May/June 2006 California Country magazine
By Jim Morris
At Prather Ranch, knowledge about their cattle's genetics and keeping their herd in a low-stress environment leads to a favorable work atmosphere and quality beef.
North State ranchers find success in relaxed management approach
Imagine a valley filled with cattle as far as the eye can see. This rustic scene needs a chorus of moos to be complete, right? Not if you're talking about the calm cows at Prather Ranch, an innovative enterprise with a unique philosophy in the Golden State.
"We had a reporter from National Public Radio at our ranch spend an hour trying to get one moo out of our cattle, and he couldn't get it," said ranch General Manager Jim Rickert. "When they're with their social groups and are comfortable in the environment they're in, it's unusual to get any vocalizations at all."
Rickert and his wife, Mary, operate Prather Ranch on the philosophy that the lowest stress on the herd, coupled with the highest amount of knowledge about their genetics, leads to a favorable work environment and superior quality beef.
"If the animals are handled gently and are relaxed, the whole process goes better for everyone involved," he said. "It also makes for a better product. We're doing a lot of the same things that my grandfather did clear back in the 1920s and '30s. He raised livestock a lot like this. In a lot of ways, we're not reinventing anything. This is more of a traditional way of raising beef cattle."
The Rickerts' ranch management practices have garnered several awards, including Commercial Producer of the Year by the Beef Improvement Federation, the Environmental Stewardship Award for their region by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and, for two years in a row, Gov. Schwarzenegger's Environmental and Economic Leadership honors.
The ranch's roots date back to the 1870s. Walter Ralphs, whose family founded Ralphs Grocery Co., purchased the ranch in 1964. The Rickerts were brought on to manage it in 1979 and are minority owners.
Prather Ranch spans 34,000 acres and has about 4,000 head of cattle on several properties spread throughout Northern California, from Colusa County to Siskiyou County. What makes the operation unusual is that it's a closed herd, meaning that for nearly 30 years, no other females have been introduced. Every step of the process--from breeding to feeding--is strictly monitored. This requires extensive record keeping, the bovine equivalent of a Social Security number on ear tags and another number visible on the side of every animal.
"We can control the whole process, from conception all the way to the consumer," Jim Rickert said. "This is an expensive way to do it, but we're hoping that this alternate way of producing food is attractive to the American consumer."
Two types of beef are raised at the ranch: natural and organic. Natural means no artificial ingredients and with minimal processing. Organic beef is an increasingly larger endeavor at the ranch and requires a host of strict growing criteria, including ensuring that the cattle eat only certified organic feed. The ranch grows more than 18,000 tons of hay a year, providing the majority of feed for their herds.
New technology was recently implemented to give meat quality an additional boost. Through the GeneSTAR program, bulls whose genes test positive for tenderness are retained as breeding stock.
Prather beef is dry-aged for more than two weeks, then hand-cut at a private, federally inspected plant on the ranch. It's shipped to finer restaurants, retail stores and farmers' markets from Northern California to Southern Oregon. Demand is exceptional, complete with rave reviews from chefs and customers alike.
"People love it!" said Executive Chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto Restaurant in San Francisco, considered one of the Bay Area's best eateries. "Last night we sold 28 hanger steaks. It definitely gives you a great feeling when people recognize the difference between the quality."
Three thousand miles to the east, restaurants in New York City such as the Better Burger chain feature Prather beef in one-of-a-kind gourmet hamburgers.
Prather Ranch is among many success stories in the beef business, which is in the midst of a renaissance of demand. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association says consumer demand for the meat has risen by more than 20 percent since the late 1990s, with annual sales of approximately $70 billion.
Along with the mouthwatering meat it provides, another facet of the Prather Ranch herd is its surprising role as a source of medical products. Because the herd is closed and so closely monitored, many parts of the cattle are sold to pharmaceutical companies for surgical and cosmetic products.
One of these products is cleaned and processed bones for surgical implants. Unlike stainless steel implants, the more natural, cattle-based product has a greater chance of being absorbed by patients, improving their odds for a successful recovery. (It also helps patients pass through airports without a blaring metal detector.) Cattle bone implants are available in the United States, Europe and Asia.
And, for burn victims, pituitary glands from cattle are used to make artificial skin for grafting.
"We really like the feeling that with these cattle, we are able to use just about every part of the animal, whether it is through beef or through bones, that we are helping people live a healthier, safer life," Mary Rickert said.
Another product from the herd provides the basis for a popular cosmetic procedure. Cowhides are used to make collagen, which doctors often inject into women's lips to make them fuller. Collagen also has numerous surgical applications, including its use as a plug for angioplasty patients. The estimated retail value of collagen derived from a single cowhide is a cool $1 million.
The heart of Prather Ranch remains raising beef in a way that's sustainable for the environment and that provides the centerpiece of a satisfying meal.
Mary Rickert said that once someone tries their beef, they are often back for more.
"I've converted a lot of vegetarians," she said. "We really feel good about producing a product that the consumer feels good about. That's a really satisfying feeling.
"We care a lot about how we raise our beef, and we would never, ever market a product that we wouldn't feed to our own family. That's our philosophy."
Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.