NMSU research helps beef producers keep up with industry trends
In a time when consumers demand to know where their food is coming from and how it was grown, many beef products with a brand label are showing up in restaurants and grocery stores.
The shift from beef as a commodity to beef as a brand is effecting how livestock producers raise and market their beef. This is why New Mexico State University helped the Branch Ranch, of Lovington, N.M., explore marketing opportunities for a New Mexico natural beef-branded product.
The Branch Ranch is owned by the Field family, many of whom have attended the university. Along with raising cattle, the company also owns and operates its own feedlot and a quality hunting services business. The newest division of the Branch Ranch, Natural Beef of New Mexico, coincides with their seedstock and other agricultural businesses.
This vertical coordination has enabled the Field family to track each animal individually from birth to slaughter to provide assurance to the consumer that they know where their beef comes from. The Branch Ranch's motto, "From Start to Steak," reflects this.
"The importance of knowing the source of our food supply chain has become increasingly more important and with that emphasis we felt it was time to market the same product that we have grown for years directly to the consumer, who appreciates that in-depth knowledge and security," said Danya F. Salazar, a member of the Field family and an NMSU alumna.
The branded beef marketing project at NMSU included the examination of beef industry trends, identification and review of popular branded beef products available on the market, review of existing or proposed branded beef programs developed by various state or industry groups and a comparison of consumer preferences for branded beef products relative to generic beef products.
To accomplish the research, resources across campus were utilized. Kassi Laney, a student in NMSU's Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business, served as the coordinator of the project, which was the focus of her master's thesis. Jay Lillywhite, assistant professor of agricultural economics and agricultural business, assisted Laney in conducting research about consumer preferences and branded beef.
Two Branch Ranch steers were slaughtered at NMSU's Meat Laboratory managed by the Department of Animal and Range Sciences. The NMSU School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management's training restaurant, 100 West Cafe, used the steaks from the steers in two separate taste tests. The steaks were prepared by Chef John Hartley and students in his HRTM 363 food preparation class.
Some of the testers were NMSU faculty, staff and students; however, several from the Las Cruces community also participated. The participants were given surveys about the steaks, and were asked to answer questions regarding their opinion of the meat, what they would be willing to pay for it and how important knowing the sources and/or natural or organic production is when purchasing beef.
More than 80 surveys were collected over the two days. After analyzing the survey answers, it was found that most of the patrons at the cafe enjoyed the Branch Ranch steaks and would buy them again.
NMSU's Arrowhead Center also researched developing a branded-beef product. Those in the program worked independently of the other researchers, providing more of a consumer perspective than a livestock producer's perspective.
"This project really was a collaborative effort and touched on all aspects of the university's mission, including education, research and outreach," said Milton Thomas, professor of animal and range sciences. "It's been very exciting to watch the Branch Ranch program grow; I admire their drive to make a larger name for themselves in such a commodity-based industry."
Both studies showed the natural beef and branded beef markets continue to develop. Another conclusion drawn from the research is that food safety is a large concern to consumers. Each team of researchers prepared a report for the Branch Ranch, summarizing results and providing suggestions for further possibilities.
"The research done at NMSU helped the agricultural industry in the state. The Branch Ranch has had success with this, in part, from what we did here at the university," Lillywhite said. "This is a success story about what a land-grant university does for the state."
The Branch Ranch used the information gathered by the university to target its consumers and markets. The data also identified its competitors to help the company better compete in the market of natural beef. The Branch Ranch has now successfully launched sales of their products in New Mexico and Texas.
"We will continue to produce and market hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef that is treated humanely and with care to the beef consumer. We also want to provide the consumer with information on the nutritional benefits of natural beef, including lean ground beef," said Joy Field, a Field family member who is trained in the culinary arts.