"Beer-fed beef" is a production claim that gets even more attention at the farmers market than grass-fed, according to Ryan Rhoades, extension beef specialist with Colorado State University.
Rhoades runs around 30 cows on leased land near Wellington and supplements them with spent grains from local breweries before selling the resulting meat direct to consumers through his own brand, Elevation Beef.
"There are 52 breweries in Ft. Collins, so that's a lot of waste and right now there's really no market for it," he explained recently. "So if you're willing to take it, they are willing to give it to you. I love it. I feed a lot of it."
Obviously, there are some drawbacks to feeding leftover beer mash, even when it's free for the taking.
"Around 70 percent of it is water, so I'm hauling a lot of water around," Rhoades explained. "And anytime it gets below 20 degrees, it freezes and turns into giant popsicles."
Even so, brewers' byproducts are low in starch and high in concentrated nutrients, providing lots of energy with virtually no digestive problems.
Using them as a feed source grew out of thinking holistically about what options were available locally and how to market the beef for the best return.
"On my sign at the Ft. Collins Farmers Market I put 'beer-fed beef,' and that gets a lot of attention," Rhoades said.
The sign draws shoppers to his booth and gives him an opportunity to start conversations about what his cattle are fed, the limitations of grass finishing and other information about modern beef production.
Rhoades came to CSU three years ago from the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management at Texas A&M with some bold new ideas for revamping beef production outreach and education in Colorado.
Winter feed costs and stocking rates are two factors that have a big influence on cow-calf profitability. And helping Colorado producers understand where they can reduce costs and improve efficiencies has been Rhoades' top priority since he came to CSU.
He's still in the early stages of putting together an ambitious new benchmarking program he calls TRAC, or Total Ranch Analysis for Colorado.
The program will gather ranch-level data from individual producers across the state to create a comprehensive database. A research team at the university will then use that information to analyze and compare various production factors, ranch enterprises and management approaches.
"When I give presentations, I'm typically using Texas, New Mexico or Oklahoma numbers, but I can't tell producers what those numbers should be here in Colorado," he said. "In addition, we basically have three very distinct ecosystems in the state, and we'll need at least eight to ten ranches from each ecosystem to create an accurate benchmark."
While still in the early stages of the project, Rhoades has already identified three key areas that are critical to managing production costs: feed, depreciation and labor.
"Depreciation is the one that is mind boggling to most people, but a lot of times that's the biggest cost they have," he said.
Depreciation is the non-cash expense created as assets are used up over time that will have to be replaced in the future and includes such things as land, equipment, buildings, infrastructure and livestock.
Feed costs are a little easier to track and tend to get a lot of attention from producers, and rightfully so, he said.
After several kitchen-table meetings with ranchers across Colorado, Rhoades said he has come away with the impression that most of them do a pretty good job of keeping their feed costs in line, using creative strategies like his own to identify the best options.
Establishing optimal stocking rates is where they often run into problems.
"The underlying story we're hearing from most folks is that they went through the 2002 drought and had to sell a bunch of cows and they're tired of it. So he we are in 2019 and they still haven't gotten back to full stocking rates, because they are gun-shy," he explained.
Still, the land resource typically makes up 60 percent or more of a ranch's total fixed cost, he adds, "so what people are running into is having a fixed cost structure that is very high, but not being able to divide it out over more stocking units."
Supplemental feeding strategies might be one tool to help address that, and another is selecting more moderately framed cows.
"We've maxed out on weaning weights over the last 20 or 30 years, in terms of the national average, and that suggests a resource limitation or production plateau we've hit. And that's called rainfall," he said.
TRAC will make it possible to evaluate a wide array of management variables within a comprehensive framework and help answer questions like what impact changing the calving season has on production costs and overall profitability, Rhoades said.
"It's total ranch analysis with a systems thinking approach," he said. "Fifteen years from now I want TRAC to be the gold standard for how to do this around the country."
Rhoades and his new assistant, Logan Hoffman, who is based in Sterling, plan to do at least 60 one-on-one ranch consultations over the next three years.