“We are a house of beef brands, not a branded house,” explains Jay Theiler, executive director of marketing for Agri Beef, a family-owned and operated Boise-Idaho company that he’s worked for over the past 18 years. “We operate four different brands under the Agri Beef ownership,” he explains. “Each brand is focused on producing different types of beef products for different customers who love beef and want to eat it.”
The company started as a ranching and feeding operation and grew to incorporate every step of the beef lifecycle. Instead, Agri Beef runs what is called a closed-loop system. The company has ranching, cattle feeding, animal nutrition and processing operations, like what’s called “vertical integration” in the poultry industry, where breeding, hatching, and raising chickens all feed into processing. “Yes, we’re kind of like that,” Theiler agrees. “We have an unusual setup for the beef industry, but it works very well for us.”
Agri Beef’s brands produce different products for different market segments who like to eat beef. “So, we’re really a sum of all these parts, the different brands and the different production stages, from raising the cattle on the ranch, feeding the cattle with good animal nutrition, and then eventually to slaughter and processing.”
The company’s top brand is Snake River Farms, an iconic brand that’s known best for raising and processing American Wagyu cattle. “American Wagyu is a type of cattle now raised in the United States that originally came from Japan. The beef is created by crossing Wagyu (the word means “Japanese cattle”), with American Angus, as well as sometimes Hereford cattle.”
One of the products coming from this top-of-the-line cattle is Snake River’s Wagyu ground beef. At $14 a pound, this meat is certainly at the upper end of the ground beef spectrum. But Theiler plays this down, saying this price reflects the cost of meat ordered online, including the packaging and shipping. If the ground beef is purchased in brick-and-mortar retail stores, the cost is less, between $5 and $10 a pound.
Snake River Farms produces just under 2 million lbs. a year of its premium ground beef products.
Theiler terms it as a restaurant-quality product that’s rich in flavor and amazingly juicy. “I’d describe it as sweet and buttery,” he says. It’s made from 100 percent American Wagyu beef, and this gourmet ground beef is used by top chefs and restaurants to make signature hamburgers, sliders and main dishes. The pre-measured, 1-lb. packages, or “bricks,” work well for consumers to use at home to make juicy burgers or can be used in other recipes. People willing to pay this much for ground beef have an outlook towards food that has changed, looking for an exceptional experience when eating.
“By combining these two types of cattle, one from the East and one from the West, we get the best of both worlds – a marbled meat with a beefy flavor,” Theiler says. (Marbled red meat contains various amounts of intramuscular fat, giving it an appearance like a marble pattern). The company uses the Japanese marbling scale to measure the marbling in its beef. Snake River Farms has adopted many aspects of the heritage-steeped Japanese feeding method, which takes much longer than the traditional US cattle production methods.
The bulls go out to Agri Beef’s partners, family ranches in the Western United States. The calves then come back to the feeding operation, which is located between Boise and Yellowstone National Park, near the Snake River. Instead of being fed for a typical 150 days, these animals are fed closer to 500 days.
“Then the animals are sent to Washington Beef, our processing plant in Washington State, USDA Establishment 235, a 270,000-sq.-ft. structure in Toppenish, Washington, near Yakima,” Theiler says. “We not only process our cattle there, but also our value-added products, including what we call our grind program.”
Snake River Farms runs what is called a “premium meat processing program,” he explains. “Anything that’s not commodity program or product could be considered premium. It could be breed specific, it could be several breeds. It could be grass-fed. In our case, it’s the attributes and the quality of the animals. We do chubs. We do seven types of patties. We do 1-lb. bricks, packs for retail, also two 8-oz. hamburger patties in a 1-pack product. Snake River Farms American Wagyu beef exceeds what is normally considered Prime in its marbling,” Theiler says. In fact, only 3 percent of American beef is considered Prime to begin with.
The additional year of cattle feeding, the management of the livestock, the production system adds cost to the product. Not only the meat is premium, but so is the packaging. “We put a lot of effort into the design of our packaging, and what’s communicated on the packaging. For example, our consumer attributes are highlighted,” Theiler says.
Then there is Double R Ranch, a second Agri Beef brand, named after Robert Rebholz Sr., who founded Agri-Beef in 1968 and is the late father of Agri Beef’s owner, Robert Rebholtz. This brand focuses on exceptional quality premium beef from the Northwest part of the United States, including USDA Prime. The beef sold as part of Double R Ranch brand is not breed-specific. It also includes USDA Choice, and an Upper 1/3 Choice Program, based on a marketing level.
The Double R Northwest Beef includes filet mignon, steaks, roasts, brisket, ribs, burgers and hot dogs, and specialty items. ribeyes, skirt steaks, flat iron steaks, Porterhouse and T-bones are also offered by Double R. A third Agri Beef brand is St. Helen’s Beef, which consists of all commodity grades. The company’s fourth brand is Rancho El Oro Select, which is aimed at the Hispanic market.
There is a nationwide market for Snake River Farms American Wagyu ground beef. “We sell it to foodservice – very fine restaurants – and in select retailers around the US and internationally. In fact, half of all industry beef sales in retail is ground beef,” Theiler says. “Ground beef is a good beginning for people to move into eating more beef. If a retailer wanted to provide a good point of access for customers, ground beef is a good starting point – then they can move onto steaks.”
“I also think the different ways beef is raised, processed, and marketed to many different types of consumers is good for the industry.” It is certainly good for Agri Beef, who follows this formula as its game plan for how it operates.
“You’re seeing the growth of premium beef, because we’re telling our story to consumers. In production, how we raise our animals is very important to consumers today. Then, we have multiple segments of consumers we’re trying to reach. That’s why we have different brands of beef, for different customers and for different eating occasions. This may not be unique to us, but it’s certainly an important part of how our company operates,” Theiler says.