Over the last decade, the beef industry has slowly learned the lesson that branded beef works. Consumers are accustomed to buying based on brand names when it comes to everything from clothing and electronics to automobiles — and they appear to want brand name choices in the meat case, as well.

As Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch — the branded meat program that bears his name — says, “When you have your name on it, you focus on the eating quality, tenderness and flavor. You can get today's consumer to try something one time, and it better be a good experience or they won't try it again.”

The label of Niman's California-based company has come to be recognized for offering premium beef, lamb and pork to upscale restaurants and retailers. Similarly, Western Grasslands Beef, another California meat company, is carving its own market niche with grass-fed branded products. Both programs have grown steadily since they were created and testify to the power brand names can have in successful marketing.

The founders of these companies have kept a focus on quality in their quest to develop a branded meat line with their own unique label. Here they share the stories behind their success:

Niman Ranch

For Bill Niman, the journey to producing a branded meat line has been a process that he says “evolved one step at a time.” A transplant from Minnesota to California, the former school teacher, turned hobby farmer, turned meat marketing guru says, “There wasn't a business plan or a large amount of capital laid out.”

Instead, Niman explains that in the early '70s his family had a desire to raise its own meat based on a sense of wanting to get back to nature. They got their start learning about the beef industry from neighboring ranchers who raised Angus and Hereford cattle, started their own herd of black baldies, and soon had a network of customers who were neighbors.

By the early 1980s, the Niman meat program saw a turning point when it earned favorable reviews in the San Francisco Bay area. Niman says, “Because of that press, we were able to get a foot in the door with upscale restaurants. They started taking on our product, and we grew one animal at a time. Many restaurants began running the Niman Ranch logo on their menu, and soon there was a copycat effect of people wanting our product.”

In the 1990s, natural meat started gaining more prominence with the public; demand for Niman Ranch products grew even more. So, Niman began partnering with farmers and ranchers in different geographical areas to help maintain a year-round supply of product. Today, there isn't a major city in the U.S. without Niman Ranch meat on one or more of its restaurant's menus.

Two hundred head of cattle are slaughtered each week for Niman Ranch, with supply coming from about 50 cow-calf operations throughout the West. Niman's own fall-calving black Angus and black baldie herd of a little more than 100 head still supplies beef for the program, as well.

In addition to beef, Niman Ranch offers lamb and pork. Niman says, “Most of our business today is on the pork side. We have 300 farms that raise free-range hogs for us, and we have really cornered that market.”

Focus On Quality

The cornerstone of Niman's success has always been a focus on good taste. To achieve that goal, they've developed a program with protocols for quality control from ranch to consumer — they honor the principles of good animal care, good land stewardship and good genetics.

To start, the preferred cattle genetics are black baldie, but Niman concedes they don't dictate to cooperating herds what genetic sires to use.

“We are not partial to color; we are partial to what the beef does,” he says. “The ranching families we work with are cattle people who know cattle genetics. The average herd size on many of these ranches is 500 head.”

A second important criterion is raising the cattle naturally. This includes raising calves on grass until they are at least a year of age; no antibiotics or growth hormones administered to the cattle; and once in the feedlot, only grains like corn, barley and soy are fed. Yearlings go into the feedlot off of grass at 800 to 900 lbs. and are grain-fed for about 140 days.

“We have never fed any meat, bone or animal by-products, or used chicken feathermeal or cottonseed oil. We feed a natural grain diet. We want to feed people, so it is important that the end product is superior,” Niman stresses.

During this entire process, care is taken to treat the livestock humanely in the feedlot and in the handling facilities through the slaughter process. “We take every precaution to provide the safest, best tasting meat,” Niman says.

Source verification and traceability of animals through the entire processing chain is also key. Niman says by doing this they are able to pinpoint what genetics and animals are working for the program. As a final touch, Niman Ranch meat is dry-aged up to a month for flavor and tenderness before it is offered to customers.

And, even though Niman Ranch has more demand for its product, Niman refuses to take any shortcuts. He says, “We've got demand for about 250/head/week, but have backed off to keep quality up.”

Western Grasslands Beef

Western Grasslands Beef (WGB) is another branded example that has struck a popular chord with upscale West Coast restaurants and retailers. Launched in 2002, the grass-fed beef has gotten “a great response,” reports Darrell Wood, a fifth-generation cattleman who serves as president.

Wood was involved in the company's startup and says his motivation stems from wanting to create a viable future for the sixth generation on their family ranch.

“I have a son and a daughter who both want to be in the beef business someday,” he says.

A Fateful Meeting

WGB came to fruition when Wood met Ernest Phinney, a California producer who had been marketing grass-fed beef from his own herd to friends and neighbors for nearly 10 years. The duo began to test market selling grass-fed beef on a larger scale for about 11½2 years with some success. Then, in the spring of 2002, the “Power Steer” article came out in the New York Times promoting the benefits of grass-fed beef.

“With that great publicity, we've been able to really develop our grass-fed beef program,” Wood says.

Phinney, now serving as general manager, agrees: “It gave us a huge boost. We've still had to buck the traditional thinking that grain-fed is best, but we're growing steadily.”

Today, WGB can be found on the menus of several trendy California restaurants and retail markets, and their grass-fed beef is offered by national distributor Sierra Meats, Reno, NV. Although only a handful of producers are currently supplying cattle for the program, the people involved in WGB are poised to grow.

Much of grass-fed beef's appeal among consumers stems from its healthy attributes. Research has shown grass-fed beef contains high levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of some types of cancer. The beef has its own distinct flavor and is lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than conventional beef raised on grain.

Another selling point is the fact that grass-fed beef is considered supportive of sustainable and locally-raised agriculture.

But Phinney points out that, while all these attributes may get consumers interested in trying grass-fed beef, it is taste that will keep them asking for it.

“Unless it's great tasting, consumers aren't going to stay with it. That is why we've focused on developing superbly flavorful, tender grass-fed beef,” he says.

All Grassfed Cattle

Currently, all the cattle produced for the WGB program are raised on grass. Participating producers must be members of the Western Ranchers Beef Cooperative and follow its beef quality assurance, record keeping and vaccination protocols.

And, because of the cooperative's stringent, individual animal ID requirements, WGB is able to select only animals for their program that are grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic free, as well as “Born and raised in the USA.”

Another focus of the WGB program is that producers utilize a majority of Angus or Angus-cross genetics.

“We've found the Angus breed offers more predictability. The cattle also mature at a young age which helps with tenderness. We are slaughtering most of our cattle at 14 to 16 months of age, and it takes a genetically superior animal to do that,” Wood says.

Ensuring Supply

With the production parameters in place, the final hurdle was ensuring a year-round supply — often a challenge for grass-fed programs. But Wood says, because of the variety of grazing lands and geography in the West, they're able to graze cattle all year. As a final measure to make animals consistent, the cattle are fed chopped hay during the last month prior to slaughter, according to Wood. The cattle are then processed in Central California.

As they look to the future, Wood and Phinney are optimistic for the Western Grasslands brand.

“I firmly believe grass-fed beef is the wave of the future. For now, it may be a niche, but it's going to be a bigger and bigger niche as time goes by. More people are increasingly looking for food with healthy attributes and naturally-raised products. And, it's going to become even more economical to graze forages than mechanically harvest grains,” Phinney says.

But like Niman Ranch in the preceding story, Wood cautions that they want to be careful how fast they grow: “It is important that we maintain our supply, quality, and consistency.”

“Our goal is to offer the best tasting, most tender, highest quality grass-fed beef in the U.S.,” Phinney says. “If you don't focus on taste, it's not going to work. That's true of any branded beef program.”

Kindra Gordon is a freelance writer based in Spearfish, SD, and a former managing editor of BEEF magazine.