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Landscapes, Winter 2007

Bringing Heat to the Meat

Nolan Ryan

Photo by Mark Matson

Nolan Ryan

As a professional baseball player, Nolan Ryan was a tough competitor. With a hard-throwing power pitch that lasted a record 27 seasons, he pitched more strikeouts and no-hitters than any other pitcher in major league history.

But today, as a cattleman, Ryan’s trademark is tenderness.

The branded beef product that bears his name, Nolan Ryan’s Guaranteed Tender Beef, comes with a guarantee that every cut will be tender, every time. Beefing up that claim is his company’s unique USDA-approved certification process that enhances tenderness.

"I am 100 percent sure this is tender," says Ryan, holding a package of steak. "I’m confident because of the process it goes through before it gets to the store shelf."

Ryan is not alone in his confidence. The company that owns the brand, Beefmaster Cattlemen LP, has 35 limited partners, including Ryan and other heavy hitters in the beef industry. They all believe in the quality of the product.

Beefmaster Breed Looks for Market Niche

While sales of Nolan Ryan meat began in May 2000, the brand’s history actually started in 1996 with the long-range planning committee for Beefmaster Breeders United (BBU). The committee was chaired by well-known cattle marketer Charlie Bradbury, who is now the chief executive officer of Beefmaster Cattlemen. They were discussing the impact of branded beef, particularly Certified Angus Beef®, and looking for ways to do something similar.

"The research was showing that the brand was making a difference in consumers’ minds, and people were willing to pay a premium for it," Bradbury says. "We wanted to make a direct link from producers to consumers, but our focus was cattle that are adapted to the environment we live in, particularly Beefmaster and other Brahman-influenced cattle."

“If we could use technology to separate tender beef from the tough beef,
then we could guarantee a quality eating experience every time.”
– Charlie Bradbury

They studied a wealth of research about consumer preferences and found that the results consistently showed that people look for two qualities when they eat beef: flavor and tenderness.

"We felt that flavor was always good in beef, but there were huge differences in tenderness," Bradbury says. "We saw that as our market opportunity. If we could use technology to separate tender beef from the tough beef, then we could guarantee a quality eating experience every time," he says.

Stressed Cattle = Tough Meat

The committee sought the help of the academic world, particularly Colorado State and Texas A&M universities, to help them identify all the ways that they could impact tenderness, from calf to consumer.

Nolan Ryan on horseback

Courtesy of Nolan Ryan’s Guaranteed Tender Meats

They discovered, for example, a direct link between cattle stress and tenderness. As a result, the process they developed focused on reducing stress in cattle at the feedyard and improving the tenderness of the meat at the packing plant. They felt that no matter what the breed, cattle that went through this process would consistently result in a tender product for the consumer.

The business model was unique also because it did not involve purchasing cattle or building facilities. Rather, it simply facilitated a process. "We buy meat from the packers that meet certain specifications," Bradbury says, "But we do not take ownership of the cattle."

Nolan Ryan Agrees to Endorse Product

After the process was developed, the committee had to decide how to take it to market. "Nolan Ryan was president of the BBU at the time," Bradbury says. "Someone suggested putting Nolan’s name on it. So we talked to him about it, and he was very receptive and agreeable to the idea."

In 2000, several prominent cattlemen formed a limited partnership, Beefmaster Cattlemen LP, to market the product, and since then, Ryan has taken on a large share of the company’s ownership.

Ryan’s name and reputation have proven to be a key factor in the product’s success. "We are discovering that a lot of consumers want to feel better about the product they’re buying," Bradbury says. "They trust Nolan Ryan and know he raises cattle. They identify with him."

100-Day Antibiotic Ban

Consumers also seem to appreciate the fact that Nolan Ryan beef is labeled "all-natural" because the cattle do not receive any implants within 100 days of harvest. The ban on antibiotics has an additional benefit, too.

"Typically, in a feedyard, when an animal shows signs of sickness, it is separated from its herd and channeled down a long chute to the hospital," Bradbury explains. "There it is injected with antibiotics and quarantined for a short period of time. When it has recovered, it is reintroduced to the herd.

“Consumers want to feel better about the product they’re buying," Bradbury says. "They trust Nolan Ryan and know he raises cattle. They identify with him.”

"All of that is very stressful to an animal, and stressed cattle make tough beef," Bradbury says. "In our operation, if an animal has to receive antibiotics, it is not reintroduced to the herd, and will never become Nolan Ryan beef."

Beefmaster Cattlemen works with only a handful of feedyards that agree to follow the guidelines and allow periodic audits to ensure their compliance. "A producer’s direct relationship is with the feedyard," Bradbury explains. "We’re creating a demand for cattle that will meet our specifications. It’s a pull-through process."

Hi-Tech Tests for Tenderness

All of the beef that eventually is packaged as Nolan Ryan’s Guaranteed Tender is handled in one of two packing plants that have agreed to abide by the company’s unique specifications.

First, every carcass is electrically stimulated. "When the muscles of a new carcass are exposed to the cold of the packing house, they contract just like ours would if we walked into a cold building after being outside in the heat," explains Bradbury. By giving the carcass a jolt of electricity, the muscles relax and release their built-up lactic acid. "This has been proven to increase tenderness 15 to 20 percent," Bradbury says.

Next, the meat is aged for 14 days to enhance both flavor and tenderness. Finally, every carcass is run under a BeefCam™, which gives a color scan of the carcass. The technology, which was developed by Colorado State University, is a good indicator of tenderness.

"If the camera errs, it errs on the side of kicking out beef that is tender, not letting beef in that is tough," Ryan says. Only the meat that passes the stringent color guidelines goes on to be branded as Nolan Ryan Meat. The rest is packaged as generic commercial beef.

Sold in Texas, Louisiana, Arizona and Online

Nolan Ryan’s beef is sold at Kroger stores in Texas and eastern Louisiana. Kroger is the leading grocery retailer in the Houston and Dallas–Fort Worth markets. The exclusive agreement with Kroger extends to the grocer’s Phoenix-based chain, Fry’s. The product is also available at Super S Foods, which serves smaller, rural markets in Texas.

In addition, consumers can purchase the beef directly from the Web site, Online sales tend to peak during the holiday months of November and December.

Restaurants Are Fastest Growing Market

In April 2006, the company started selling the beef to restaurant suppliers through Performance Group in Texas and Shamrock Foods in Arizona. The restaurant sector quickly became the fastest-growing segment of their market.

In 2007, Beefmaster Cattlemen started financing with Capital Farm Credit.

"There is no real bricks and mortar to the operation," says Tim Knesek, Capital Farm Credit senior vice president in La Grange, Texas. "We carry the operating line and financed a little bit of equipment. We’re delighted to help their innovative beef marketing approach."

Cook It Right and Love Every Bite

In addition to selling Nolan Ryan beef, the company also is helping to educate consumers about the best ways to prepare it.

"Although this beef is tender, if you overcook it, it’s not going to taste good," Ryan says. "We’ve got to help people know how to cook it."

That effort includes printing recipes and cooking directions on the packaging, as well as posting recipes and tips on the Web site. "It’s something we need to do more of," Bradbury says. "If we give people everything they need to have a quality experience, they will keep coming back to our brand."

Branded Beef Becoming More Prevalent at Meat Counter

In the end, it is the brand that matters. "We don’t do things real fast in this industry," Bradbury says. "Brands are all over the store except in the meat department, but that’s changing."

With the name Nolan Ryan behind it, this brand of beef is sure to be an all-star favorite. And in this endeavor, the Strike-out King is looking for a hit every time the beef crosses the plate.

Article by Penny Currie
– Photos by
Mark Matson and courtesy of Nolan Ryan’s Guaranteed Tender Meats