Making a quality pitch for Nolan Ryan

by Joel Crews
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SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS – During a lunchtime presentation at the North American Meat Association’s Outlook Conference Oct. 25, Charlie Bradbury, CEO of Nolan Ryan’s All-Natural Beef told attendees how the marketing approach of the company is based on much more than the endorsement of a well-known baseball star.

An operation of Beefmaster Cattlemen, Huntsville, Texas-based Nolan Ryan’s All Natural beef is a branded beef company that will sell approximately $35 million worth of fresh beef to retail and foodservice customers in 2012. The Nolan Ryan brand has branched out at retail to include smoked beef sausage, fully cooked beef patties, hot dogs and a line of seasonings among its offerings. “All of the things that fit with a fresh beef program, we are doing in some capacity,” he said. Products are marketed under the company’s three lines: Nolan Ryan’s Grass-Fed Beef, Nolan Ryan’s Guaranteed Tender and Nolan Ryan’s Texas Beef. Nolan Ryan Natural Beef is a limited partnership with roots linked to beef producers, mostly from the South and raising Beefmaster cattle, who began developing the partnership in 1996. The company is now owned by 35 producers with Nolan Ryan being the largest investor.

Bradbury said the success of Certified Angus Beef created challenges for Beefmaster cattle producers in the 1990 because of a perception among consumers that non-CAB products would be tough. Bradbury, along with others in the academic community promoted the idea of marketing the heat-resistant Beefmaster breed of cattle to gain back some marketshare from their Angus-producing counterparts.

“Our challenge was to use that population of cattle and try to identify the product that was tender from within that population.” Working with researchers, the producers pushed development of a detection device by Research Management Systems that used color to identify leanness and tenderness by reflecting visible light on the ribeye of each carcass. A similar type of concept was developed later utilizing infrared light, providing more accurate predictions of tenderness. This technology is still used today on each carcass presented for the Nolan Ryan product lines. Tenderness was also the goal of a process that begins at the feedyard. “We set up specifications that avoid stress” for the animal, said Bradbury. Therefore, no growth hormone implants are used within 100 days of slaughter. Animals on antibiotics in the feedlot are likewise avoided.

“Basically what we’re saying is ‘no sick cattle (and), no cattle that have been recently implanted. That’s one way you can avoid a bad eating experience at the feed yard level.”

At the plant level, carcasses included in the Nolan Ryan program are treated with high-voltage electrical stimulation, which is an accepted and effective means of enhancing tenderness. Bradbury pointed out that during the application of the electrical stimulation, sometimes carcasses literally “jump off the hook” during the electrical shock, “every now and then if you’re not doing it just right.” In some plants where electrical stimulation is used, line workers have been known to turn the voltage on the stimulators down or off to prevent any production interruptions resulting from a carcass coming off the rail. To prevent this shortcut, “we made it part of our USDA certification, so they have to show the grader that every carcass received the correct dosage of voltage and amperage.”

Bradbury said ribeyes are also used to predict other quality characteristics. For example, lower weight carcasses with large ribeyes and higher weight carcasses with smaller ribeyes are more frequently tough. To ensure tenderness (and consistent size), ribeyes that are part of the Nolan Ryan program are measured and must meet target sizes.

Additionally, “Yield grade is still a really important issue for our customers,” said Bradbury. While processors have become very proficient at trimming the external fat from the cattle, there is a significant difference between the characteristics of a Yield Grade 5 and a Yield Grade 1. To be in the Nolan Ryan program, only Yield Grades 1 to 3 are utilized to ensure a more uniform product.

Aging is another process used to ensure optimum tenderness in the Nolan Ryan beef brand. Many factors work against the aging process in today’s market, including just-in-time inventorying, rising cost of refrigeration, and demand for in-stock product 365 days a year. “The only way we could address that is to address it ourselves,” Bradbury said. Still another part of the brand’s extensive process verification includes receiving the beef from the packer and aging it for 14 days, a procedure that is audited by the USDA.

Having a Hall of Fame pitcher willing to lend his name to the brand has contributed to the success of Nolan Ryan All-Natural Beef, but just as important is his commitment to the cattle industry and the assurance that his company’s cattle are part of a program with high standards. Bradbury recalled the first meeting he had with Ryan, when the iconic pitcher told him: “I can probably get consumers to pick up this product one time. But if you don’t do your job, they won’t be back.”

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