Partners focus on raising quality, hormone-free beef

While planning the menu for D.G. Sullivan's, their new Gibson City pub and eatery, the Volker family knew they wanted to tap into the local markets as much as they could.

They chose to feature beer from Two Brothers Brewery and wine from Alto Vineyards, both Illinois-based businesses.

And for the rib-eyes, cheeseburgers and other beef entrees on the menu, they opted to buy from Central Lean Beef, a newer livestock operation in East Central Illinois.

"It's a fantastic product. The reason we chose them was (a) they're local and (b) they're producing high-quality beef that's steroid- and hormone-free," said Corey Volker.

Melvin-based Central Lean Beef was established about two years ago by partners Dave Leffler, Dave McClure and Steve Arends. After the calves are raised on area farms, they are moved to the feedlot on Steve Arends' father's farm. About 90 cattle are kept there.

Early on, they decided they would not give the cattle antibiotics or growth hormones.

"We felt that was a good market for us. It set us apart. We wanted to offer a lean, healthy alternative," said Randy Arends.

The beef cattle are a French breed called Charolais, a type Dave McClure and his sons have shown for years. They've raised and won awards for their pure-bred Charolais at county and national fairs.

The partners decided to market the Charolais because of the animals' "bigger body and leaner quality of meat," said farmer Dave Leffler.

"They tend to excel in their gainability and feed efficiency," McClure said.

Plus, "it tastes more full-flavored," compared with a typical steak, Steve Arends said.

Over the last century, many farmers moved away from the labor-intensive job of raising livestock in East Central Illinois and focused more on growing corn and soybeans, but the partners said their decision to raise beef was motivated by the desire to diversify their farm business. In recent years, land prices have been high, preventing some farmers from being able to expand by buying more ground for growing grain.

"Illinois has seen a growth in cattle production," said Nic Anderson, business developer for the Illinois Livestock Development Group, which supports the growth of the business around the state.

Corn and soybean prices have risen in recent years and it has become more expensive to transport cattle feed to the feedlots in areas like southwest Texas, he said.

In Illinois, beef producers are closer to the source of that feed: corn and distiller's grains, which are byproducts of ethanol production, Anderson said.

What prompts some producers to raise and sell beef that is either organic, grass-fed or produced without the use of antibiotics or hormones is that they're trying to capture niches in the market that can demand a higher price, he said.

Typically Illinois livestock operators have followed a "commodity-based production system," he said, in which farmers sell their cattle to the open market and the animals fetch what price is offered at that time, or farmers who raised the cattle here may sell them to a feedlot out west or to a larger processor. That route can reduce some of the risk from the farmer, but the prices fetched for the cattle may not be as good, he said.

What the farmers behind Central Lean are doing is essentially removing the middle step and taking their product directly to the buyers. One risk may be reduced, but "they then take the risk of holding on to that product," Anderson said.

Since forming the partnership about two years ago, Central Lean has started selling its meat to the Melvin convenient store and Ingold Grocery in Fisher. It also delivers meat to customers within 40 to 50 miles, including Champaign-Urbana.

It sells cuts of beef such as quarters, halves, roasts, ground beef and patties, ribs and various steaks. It also offers custom cuts. The meat is processed at Bloomington Meats in Bloomington.

Central Lean's direct-to-the-customer business has mostly been based on referrals, Dave McClure said. It also recently launched a Web site, http://www.centrallean.com.

As for future growth, McClure said they will consider expanding by selling to more stores or possibly attending farmers' markets, "as long as we keep the high quality. We'd rather be small and have a quality product" than not be able to keep up the supply of a good product, he said.

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