Raising Grass Fed Beef at Hearst Ranch

For 150 years the Hearst Family has raised cattle on 150,000 acres of rich sustainable grasslands on California’s Central Coast. Today. Hearst Ranch Beef is the nation’s largest single-source provider of 100% grass-fed beef that is always free-range and antibiotic free. A conservation easement protects Hearst Ranch’s working landscape, preserving its agricultural productivity, biodiversity, and scenic vistas in perpetuity.

Recently, Brian Kenny, a board member at HRN and Director of Collections and Archives for Hearst Western Properties, sat down with Division Manager for Hearst Ranch, Roland Camacho to talk about the company’s history, “cowboy culture,” and commitment to conservation. They dive deep into every facet of the business: an overview of the numbers, their shift to online sales, and how they produce great tasting beef. 

Brian Kenny: Right, so numbers. Let’s say 150,000 acres [and] 11-1200 finished cattle a year. That’s a lot of ground and not that many cattle. So maybe you can break that down.

Roland Camacho: We’re using almost all of this ground. And it’s all being used because our herds are in groups, a couple hundred to 300 head in size. And they’re all out ranging and foraging, taking care of the resource. And then we have to find another spot for those finished cattle, the ones we’ll call fat cattle, so that they can grow to the finish phase. So we cannot put just massive amounts of animal units in small confined feeding operations. That’s why we don’t try to compete with those types of finished beef. It’s just a completely different product. It’s just both beef, but it’s a completely different item that we’re selling. 

BK: I think it’s notable that all of the beef produced off the ranches are basically within the food shed, you know within a couple hundred miles of the ranch, which is really cool. 

RC: Yeah, it is. And we’re looking into doing other things. We’ve been working with Whole Foods now for quite a long time. We also continue to make a small selection of frozen items that people can buy on a year round basis. And one of the other trends that I’ve seen pick up massive momentum in the past 3-5 years is going back towards people buying their monthly beef needs or meat needs, protein needs [online] and having it shipped direct to their house. What I see has changed is instead of hand-picking what you think you want to go in there, you trust the company that is providing it to you to give you the variety that you need for your complete diet needs. So you trust that they’re going to be sourcing credible beef and you may not know as much as these guys do. You trust that they’re going to give you the variety so you can expand your palate. 

BK: When I was doing your job, the question I was asked the most was: why aren’t you organic? Tell us how organic works and what the scale of our operation is.

RC: For sure. It doesn’t necessarily scale to us. Let’s put it that way. If we were to certify the ranch — certify the beef, cattle we’re selling, every place that they touch would have to be certified. What it comes down for us is we realize that the term organic doesn’t say anything about the way the animal was raised. 

BK: Right

RC: It doesn’t say anything about what the animal was given to eat. It only tells you what was not in it. So the animal technically could be confined. The animal technically could be fed 100% grain diet. [That’s] probably the biggest difference between us and what we’re trying to do. We wanna tell people – these cattle were allowed to engage in their natural behaviors their entire life. We can tell you everything about how this animal was raised so we know what was in it the entire time. We know what wasn’t in it all the time. And those things aren’t covered with the organic claim. And that’s why we’re not overly concerned with getting it. It doesn’t seem to hold as much water as one might think.

BK I want to share with our listeners a meal that you and I had at the bunk house, couple months ago where you cooked up a couple flat iron steaks. And I do believe that was probably the best steak I’ve ever had. So kudos to you. The thing that I taste in grass fed beef – I think it depends a lot on the grasses. 

RC: You hit it right on the head. It has to do with the location of the grasses, what grasses they are, and the age – the maturity of the grass. Those are the three things that really hit it. So it’s by region. 

BK: So it’s terroir. 

RC: Terroir, exactly.

BK: Terroir specific. So what I taste in Heart Ranch Beef, is what I smell when the wind comes up the canyons and I’m off the pergola. It’s herbaceous. It’s not really sage, I think it’s the rye grass. It has a grassy scent, like a zestiness. That’s what I taste in the meat and I taste it particularly in the fat.

So we’ve done a really good job looking at where it started, we’re now at a point where Hearst Ranch’s seasonal grass-fed beef has been with Whole Foods for nine years. If we play the tape forward 50 years, what do you see?

RC: Not much changing on the ranch. I’ll tell you that much. That’s one of the things that I’m proud to say that Hearst, in the 13 years I’ve worked for them, [everything] that they’ve done is they’re all about preserving the cowboy way of life and that traditional lifestyle. So I don’t see that changing at all. They’ll still be cow-calf ranches. They may be a little more sustainable. They may have a little bigger solar project to them. They’ll probably have a little different combination of farming outfit there. But they’re gonna raise great American beef. 

BK: The business that you’re running right now, can run like this come what may.

RC: The seasons are gonna be the seasons. The type of cattle that we raise is gonna be the same. The grasses are gonna be the same. It’s not gonna be a bunch of track homes. It’s gonna be a ranch.

BK: And it’s not gonna be a bunch of track homes because Heart Corporation, under the leadership of Steven Hearst put a conservation [easement]. So it will be a ranch forever.

RC: Forever. I mean it may not get much bigger.

BK: Right. 

RC: But it probably will persist for a long time. 

BK: In the modern era of business where the focus and the emphasis is entirely on growth all the time, how do you deal with that?

RC: We don’t follow those norms. I mean that same thought process you’re talking about, another train of thought along the same lines is that you need to continue to diversify every time you reach that point of diminishing returns you need to diversify your product to keep that growth curve going up. And what we’re doing is the exact opposite. 

BK: Right

RC: We’re going more simple, we’re going back to the way things were. Back to the way cattle were intended to be raised. And we’re keeping the ground static. So success for us is to be able to maintain. 

You can listen to the full conversation between Brian and Roland on Episode 362 of HRN on Tour.