When we first had the idea for Down House, we had a simple goal to “do everything we do as well as we can.” That manifests itself in a number of ways, and for us one of those ways was sourcing the best products available. Being huge fans of hamburgers, sourcing all-natural Texas beef was one of our first priorities. I never knew how difficult it would be to find it. A little over a year after opening, we had been through several ranchers who offered varying levels of quality, consistency, and price. Finally we found a new company, Augustus Ranch, owned by Dennis and Deedee Kaspar. Located in Yoakum, Texas (about 130 miles west of Houston), they have been a perfect fit for us. After using their products for a few months, Benjy and I decided to take a visit to the ranch itself.
“Lavaca, Dewitt, Jackson, and Gonzalez–these are four of the top twelve counties in cow-calf production in the nation. We’ve got more mama cows in these four counties than most of the United States,” says Dennis.
The cows raised by Dennis and Deedee are very different than most of the beef produced in the United States. They use a truly all-natural approach that uses absolutely no hormones and no antibiotics. “All-natural” is a phrase you’ll see on packages of beef all over the country, but it’s an unregulated phrase (unlike “organic”), so it can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.
“[A competing rancher’s] beef, he touts his as being all-natural, and I know for a fact that means no antibiotics in the last 100 days before slaughter. It doesn’t mean never-ever, it just means literally the last 100 days. These cattle [at Augustus Ranch] have never been exposed to any antibiotics.”
Dennis goes on to tell us how a cow of his developed an illness and needed antibiotics. That cow nursed its calf, and because of his strict guidelines for raising an all-natural animal, he had to sell both animals to the commodities market instead of selling them as his own. It’s a process that can work for smaller producers, but one that can be challenging on a larger scale.
“That’s the integrity and the protocol that we’re trying to have here. I’m not so sure that can be done on a large corporate level,” Dennis says.
Dennis tells us that when he and Deedee decided to do truly all-natural beef protocol, they approached fellow ranchers in the area about joining. As a fifth-generation rancher, these were people that Dennis had known all his life. No one jumped on board. These were experienced ranchers that knew the work and the costs associated with raising beef. So I had to ask, is the Augustus Ranch model sustainable, from a business standpoint?
“As far as a sustainable model, just get your fixed costs down. Eventually I might have some friends and producers who can get in on it . . . . The truth is ranchers are very independent-minded people . . . . I have buddies who have no idea how to comprehend or understand what we’re doing here, but I have other guys who are interested. We’ll have to hand-pick and go through that. It’s sustainable with enough cattle on your land over time.”
What’s the difference?
So if this is a model that can work, why don’t other producers get on board? What makes hormones and antibiotics so attractive to other producers, corporate and otherwise?
The answer seems to be, simply, time. “They have steers that are finished in 18 months. It’ll take me closer to 24-26 months,” says Dennis. When you stop and think about what a 25% increase in efficiency can do for a giant beef producer, you start to understand the challenges corporate producers face.
“[Corporate producers] are looking for a quick, easy and efficient solution to an age old problem. To me the problem is stress. Eliminate the stress and you don’t have to deal with any of that. It takes me longer. We all know that time costs money. The all-natural protocol is affected by time more than anything else.
“I’m not going to say that everything in the commercial world is bad. I’m not going to say that. That’s the thing–I still have friends who are taking those trailers and backing them up at the sale barn. I have to be careful what I say, I don’t want to offend them. At the same time, that’s not going to be me. Let’s do something a little different, create our own trend.”
The Agrarian Lifestyle
What impresses me most about what Dennis and Deedee are doing with Augustus Ranch is that they have no illusions about their goals and their integrity. They have a very focused sense of what, why, and how they raise cattle. And they genuinely believe that it’s a better alternative than buying meat the conventional way.
When I ask Dennis why it is they decided to go with the all-natural approach, he doesn’t answer right away. But our conversation travels back and forth, and the more we talk the more I start to understand what really moves him.
Dennis is clearly a savvy businessman, and I pick up a subtle sense that he sees a market that is going unappreciated by his fellow ranchers. But far more importantly, you can also see that there is a genuine care and concern for the agrarian lifestyle and having a genuine respect for the land. These are things I just pick up in snippets of conversation when he refers to the need to keep the agrarian lifestyle alive due to the average age of the Texas rancher–“about 66 or 67 years old,”–or the way they keep their land: “If you notice, it looks a little wild. When you [create a monoculture] you’re not helping your wildlife population, your songbirds.” Or how he works his cattle, “on horseback.”
After our ride around (in Dennis’s truck, not horseback this time), we head to the house for some lunch–brisket, potatoes, salad, lemonade. Delicious. And then it’s time to go home. On the way back to Houston, and in the days since, I have thought a lot about Dennis and Deedee and their goals for Augustus Ranch. It’s good to work with people who love what they do.
Chris Cusack, September 2012