Seth Nitschke runs cattle on grassland in Mariposa County, far from the Midwestern feedlots he used to frequent.
He is part of the grass-fed beef movement, keeping the cattle on pasture all their lives rather than sending them to distant feedlots to be fattened on grain before slaughter.
The meat costs more for consumers, but Nitschke said it's well worth it.
"Grass-fed beef is like a good cabernet," he said, "which means it has a good, strong flavor and finishes well."
The niche is only 3 percent of the beef industry, which relies heavily on feedlots to produce meat at high volume and affordable prices.
But the grass-fed method and a variation that adds some grain to the diet on the ranch could help ranchers keep an edge in a competitive business.
"It's the way beef used to be," said Leslie Hurst, who with partner Corinne Macho produces about 50 head a year near Jamestown. They feed wheat and barley in the last 90 to 120 days before slaughter, but the animals still graze where they were raised.
Feedlots emerged in the 1950s as a way to use the nation's booming corn crop. The conventional cattle industry says this is an efficient way to produce beef and, contrary to critics' claims, does not mean discomfort for the livestock or massive pollution from manure.
Grass-fed advocates say it makes sense to use the feed already growing on the land, fertilized by the animals themselves, rather than grain that requires synthetic fertilizers to grow and is transported long distances.
Conventional industry groups say grass-fed is an option for consumers who like it, but the nation has nowhere near the rangeland acreage needed for large-scale conversion.
Nitschke and his wife, Mica, live in Newman with their children but spend plenty of time ranching, producing about 500 head of cattle a year. They own or lease about 2,000 acres, including nonirrigated land near Hornitos and Catheys Valley, and summer pasture near Minden, Nev.
Seth Nitschke worked for four years as a buyer of cattle from feedlots in Kansas and Nebraska. He got into the grass-fed business in 2006.
He buys cattle from other ranchers at 12 to 14 months and runs them on his acreage until they are 21 to 26 months. That's about three times longer than a conventional animal spends on pasture before going to a feedlot.
Backers of the conventional method say grain is important for producing beef that's well-marbled with fat, but Nitschke said an all-grass diet can do the same if the cattle graze long enough.
He sells under the Open Space Meats label to online customers and specialty grocers, mostly in the Bay Area and Southern California. A few restaurants in Yosemite National Park serve the beef, as does Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne County. Cornucopia Natural Food in Modesto carries the ground beef.
A 20-pound frozen assortment including ground beef, steaks and roasts costs $184 online. A 60-pound package is $479.
The beef is lower in fat than the conventional version, so it can dry out if not cooked properly. Nitschke recommends the "rule of 25" 25 degrees less heat and 25 percent less time.
He said buyers want quality and to know that the beef was produced without stress to the animal or the land. He sees his work as the kind of stewardship taught by the Bible.
"It means this is yours to take care of," he said. "You had better take care of it."
Hurst and her husband, Joe, are longtime owners of a ranch supply and feed store in Jamestown. They owned McHenry Feed in Modesto, now Modesto Feed, before moving to the foothills in 1980.
They have 50 acres straddling Woods Creek, a few of them growing wine grapes, olives, blackberries and lavender but most of them feeding cattle. The grass is not irrigated.
Hurst and Macho started their business, Table Mountain Beef, in 2005. They keep the cattle at their ranches for about 18 months, then take them to a slaughterhouse in Los Banos. The carcasses come back for aging and butchering at Rawhide Meat near Jamestown, which they own with three other ranchers.
The meat is sold at Hurst Ranch Supply, which also has Friday night barbecues featuring the homegrown beef. A frozen rib-eye steak typically is $14. A two-pound tri-tip is about $18.
The Diamondback Grill in Sonora uses the ground beef in a burger special that includes Fiscalini cheese from Modesto, owner Eric Davis said. He also buys a whole carcass a few times a year and makes use of almost every part, from the steaks and roasts to the bones for stock.
The beef "has this really wonderful nutty component about it," Davis said. "It's a great flavor."
Hurst said diversifying beyond a simple cattle operation can help ranchers stay in business in Tuolumne County, which does not have the rich soils or water rights of its neighbor to the west.
"In the foothills, we don't have a lot of everything else," she said, "but we've got a lot of grass."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.
BUYING GRASS-FED BEEF
Open Space Meats: (209) 262-8780 or www.openspacemeats.com; products can be shipped.
Table Mountain Beef: 17145 Highway 108, Jamestown, (209) 984-3016; no shipping
Other Tuolumne County producers: www.farmsoftuolumnecounty.org
Producers elsewhere: www.eatwild.com
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
Conventional cattle graze on ranches for the first six to 10 months of their lives. Some are then shipped to feedlots for four to six months of feeding on corn, other grain and supplements before slaughter. Some are kept on the ranches into a second year before going to feedlots.
Grass-fed cattle spend their entire lives eating grass, hay and other nongrain feed. A variation grass-fed, grain-finished uses grain fed on the ranch rather than in a feedlot.
WHICH IS HEALTHIER?
Grass-fed adherents say the beef has more omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, than conventional beef. The California Cattlemen's Association says there is no significant difference in nutrition.
Grass-fed supporters say the cattle do not need the antibiotics given to conventional cattle. The industry says antibiotics are safe and in any case are only used on sick cattle, not to promote growth.