What's a small eastern Washington rancher to do if he's not satisfied with what he gets for his calves? Some keep doing what they've been doing, and complain about it. Others, like Gary Fetter in the North Basin of Washington's Colville Valley, figure out a better way.

Fetter, who does business as T-Diamond-T Meats, his ranch brand, now markets all his steers, and his heifer culls, direct to consumers. He began the program 10 years ago with 7 head.

Fetter uses a Washington State program in which he sells whole carcasses, halves or quarters directly to consumers. The meat is state-inspected, rather than federally, and the program requires carcasses be pre-sold. Last fall, he marketed 28 head under the program and plans to market another 18, mostly heifers, this spring.

“My quarter program provides the customer half of a half,” he notes. Rather than buying a hind- or front-quarter, the customer receives half of each a hind- and front-quarter, he says.

Under federal inspection, Fetter could sell packages of beef, but he prefers the state program because he can sell entire carcasses and avoid being left with hard-to-sell packages of less desirable cuts. Federal inspection fees are also higher than for state inspection.

“Instead of the 42¢/lb. for cutting and wrapping that customers pay under the state program, the charge would be 49¢/lb.,” he says.

In fall 2006, Fetter received $1.75/lb. for the meat. Added to this was a 42¢/lb. cutting and wrapping charge and a $65/head slaughter charge. In November, he received $240/head more selling direct to consumers than if he'd sold to a packing plant.

Fetter's cow herd is predominantly Angus and black baldy. Every female is artificially inseminated (AI); calving is mid-September to mid-November.

The calves, which have access to creep as soon as they want it, are weaned Aug. 1. From there, steers go into the feedlot for 100-120 days on a ration of 20 lbs. of flaked corn/head/day and grass hay. The entire group only eats 1-2 bales of the grass hay/day.

After weaning, heifers go back onto pasture for further evaluation for Fetter's replacement program. Those failing to make the cut are fattened and sold.

His closed-herd system minimizes health problems, Fetter says. An occasional treatment for pinkeye is the extent of his health headaches.

Fetter controls carcass quality with the AI sires he uses. He reports that when he switched to Angus, he acquired a list of the breed's top carcass sires, and picked what he saw as the five best for his operation.

He looked for balanced traits with large ribeye, a small amount of backfat and good marbling. The sires he's currently using are all five-year-old proven sires — Retail Product, Scotch Cap, Integrity, Bon View Spect R44176 and Future Direction.

The cattle are custom-harvested on the ranch to minimize stress. Fetter normally harvests six head at a time, with the carcasses quartered before they leave the farm.

The carcasses are weighed at delivery to the processor; the price is determined by the hot hanging weight. Steers, which are killed at 12 months, normally hang 540- to 620-lb. carcasses. The heifers — culled from Fetter's replacement program — are harvested in the spring at 18 months of age and hang 700- to 750-lb. carcasses.

Fetter aims for small- to medium-sized carcasses and doesn't want anything over 900 lbs.

“A carcass 900 lbs. and beyond is hard to sell,” he notes.

Fetter is paid on delivery; a 600-lb. carcass would cost the customer about $1,400 total, he points out. For a 750-lb. carcass, total cost would be about $1,700.

Bauman's Custom Meats in Chewelah, WA, processes the carcasses after 14-21 days of dry aging. Each carcass is individually cut to the customer's specifications; meat from different carcasses is never commingled. Even the hamburger from individual carcasses is kept separate.

After flash-freezing the meat, Fetter delivers it to customers' homes in eastern Washington, or to a central meeting point, usually Wenatchee, for his customers living west of the Cascades.

“If I can feed 150-200 head at a time, I could easily handle two rotations a year through the feedlot,” he says of his future plans. But to get that big, he needs a reliable source of quality calves.

Fetter is among about 25 small producers in northeast Washington who sell direct to consumers. Each raises five to 50 head apiece, some using the state program Fetter uses, while others utilize USDA inspection and sell packaged beef.

“Right now, the custom shops in this part of the state are moving more beef than the supermarkets,” Fetter says. He attributes that in part to dissatisfaction with the product available in supermarkets.

He sees the increase in direct marketing of beef as a move back to the '60s and '70s. “Back then, almost all cattle in the county were fed out locally and sold directly to slaughter houses in Spokane,” he explains.

The biggest producer adjustment to direct marketing is a change in attitude. “I sell beef, not cattle,” he says.

Fetter does some advertising, but most of his business is via word of mouth. Satisfied customers tell others, who try his meat and become satisfied customers, and so on, so he can keep “selling beef and not cattle.”

Norm Herdrich is a freelance writer based in Spokane Valley, WA.