Sales are about $55 million a year and growing under a hormone- and antibiotic-free label," says Jim, who runs the 1,600-cow ranch in southern Colorado at Saguache.

In addition to cattle from the Colemans' ranch, about 350 other producers in western states supply cattle under contract to fit the specs.

"If cattle grade Choice and Yield 1, 2 or 3 there's about a 10 cents premium over the regular market," Mel explains. "If they grade Select and Yield 1, 2 or 3, there's a 2 cents premium."

The natural market is still hot on both the East and West coasts, and in Denver, Mel says. In many of their 200-plus health food target markets plus supermarkets, beef is supplied in boxed beef primals or individually vacuum packed servings. Those products are packed by over 100 employees at headquarters in Denver. Cattle are either custom slaughtered or processed at their Limon, CO, plant, soon to reopen after tornado damage.

"We provide carcass data back to all producers - free," says Jim. "I think we're seeing better cattle now that they know they have to improve their herds."

Originally, the Coleman's bought 750-lb. calves from producers. Now, Mel says, there's another contract producers can use. For information, call 800/442-8666.

Coleman Natural Beef now has two major investors that are part of the operation, which last year reported sales growing 17% a year.

In 1991 they added a line of organic beef to their merchandising roster. That beef (about 50-head/week) is shipped fresh to the Japanese market.