• Story of a Steak 2015 Mom Blog-7
  • Story of a Steak 2015 Chappell Feedlot
  • Story of a Steak 2016 Gordon, NE
  • Story of a Steak 2014 WilsonRanch-381
  • Story of a Steak 2014 WilsonRanch-105
  • Story of a Steak 2014 WilsonRanch-86

The Golden Days of Beef

By Martha Mintz

Rod and Christine Lewis with daughter Rebecca Mettler.
Rod and Christine Lewis with daughter Rebecca Mettler.

When Christine Lewis steps out her kitchen door each morning-usually about 8 a.m. as she “doesn’t like mornings,” a rarity in the livestock world-she’s immediately greeted by the sight of her family’s Angus-Simmental cross cattle lazily browsing on pasture. Their black noses are buried deep in the vibrant green fescue grass that has helped secure southwest Missouri as a beef cattle haven.

As she does every morning, Christine hops on her 4-wheeler. Its put-a-put-putting engine noises cut sharply through the otherwise quiet morning as she heads off down a tree-lined lane to check cattle.

Their 400-head herd is separated into eight groups to accommodate fall and spring calving cows, weaned steers and heifers and yearlings. As she pulls through a barrier of oak, walnut and hickory trees, which may have been just saplings when the Lewis family first took possession of the land in southwest Lawrence County, Missouri, in 1878, Christine takes her time hoping to spot the deer and turkeys that frequent the area.

“My husband accuses me of spending more time looking for deer and turkeys than checking on the cattle,” laughs the seasoned rancher in her softly lilting Missouri accent.

No wildlife in sight, she cuts out across the pasture leaving tracks in the dew to make sure all the cattle are in good health. “We’ve got to take care of our livestock properly or we won’t be able to make a living,” she says. “We invest a lot of time and money to make sure they’re healthy. We don’t just stick them out in the pasture and leave them-we make sure they’re OK.”

Checking cattle with an all-terrain vehicle is one of many ranch chores that the previous generations of Lewises would shake their head at with wonder.

“This industry is so completely different now than it was even when I got my start 30 years ago,” says Christine’s husband, Rod, standing in the cool shade of his big white barn emblazoned with the Lewis family 4R brand. He sees a reminder of the massive changes every morning when he pours his coffee.

“There’s a picture in my kitchen of my great grandfather and grandfather standing with a steer that wouldn’t yield 50 percent and they’re just as proud as can be of it,” he says. Rod couldn’t show his face at the sale barn if he tried to market such an animal today.

He notes in his lifetime alone they’ve gone from weaning 300-pound calves to 700-pound calves, he can put up more tons of forage in a day than they used to in a month, use AI to advance his herd’s genetics or use genomics to map out positives and negatives in their very genetic makeup, market his cattle by video from the comfort of his own home, and the list goes on. “In the last five to 10 years the changes have really hit warp speed. The cattle industry is changing fast. It’s really amazing,” he says.

Upping the health ante

Cattle from Missouri used to have a reputation, and it wasn’t a good one. “Back in the 1990s Missouri calves had a reputation for being sick and dying and costing the feeding industry millions of dollars,” says Jackie Moore, co-owner of Joplin Regional Stockyards, just a scant 12 miles down the interstate from the Lewis ranch. Joplin Regional Stockyards set out to change that reputation by pioneering preconditioning and value-added programs. These programs incentivized area producers to have solid vaccination protocols and wean their calves prior to marketing, helping to transition them more smoothly to the next phase of their life.

The Lewises took advantage of these preconditioning programs, but were mostly just getting credit for the good practices they were already following on their ranch. Today they’ve built a tremendously positive reputation for high-quality, healthy cattle and are able to obtain top dollar for their calves by following the same protocols that are included in many of the programs.

Under the advisement of their trusted veterinarian, Ted Dahlstrom, Animal Clinic of Monett, the Lewises start the path to a healthy calf by securing the health of the mother cow. “I rely on my vet’s knowledge of the industry. He has big test groups and works with vaccine companies and he’ll let us know, good or bad, how products and practices perform. He tells it like it is,” Rod says.

The Lewises have always been progressive, changing up herd health programs over the years as necessary, Dahlstrom says. “And their herd has improved every year as a result,” he says.

The most recent change being a focus on the health of the cows through vaccine programs, mineral supplementation and ensuring their nutritional needs are met at critical points of in the year. Cows are all given prebreeding shots including IBR, Vibrio Lepto and PI3. Healthy cows pass some latent immunity to their calves through colostrum and get them started right.

Calves get two rounds of vaccinations, once in late June for the spring-born calves and a booster in November at weaning. Vaccines address issues such as pasteurella, blackleg, bovine respiratory disease and bovine virus diarrhea. Fenceline weaning, allowing the cows to stay close but separate, reduces stress and illness, helping calves build immunity and move easily on to the next stage of their lives.

The Lewises usually background their calves, feeding them hay until spring when they sell the hale, hearty and feedbunk-broke calves at 900 pounds during a hopefully stronger market than they would see in the fall when a glut of cattle are sold. Sometimes, though, they choose to feed them through to slaughter in feedlots in Kansas or Nebraska.

Benchmarking the herd

Retaining ownership of some of their calf crops has been eye-opening for the Lewises. It’s helped them understand the impact the decisions they make have on their ranch, with their herd, all the way down the line to feeders, packers, retailers and consumers. Especially with health.

“One year we had cattle in northwest Kansas and there was an epic blizzard, but we didn’t lose a single one. I think herd health really saved our bacon there,” Rod says. “We also learned that if you have to treat a sick calf even once that it reduces their chance of grading choice, so we want to avoid sickness if at all possible.”

Feeding cattle off and on for 15 years also allows them to get back valuable data on how their cattle perform for the packer, retailer and consumer. They’ve gone back and made very specific bull selections to improve ribeye area and other factors as indicated was necessary by their experiences.

“Since we’ve fed our cattle and made adjustments, they now yield 80 percent Choice with almost no death loss. We can pass that information on to perspective buyers. They know what their potential is and know they’ll get a better end product,” Christine says.

In the current market, as long as a calf is alive it’s bringing good money. But the Lewises having extra information and a reputation for quality, healthy cattle will increase exponentially in value as cattle producers rebuild their herds and markets take a predictable downward turn.

“We’re really in the golden days of cattle production right now,” Rod says. He notes they’ve spent decades scraping by suffering droughts and severely depressed markets. “Once we worked all year and the profit was just $300.”

But now the Lewises are enjoying a few years of the cattle industry paying off. It’s nice, but it doesn’t much matter to Rod and Christine either way since, “It’s the only thing we know to do and the only thing we’ve ever wanted to do,” Rod says.

It helps to love what you do.

“We raise our cattle with passion,” Christine says. “We put everything into them that we’ve got because it’s our name out there. We want to raise a good, healthy animal that’s been treated humanely so that the people who buy our beef know that it’s been raised the right way.”

The Lewises hope to pass along this passion and to position the ranch so that the sixth generation, their daughter, Rebecca Mettler, can enjoy raising cattle as much as they do one day. She seems to be game.

“We’re a century farm and that’s an important legacy to keep,” she says. “Both of my parents have worked with cattle their whole life and they have a vast amount of knowledge to pass on. The more I can get, the better. I hope this land stays in the family a very long time.”

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Trust in the Ring

By Martha Mintz

Rod and Christine Lewis waiting for their cattle to sell on video.
Rod and Christine Lewis waiting for their cattle to sell on video.

Rod and Christine Lewis situate themselves at Joplin Regional Stockyard in burgundy plastic stadium-style seats smudged liberally with dust kicked up by thousands of feet, both booted and hooved, that pass through the facility weekly. The Missouri cattle producers are a bit anxious, and who can blame them? Unlike those who negotiate their pay up front and have funds zapped directly into their bank accounts each pay period, the Lewises work for months without a dime coming in and are then left to the mercy of the market.

They don’t actually have cattle physically walking through the ring today. Instead their yearlings up for sale are 12 miles down the road, comfortable in their pastures. Buyers will rely on a video of the calves along with valuable information on herd health and past performance to guide their bids. The location of his cattle doesn’t matter to Rod on sale day, though, as he has a standing tradition. “Every time I sell a crop of calves I go to the market,” he says. “I’m sitting in the seats whether it’s a video or live auction; it’s what I’ve done my entire life. We only get paid two or three times per year and it’s an intense day. It’s important, and I want to make sure everything goes right.”

It’s not just convenience of location that landed the Lewises and their cattle at Joplin Regional Stockyard, though. As the Lewises have developed a reputation for the quality and health of their livestock, so too has the team at Joplin worked at building a reputation for helping producers take full advantage of markets both high and low. A reputation they’ve fostered for generations as a family business that has had a heavy hand in guiding the upward trajectory of cattle production in the region.

Information traders

“We sold an exceptional set of yearlings for Rod and Christine today,” says Jackie Moore, second-generation coowner of Joplin Regional Stockyards. And it’s doubtful this is the first or last time he’s made such a statement. “Our families have done a lot of business over the years tracing back to when Rod, Christine and I were just kids.”

Those lifelong ties to the industry and the customers are part of what drives Moore. “It’s my job as an auction market leader to get the producers the tools they need to get them to the forefront of the industry,” he says.

Moore trades in information as much as he does in cattle. Producers are busy people, with their main focus being caring for their livestock, he explains. So he sees it as his duty to attend informational meetings and seminars, get a feel for the latest health protocols, management techniques and marketing strategies and bring them back to his 10,000 cattle-producing customers.

Th at’s exactly what he did in 1997 when Joplin Regional Stockyard became one of the first livestock marketing facilities to organize producer meetings with the goal of getting their customers up to speed on value-added marketing programs such as source verified, preconditioning and vaccination programs.

“Most of the losses in the feedyard are to sickness, which is what makes preconditioning, in my opinion, the most important value-added program there is,” Moore says. “It doesn’t matter how great their genetics are if they’re dead.”

With vaccine programs and weaning protocols facilitated, not only did he have a marketing tool to help add dollars to the bid on sale day, but the cattle coming in were healthier, too.

“If a calf isn’t healthy, he’s not going to weigh as well. If a calf is 25 to 30 pounds lighter because he was sick, in today’s market that could cost $50 to $100 per head on sale day. That’s a big deal,” Moore says. Just as important is the calf will continue on to rob profits from all the stakeholders down the line, and the industry remembers. “A reputation, good or bad, means a lot in the industry. You don’t hear much back if your calves perform well, but it will come back to haunt you if they perform poorly.”

Joplin Regional Stockyards frequently holds value-added specific sale days, such as the day the Lewises went to market. Mike John, of MFA Inc., explains value added sales featuring cattle managed in such programs as MFA Health Track–a source, age and VAC 45 process verification program–attracts motivated buyers.

Calves in the Health Track program follow a strict health protocol that includes properly timed vaccination for 7-way blackleg; two doses of IBR, BVD, PI3; BRSV; Pasteurella hemolytica; that the calves be dewormed and treated for external parasites, castrated and be polled or dehorned completely. It also requires them to be weaned for 45 days prior to sale, which provides several benefits. Other programs–such as PrimeVAC from Merck Animal Health–provide recommendations for a three-pronged approach to preconditioning and include protocols for vaccinations, internal and external parasite control, as well as implants.

“When calves are weaned, vaccinated and backgrounded in some manner the buyers know they’re going to show up to the feedlot ready to get going. They’re not bawling babies so they go right to feed and water. Their transformation period is much shorter with a great reduction in death losses and pulls for health,” John says. The producers are able to hit the market at a time when prices are better, the buyer gets cattle that are more likely to perform and not need to be treated with antibiotics and the customer is more likely to get a top quality product.
In the old days, Moore says, the industry was disconnected, caring very little about the success or failure of the next person in the chain. “That’s old-school business. Things have changed and we realize that we’re all in this together. The next person down the line has to thrive, too, or there won’t be any money coming back in the other direction,” said Moore. By driving hard to get value-added programs to take hold in his region, Moore did more than his part to help strengthen not only his own business, but those on either side of him as well.

People business

Though Joplin Regional Stockyards sells cattle, they’re definitely in the people business as is evident by their employees’ commitment.

“My main goal in life is to help producers,” says Mark Harmon, Joplin Regional Stockyards marketing director. “We may sell more than a half million cattle each year, but it’s the people that are important. The cattle we sell for people helps them pay their tithing at church, feed their kids and make their farm payments. We have to get the most value for them.”

Harmon’s energy is infectious. He speaks with the passion of a man just starting out in the industry as opposed to the man with 35-plus years of experience. He spends his days immersed in marketing cattle, a job he clearly loves.

“We’re in the market daily. We’re talking to feedyards and backgrounders. We know what they’re looking for and what they have. We talk to our thousands of customers and know about when they’re going to sell,” Harmon says. Harmon, Moore and the rest of the staff are the middlemen connecting those who have cattle with those who need cattle and making sure everyone does well. They’re as informed as they can get in their marketing region and their customers know it. They’re also accessible.

“I’ll call Jackie and pick his brain a little on what’s going on and consult Harmon on specialty sales to help determine when and how I should sell my cattle,” Lewis says. And he’s not alone in leaning on their expertise.

“If you’re an employee at Joplin your phone rings seven days a week,” Harmon says. “We’ve worked to build those relationships and trust because our customers have worked all year and in 30 seconds we turn those cattle into cash.” That’s a responsibility they don’t take lightly and the reason they offer a diverse number of ways to market livestock. Specialty sales, video auctions and live auctions each have their fit.

Video auctions have provided great benefit for producers. “In the old days you’d only get two to four people coming to an auction to buy calves. With a video auction, people get online or watch on TV and it really ups the exposure of those calves, ultimately getting more for the producer,” says Skyler Moore, an auctioneer and second generation Moore at Joplin.

It’s a bonus, too, that it cuts out the stress on the cattle and expense to the producer of shipping the cattle to the stockyards. “There’s no charge for a no-sale, either, so it’s a lot more relaxing for the producers,” Skyler says. They can come in with a plan for what they want and can take or leave the price. Then, they can load and ship the cattle directly from the farm. “Producers like it. Buyers like it. It’s a great way to sell cattle.”

The Lewises opted to sell their weaned and preconditioned calves by video auction this spring. Many buyers had already left the sale ring before the Lewises’ 100 hefty yearling steers flash onto the screens, the last to be offered for the day. The dwindling crowd does nothing to ease anxiety for the Lewises as Skyler takes a deep breath and rattles off the many virtues of the Lewises’ cattle–as he and his father have done many times over the years.

Despite the sparsely populated buyer section, bids come in quickly for the reputation cattle both in-house and over the phone, driving the price to near the top of the market for the day. The reputation of both the cattle and Joplin Regional Stockyard hold their own as they close out not only the day, but a year of work on a high note.

“It’s our job to initiate programs that allow our producers to be more profitable,” Moore says. “They give us a commission to do the best job for them and if you can’t do that, you should take down your sign and go home.” In the case of the Lewises, it looks like Moore gets the nod to keep his sign up for at least another year.

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Proving up and moving up

By Martha Mintz

''Our customers are primarily ranchers. We get to know every one of them and we've probably been to their ranch,'' Tom Williams says. ''A large part of my job is working with customers on their data and helping them make genetic decisions.''
”Our customers are primarily ranchers. We get to know every one of them and we’ve probably been to their ranch,” Tom Williams says. ”A large part of my job is working with customers on their data and helping them make genetic decisions.”

Before the sun even seriously considers rising and shining each morning-at 4:30 a.m. to be exact-Tom Williams can be found perched on the hill at Chappell Feedlot in Chappell, Nebraska. Like a hawk situated atop a tree, Williams’ eyes studiously assess the line of pens connecting like ribs to the bunk-lined spine of the feedlot, marching down the ridge of the gently sloping hill and terminating in the feedlot offices and towering feed mill.

He notes his son, Travis, is out reading the bunks to calculate the rations to be deposited in the bunk in just an hour and generally notes the state of the feedlot. Satisfied there’s water in every pen and nothing major amiss, Williams enjoys a fleeting moment of silence before the cellphone in his pocket starts its daily marathon session of ringing, buzzing and beeping, connecting Williams to his customers, partners, feedlot crew and industry contacts.

Williams is a co-owner of Chappell Feedlot, a 7,500-head custom feedlot in the rolling hills of the Nebraska Panhandle just north of I-80. While his trusted crew does most of the cattle handling, Williams does the bulk of the people handling. His job includes customer relations, risk management, marketing, arranging shipping schedules and working with the packers. And in his business, “customer relations“ is code for making better beef from start to finish.

“Our customers are primarily ranchers. We get to know every one of them and we’ve probably been to their ranch,“ he explains. “A large part of my job is working with customers on their data and helping them make genetic decisions.“ Genetic decisions that can move whole herds toward improved performance in the feedlot, at the packing house and on the dinner table.

Data gathered by Williams from the feedlot and the packer, such as daily gain, feed efficiency, health, carcass traits and quality grade, are all taken back to their rancher customers to help them produce a better product-and get paid for those adjustments.

Ranchers, such as Rod and Christine Lewis back in Lawrence County, Missouri, have used this data to essentially wave a big flag in front of potential buyers reading, “Proven Money Makers!“

Their most recent round of calves they fed at Chappell feedlot performed exceptionally well with no death loss and 80 percent of the calves grading choice. They wielded that information like the tool it is, sharing it with the marketing team at Joplin Regional Stockyards. The data undoubtedly played a part in the exceptional price the Lewises’ calves brought in spring 2015.

And they’re setting themselves up for even greater future successes. Data passed to them by Williams from the packer also clued them in that their ribeye area was one place they could tweak a little for an ever-more perfect and consistent product.
Scale and function

Though plenty of exceptional beef passes through Chappell Feedlot-in 2008 they received the Gold Award from Certified Angus Beef for harvesting 2,000 head of cattle qualifying for a premium program-they’re definitely not moving at the same clip as larger feedlots. This allows them to use some extra technologies, such as ultrasound, that may not be as cost effective in a larger setting.

Cattle need to be harvested at the exact point they’re ready. Feeding them a week too long or not long enough can both result in losses of quality grade at harvest. While experienced feedlot crews have a great eye for sorting cattle into groups that will finish together, Williams adds in ultrasound technology to take their accuracy to the next level.

When cattle are processed for their last implant before harvest, Chappell Feedlot crews use ultrasound to get an up close look at back fat, marbling, ribeye shape and a few other measurements to see how the cattle are progressing. Ear tags are then notched according to expected finish date and the cattle are pulled in those groups for harvest. This accuracy helps Williams hit many home runs when marketing his customers’ cattle on a grid.

“Quality equals dollars. Because we market cattle on a grid, the better the quality, the more return we get on those cattle,“ Williams says. “With ultrasound, we can identify and sort cattle and sell them on the appropriate grid. Our customers who have paid a lot of attention to carcass quality and quality grade over the years can achieve 70 to 80 percent Certified Angus Beef and 10 percent prime. You start hitting those numbers and you’re really enhancing value.“

Williams notes demand for not just quality beef, but very high quality beef, is going up, up, up.

“I was in a little small-town butcher shop in Wyoming and they said they were getting enough demand for prime beef that they were going to add it to their offering,“ Williams says. If there’s demand in small Wyoming towns, there’s probably demand for prime in a lot of other places, too. Fortunately, the beef industry is on the right path to serve this need.

“I’ve seen quality grade and marbling increase dramatically in the last decade in the industry,“ Williams says. And with the help of Chappell Feedlot shuttling data back and forth between packer and rancher, there should be even more quality steaks coming down the production line.

Back to the source

A big part of hitting those top quality grades is having a hale and healthy animal coming in and maintaining health status throughout their stay at Chappell. “A calf you have to treat two or three times, his grade won’t be very good. That’s pretty well documented,“ Williams says.
From the moment the cattle roll past the giant blazing red, spur-sporting boot marking the entrance to Chappell Feedlot, to the time they are loaded and headed to the packer, their health is carefully monitored and stewarded. Pen riders look at every calf daily, watching for dropped ears or a lack of appetite indicating illness. Calves are treated and immediately put back with their group.

“We don’t do sick pens unless an animal is lame,“ Williams says. He explains cattle, much like people, want to be home and comfortable when they feel under the weather. Their pen and their group is home. They’ll recover more quickly there. Single-dose antibiotics have helped them adopt this practice.

A stressed animal is more likely to get sick, so Chappell Feedlot dedicates a significant portion of time and infrastructure improvement to facilitate low-stress handling. Pens, alleys and working chutes are designed for natural flow of livestock, and pen riders spend time training new groups of cattle when they enter the yard.

“Cattle handling starts the day cattle get here. We settle the calves by moving them around a bit, teaching them we’re not a predator and how to work,“ Williams says. “This is important for their health and their well being. When we need to treat them, we can do so without stressing them more. Nothing is more stressful on a calf than having to rope and drag them out of a pen to treat them, we can avoid that with by laying some groundwork.“

Sometimes, despite all the right technique, groups of cattle will have health issues in the feedyard. This is a great opportunity for Williams to help his customers add more value to their future cattle.

“If we have a problem we can go back to the producer and help them look at their vaccine protocols and mineral programs. We’ll help them test their grass and soils for mineral deficiencies and help resolve the problem,“ Williams says. Without proper minerals, Williams notes cattle may not develop a good immune response to vaccines, making them more vulnerable to illness. Making minerals available is sometimes all the cattle need to have improved health and, as a result, perform better in the feedlot.

Quality Grade

Working with rancher customers over the years has resulted in a lot of high quality cattle passing through Chappell Feedlot. And just like the Lewises and Joplin Regional Stockyards in the first two articles of this series, Chappell Feedlot has developed a reputation.

“Our reputation for quality cattle is well known among all the packers. Our target is to bring in high quality cattle, feed them to their genetic potential and get information back to our customers to take them to the next level. Quality cattle is what makes our operation stand out,“ Williams says.

A ranch manager before he purchased the feedlot in 1992 with his wife, Cindy, and partner, Billy Hall, Williams takes great joy in the task of advising his cattle producing customers.

“I’m a rancher at heart and I like genetics. This way I get to be involved in a lot of people’s herds and influence a lot of genetics. It’s really kind of a cool job.“

At the end of a long day, Williams can be found right back where he started.

“My favorite thing to do, my relaxation, is to load up my dog in the evening and take a drive through the feed lot and just look at the cattle. That’s kind of the reward of doing all this,“ he says.

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Generations of feeding families

By Martha Mintz

Workers at Palmer Food Services package beef based on orders that come in daily from restaurants, casinos, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)
Workers at Palmer Food Services package beef based on orders that come in daily from restaurants, casinos, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)

The progression of a steak’s story from beginning to nearly the end surprisingly repeats itself with the same turns of phrase, advice and family dynamics. These all come together to weave together the fabric of life for a family business.

A child’s nose wrinkles at the whiff of her father’s aroma after a day at the work. Noticing her reaction, her father says with a laugh, “Smells like money.” Parents encouraging children they’ll work less and make more money in other businesses-and, of course, the children soundly ignoring said advice. Family businesses growing and changing in ways the previous five generations in the business could never have imagined. This is all as true for the Palmer family in Rochester, New York, as it is for the Lewis family in Lawrence County, Missouri.

Just like every other family featured in this series, the Palmer family is in the business of food, one they’ve been in a very long time. Five generations back they set out as fish brokers around the time Eastman Kodak Company of New York started churning out cameras and fi lm in the city. “We started in 1850 using fish from the Great Lakes servicing Kodak families with horse and buggy,” says 28-year-old Kailey Palmer from the floor of Palmer’s Direct To You Market as employees bustle around expertly trimming meat for customer orders, cleaning glass in front of row after row of Certified Angus Beef cuts and prepping the market and restaurant for the day’s customers.

Unlike Kodak, now a shadow of its former glory, Palmer Fish Company has reinvented itself time and time again, bending to the will of the food industry well before the industry even started pushing. The result is the oldest, and arguably most beloved, family owned and operated business in the city.

“My father is a very intelligent man,” Kailey states with obvious pride. “It’s a very competitive landscape, and we’ve been able to stay competitive because of his insight and foresight.

“Her father, Kip Palmer, Palmer Food Services CEO, convinced his father just selling fish wasn’t going to cut it long term. If they were going to stay in business, he had decided, they needed to become a broad-line food distributor. This is where steak, and every other cut of beef imaginable, became part of the Palmer’s story. They didn’t stop there, pushing on to excel at three levels of the food industry.

Palmer’s Direct To You Market is their retail arm, a business they’ve been in for the last 165 years. Palmer Food Services distributes food and restaurant supplies to 1,000 restaurants, casinos, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges while GNC Food Distributors serves as their redistribution arm. “Basically, if you buy food, we’re interested in talking to you,” Kip says. And talk they do.

Homing steaks

Talk closes deals as miniscule as buying a cut of beef for dinner at the meat case to securing supply contracts for hundreds of massive, 2-inch-thick T-bones headed to the kitchens of Atlantic City casinos. It’s no idle chatter or pushy sales pitch; Palmer’s sales people at all levels engage their customers to determine their needs and make sure the right beef makes it into their hands.

“We take a very personal approach to the way we sell. In many cases our competition is focusing on technology to reduce sales expenses and become more efficient. We’re doing the opposite. We’re hiring more human resources to preach the message as to why they should buy quality and why they should buy from us,” Kip says. To say the least, ranchers and feeders can rest assured the beef they so carefully stewarded to this point is now in excellent hands. So are the businesses Palmers serve.

“We’re seeing a resurgence of independently owned restaurants in this area,” he says. An encouraging sign, he thinks, but they’re up against some tough odds.

“The biggest expense a restaurant owner faces isn’t supplies, wages or insurance-it’s an empty seat,” Kip says, his favorite borrowed bit of advice. Vacant chairs are a symptom of the quality of the meal. “If a customer has a great experience, they’ll tell 10 people. If they have a bad experience, they’ll tell a hundred.”

The best way to avoid a bad experience is to start with great beef-something the Palmers have no issue getting into their coolers. “The overall quality and consistency of beef today is much better now than 14 years ago when I started,” Kailey says. Add on the guarantee of a quality-focused program like Certified Angus Beef, and things get even better.

“Quality is even more important now because there’s not a lot of difference in price between a quality product like Certified Angus Beef and a choice or select, the spreads are so close,” Kip says. So he advises his restaurant owners to upgrade, nearly guaranteeing their clients will have a very good dining experience. “I think quality really matters. I think it matters more now as competitive as the restaurant business is.”

Quality doesn’t always have to mean big price tags at Palmer’s, though. Being in both meat distribution and retail allows them to give their retail customers some creative, great eating options.

“Restaurants only want a center-cut product, as opposed to a retail customer who doesn’t really care what the product looks like as long as it eats well,” Kailey says. So the meat cutters in their on-site USDA inspected meat room, which is tucked into the cavernous Palmer Food Services warehouse, cut 4 inches out of the center of a loin for restaurants and use the extra 3 to 4 inches on each end to cut into steaks headed to the retail case and directly home with customers. “It sells beautifully; people love it!”

Another trick is marketing a first-cut strip steak. “It’s got a nerve running through it, making it visually unappealing to restaurant owners, but it still eats like a strip steak. We sell it in 8-ounce portions in a 5-pound box, and we sell out every time we have them because you can’t beat that value,” Kailey says.

Plate to pasture

The Palmer family knows their business inside and out. Kailey, just like Kip before her, has worked in nearly all aspects of the business from answering phones to cutting meat to her current position as manager of the retail business. They’ve also made it a priority to learn about what goes into getting beef to them. Kailey, Kip and their sales staff have participated in the Certified Angus Beef Masters of Brand Awareness program where they were immersed in every aspect of the industry from conception to consumption.

“Meeting the ranchers and seeing the whole process was amazing,” Kailey says. “It completely changed my perception of the beef industry as a whole and enhanced my ability to sell product in the store.” She passes along to her customers what ranchers have gone through to produce the top quality steaks to make them worth the extra $1 per pound. Kailey also is better equipped to answer question on how the cattle were cared for and fed, and by whom.

“It’s important to our customers that we’re keeping beef domestic and that the product that is being brought home to their families is produced by families. So we like to tell that story,” she says. It’s also truly a family that is selling the steak. Kailey has three sisters, her father, her stepmom, uncle, cousin, husband and brother-in-law all working with her in the business.

Kip adds that the Palmers have a significant chapter in the story of a steak as well. “Harvest is only the beginning. Beef still has to come in, be aged, cut to specification, packaged and delivered. It’s quite an enterprise, and we’re all in it together,” he says.

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Center of mind, center of plate

By Martha Mintz

Joey, Katie, Ted and Anthony Serbinski. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)
Joey, Katie, Ted and Anthony Serbinski. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)

Every day around 5 p.m., Katie Serbinski performs the well-practiced and intricate dance that is making dinner while juggling two children under the age of 2.

The petite brunette waltzes around her Birmingham, Michigan, home’s bright, cheery kitchen like a dancer twirling across a ballroom floor: step, one-two, pick up fussing baby, Anthony; step, one-two, stir the ground beef sizzling away on the stovetop; step, one-two intercept toddler, Joey, from grabbing another snack from the treat drawer before dinner…and the dance familiar to so many moms goes on.

The food and nutrition blogger does add one extra step: photographing the meal before it transitions from expansive marble-topped kitchen island to dining room table, much to her hungry family’s dismay on occasion.

Though no doubt challenging, this routine is one Serbinski thoroughly enjoys performing each day because food, and more specifically nutrition, is the axis on which Serbinski’s life twirls. Food is what she studied in college, her job, nourishment for her family and the centerpiece of memories both old and in the making. In short, food is her passion. And when it comes to proteins, beef finds its way to the center of the plate for this expert-on-good-eating’s family more often than not.

“When I think about our celebrations throughout the years-Christmas, birthdays, Father’s Day-beef has always been the dish of choice because beef is the king of taste,” Serbinski says, the corners of her mouth turning ever upward as she recalls the rich smells, sights and savored tastes of prime rib and ribeye steaks woven throughout her happy family moments.

It’s also an everyday staple. “Again, it’s the king of tastes, so hopefully beef will give my children-who are in that picky eating stage of life-the extra push to try their food that evening. I also know that in terms of nutrients, my growing children need the zinc, protein and iron provided by beef for their bodies and developing brains. As a registered dietitian, that’s top of mind for me.”

Food for thought

Food is top of mind not only for Serbinski and other moms, but also for just about everyone these days. What should I eat? How much should I eat? What should my kids be eating? Should I buy foods that are processed or whole; conventionally raised, organic or natural; locally sourced or most affordable?

The answers to those questions are often sought out online, where wondering minds might stumble across Serbinski’s blog, Mom to Mom Nutrition, on her Facebook news feed or on Pinterest, Instagram or Yummly. Every week Serbinski’s followers are treated to nutritionist- and mom-approved recipes and tips and articles ranging from nutritional advice to her decisions in the grocery store (“Homemade Isn’t Always Healthiest”) to dealing with the toughest-to-please diners, her children.

Prior to acquiring the title “Mom,” Serbinski earned a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Michigan State University and went on to complete her training as a registered dietician and earn a master’s degree in public health and nutrition from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. During a stint in California for her husband’s job, Serbinski worked as a nutritionist with the California Beef Council and eventually the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Her time with these groups added another layer to her knowledge of food-how it’s produced and the challenges faced by the beef industry.

“Food for me was always about nutrition and if it tasted good, not whether it was organically, naturally or conventionally grown,” she says. “I came to realize there’s a lot of concern your everyday consumer has about where their food comes from and how it was produced.”

Through her work, Serbinski was able to visit multiple ranches, feedlots and processing facilities to see firsthand the grand journey beef took from pasture-such as those on the Lewis Ranch in Missouri-to her dining room table. What she saw only served to strengthen her already held belief that she could safely and in good conscience continue to keep beef at the center of her family’s plate.

“I saw that farmers and ranchers were families just like mine. Their jobs were just different, not 9 to 5. I saw the pride and dedication these people had and understood they were feeding not only my family, but their own, too,” she says. “This made me trust the processes they have in place to keep those animals healthy and the reasons they’re doing the things they do. I wish every consumer had the opportunity to see that and be able to trust in their food.”

Feedlots were just as eye opening for the trained nutritionist and dietitian.

“I was shocked on my first feedyard visit to find out the larger feedlots have a nutritionist on staff and the cattle’s food isn’t just a pile of whatever they want to eat, but a mix created very specifically based on their needs. These people went to school to learn how to feed cattle not only more efficiently, but in a way that ensures their care and well-being. As a nutritionist, that was an ‘Aha!’ moment for me,” Serbinski says.

Food bridge

When Serbinski and her husband, Ted, moved back to Michigan and started their family, Serbinski saw an opportunity. “I always knew at some point I wanted to be in business for myself,” she says. “I wanted to be able to work from home and still utilize my skills as a registered dietician. It just made sense to start my blog, Mom to Mom Nutrition.”

Serbinski just as easily could have called her business Rancher to Feeder to Processor to Mom to Mom Nutrition, as her expertise has spread far beyond just the nutrient makeup of what’s on the plate. Which is a good thing, considering where today’s consumers are seeking out their information. “People aren’t asking the farmer or rancher about how food is produced; they’re asking their blogger, doctor or dietitian. Having the latest knowledge myself and being well educated on beef production helps me dispel some of the myths that are out there. I want to be a credible source of information for consumers and ranchers,” she says.

While her blog serves as her main platform, Serbinski works with commodity groups including the Michigan Beef Industry Commission, United Dairy Industry of Michigan and the Michigan Ag Council as an expert spokesman and consultant for engaging communities in healthy and nutritious lifestyles. She participates in panels, conducts cooking demonstrations and can even be caught on the news now and then talking food.

As Serbinski plates Greek sirloin steaks-properly rested after its quick trip to her patio grill-and cool, refreshing lemon orzo salad for her family, she is confident they’re in for a nutritious, delicious and responsibly raised treat. She knows she can recommend this dish to her readers and field almost any question they may throw her way from the nutrients it holds to how it came to their plate. As she did when she addressed production in a recent article, “Why I Don’t Purposely Buy Organic”:

“I purchase food with three things in mind: nutrition, taste and cost. It might seem naïve that there’s no mention of environment, animal welfare or sustainability in my purchasing equation. But that’s because I firmly believe the majority of farmers producing our food, whether it’s produced conventional or organic, are doing what they can to ensure they are using less resources (pesticides, fertilizer, water) and are treating their animals with care and well being. Why? Because producing food is their livelihood! And more often than not they went to school to learn how to do their jobs better, more safely and more efficiently than previous generations.”

As 2-year-old Joey happily smothers his steak in his favorite condiment, barbeque sauce, Serbinski explains, “I want to be a connection for the farmer and rancher and the consumer because I’ve seen both sides and work with both sides on a regular basis. I’d like to help bridge that relationship between farm and fork.”

Serbinski philosophizes that food is very personal these days. It falls neatly into place with politics and religion. “Everybody is so heated in the discussion right now,” she says.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the discussion has Serbinski’s scientific credentials or real-life beef production experiences, resulting in some negative pushback for the industry. But the families who have dedicated generations-worth of work and knowledge to bringing beef to tables of families such as Serbinski’s-the Lewis family, Joplin Regional Stockyards, Chappell Feedlot and Palmer’s Food Services-can rest assured beef will continue to be king for Serbinski. It’s a center-of-the-plate dish she’ll share regularly and confidently with her family and the families of her readers.

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