“It’ll be right,” Wilson muttered under his breath as he dropped the hood shut on his rental car and turned his back on it. The shiny automobile continued to make the strange whiny whistly noise, even though it wasn’t running. Wilson’s three-word declaration spoke finality on the noise issue: he wasn’t going to think about it anymore. He stepped into our four-wheel-drive for a trip up to Alderspring’s seventy square mile summer grazing range.
As we stepped in the vehicle, son-in-law Ethan flashed me a grin. Those three words were the optimistic take-home mantra he now sometimes used, ever since he spent a year working on remote cattle stations in the Australian Outback. It seemed Aussies had a way of taking the most unfortunate situation or damning prognosis, and with an “it’ll be right,” move forward despite the odds.
Wilson had just arrived on Alderspring from the Northern Territory of Australia. He worked in a leadership position on a station that managed over 100,000 head of cattle on the wilds of the Australian Outback, and his boss had sent him stateside to answer some vexing questions about herd handling and stockmanship that they had been dealing with. Steve Cote, veteran stockmanship expert from the next valley, had brought him to Alderspring Ranch to see what we had been doing to successfully herd our yearlings without fences on our wilderness summer range.
Wilson wasn’t much of a talker, but Ethan, Josh and I made him at ease by giving him a hard time about his cheesy rental car. As he relaxed, he started to relate some of the challenges of ranching in his locale.
“One of the biggest problems blokes have around our part of the country is crocodiles. About 3 percent death loss of cattle on our ranges from crocodile encounters. I’ve seen it myself.”
“Wait—you’ve seen this happen?” I asked. He had our rapt attention. I was picturing us worrying about crocs as herded our beeves on horseback for the end-of-season swim across the Salmon River several weeks ago.
He nodded. “We’ll be mustering the herd to water along the river…and some of them will step out into the deeper part to cool off. And that’s all it takes…” He stopped for effect. “Those crocs will just roll ‘em under…and that’s that.”
And we thought wolves were a thing. We’ve lost as much as 6% of our herd to wolves in a year, but it wasn’t every year. And now, with our inherding project designed around predator friendly management, we hadn’t had a wolf interaction for 4 years. In fact, with inherding we have returned home in the fall from our summer grazing range with all the cattle we headed out with that spring, losing none. But I had no idea what one could do about crocs.
It seemed that there had to be a solution as we found with wolves. Ranches were losing literally thousands of head of cattle a year to crocodiles along Australia’s North Coast. But Wilson was almost matter of fact. Why?
I didn’t put two and two together at the moment, but the reason Wilson was seemingly “It’ll be right” or “no worries, Mate” about cattle expiring in the mouths of crocs was probably the same reason Whole foods and Costco are selling Australian grass fed beef as fast as they can acquire it.
It’s because Aussie cattle are cheap right now. I noted the same phenomenon when folks in Central Idaho were first losing calves to wolves. Prices weren’t great, and people hated losing calves to wolves, but the complaints really cranked up when the last cattle price bubble hit 5 years ago. I recall in a period of a few days in 2013, some of my neighbors lost nearly $30,000 worth of cattle to wolves during the high market. The ranchers started squawking immediately, and within a day, the government had a helicopter out trying to gun the predators down.
I asked Wilson what Aussie cattle prices were doing. “They’re at around $2.45 a kilo for a yearling steer,” he said. As we stood on the waving sea of range grasses, high up in Hat Creek, I started some mental calculations, converting the Aussie dollar worth about 75 cents US, and kilograms to pounds. It turned out that beef was closely following currency values, with Aussie cattle worth about a dollar a pound US, compared to $1.45 for US cattle in the same weight class. It’s no wonder Australian grass fed was selling like crazy in the US.
It wasn’t because, as the large beef purveyors like Costco, Cargill Foods, Whole Foods, and even some of the big online grass fed purveyors would have you believe, that “there simply isn’t enough grass fed beef grown in the U.S.” The truth is that there isn’t enough cheap grass fed beef grown here. American producers can’t compete with the price of boxed Australian and other foreign beef (mostly South American) brought in on container ships. A number of things make the playing field uneven, but it’s mostly labor and environmental regulations. Meanwhile, the U.S. retailers of ‘down under’ fare are packing in some tidy margins on the difference.
And with the repeal of Country of Origin Labeling a few years ago, the customer might be under the impression that their grass fed beef is sourced from the U.S., but they have no way of knowing and are often erroneous in their assumption. And so, a form of agriculture with great potential to transform and regenerate soils and landscapes-pastured animal agriculture-is no longer financially rewarding to the U.S. producer.
I often wish I paid better attention to Professor Hoksbergen when I was in freshman Economics 101 thirty-six years ago. The hard lessons learned while running a ranch business would have come easier. But I do know from the basic supply and demand economics that Prof. Hoksbergen taught that the crocodile had lent me perhaps a tiny shred of grace on that Australian beef price disparity with Alderspring Organic.
What’s that, you say? Crocs affecting price in America?
Well, let’s just say, Mate, that all of those crocs along the North Coast declared veganism for the remainder of 2017. It is the going into the warm season in that part of the world, and cattle are more likely to immerse themselves in croc infested waters in the next few months. The vegan crocs would allow for safe bovine bathing in those coastal rivers and cattle producers like my friend Wilson would have even more cattle to sell on the market in 2018. The crocodile hiatus from beef consumption could cause Aussie prices to decrease a few cents, given that all other factors are equal. Some quick percentage math showed that Wilson alone could have another 3000 head to dump on the market.
So even more Australian beef would hit the US shores, perhaps lowering price even further. And more customers would yield to the ever present siren song of price disparity between American grassfed and foreign grassfed. And our artisanal U.S. producers of grass fed would suck a little more wind.
But as the Aussies say, “No worries, Mate.” It’s because there’s always a bright side to such market shifts. Where there’s adversity, there’s opportunity. I had great relationship with my first banker, an older gentleman named Tom Nelson. As I inked my first cattle purchase loan documents, I whined about competition in the beef marketplace. He knew I had my then infantile grass fed marketing business; it was 1993, in a time when most bankers wouldn’t even tolerate the words ‘grass fed beef.’ He stood up, walked over to the window and looked out for a moment as he straightened his tie. He patiently waited for my tirade to end, and caught my eye as the last words spilled out of my mouth. He wasn’t smiling. “Don’t you ever forget that competition is your best friend. It will keep you sharp. It will make you better. And your beef will be better. And your customer will be better for it.”
I never forgot it, because he was right. And the recent deluge of cheap grass fed from across oceans has made us work harder to make our beef better. Our beef has more grass fed flavor and pasture fat finish than it used to and as a result, I believe it’s more nutrition dense than ever. We’ve learned to invest in genetics and discovered the value of wild grasses that bring our grass fed steers to a fat finish with flavor; as most of you readers know, in the fat lies flavor and many of the antioxidant health benefits found in grass fed beef. This, in the face of an industry who still says that grass fed beef is stereotypically lean, as is most of the imported grass fed beef. I believe we’ve created a difference from most of our competition that packs more flavor and health benefits than 90% of all the other grass fed beef out there.
In the muddy and tepid waters of the North Coast of Australia, I don’t think that the toothy descendants of dinosaur differentiate their eating choices based on fat content or flavor or grass fed or grain fed. They don’t care. But it turns out that many of the Homo sapiens species does, especially when they make the connection between flavor and nutrition and are trying to create wellness for themselves and their family.
So instead of calling congressmen and senators to close and regulate borders and shut down Australian and South American imports, we sharpen our niche quality further, now in our 24th year of striving to be better than the status quo of grass fed. And because you who eat our beef are more than customers…now partners, I can go to bed without worrying who we’ll sell beef to in the next 5 years. Instead, I can borrow a few words of wisdom from the Aussies as I put my head to pillow: “No worries, Mate. It’ll be right.”
Glenn, Caryl, Cowboys and girls and Alderspring