Certified Piedmontese, the subsidiary of Great Plains Beef, is a booming source of pride for the parent company’s family owners and its growing team, headquartered in Lincoln, Neb. For more than a decade, a long and sustained celebration of beef has been in the planning stages and in August 2020 the doors to the party flung open to the public in Lincoln, with Certified Piedmontese at center stage. A year after consolidating many of its operations on a 45-acre campus, the focus is still trained on the premium beef products that come from a breed that traces its roots back to the 1600s, in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy, 5,000 miles from Lincoln.
The breed was introduced to the United States by way of Canada and then in Montana about 40 years ago. Starting with just a single bull and four cows in North America, Certified Piedmontese has earned a reputation for eating quality that rivals Wagyu and premium Angus products, but without the heavy marbling and big pockets of fat that many consumers have come to associate with premium beef.
The US company behind the brand proudly breaks the mold of traditional beef production, processing, marketing and sales. For example, the beef has no US Department of Agriculture grade, though instead following a USDA-certified DNA testing regimen that confirms the genetics are that of the Certified Piedmontese (CP) breed. CP meat comes from cattle raised by select beef producers across the Midwest who must comply with strict production practices that prohibit using growth hormones or antibiotics and requires environmental sustainability and humane animal practices.
The company offers customers products from cattle raised on vegetarian, grain-based diets and more recently, introduced a line of grass-fed beef that will soon rival its core, grain-fed beef program. Transparency and consistency are at the foundation of the program that bases its success on “tasting is believing.” The premium products deliver a premium taste, which is all linked back to the breed that has a unique genetic trait.
The business strategy behind Certified Piedmontese is based on the vision of its founder, Tom Peed, and his son Shane, who purchased the Montana Ranch brand in 2009, which was at that time the largest Piedmontese program in the country. The father-and-son team went on to develop the company’s Certified Piedmontese program and began establishing industry partnerships and carefully hand picking a leadership team. They also implemented strict qualifications for the breed and developed the seed stock to facilitate a year-round, consistent supply for what was then only a boxed beef program.
“They are the most unique breed of cattle in the world,” said Billy Swain, one of the original members of the leadership team who now is the director of business development. He added that based on the fact that the Certified Piedmontese represents less than 1% of the world’s cattle population, it is truly a heritage breed.
He pointed out that the secret sauce in the breed is a distinguishing genetic characteristic it inherently possesses, inactive myostatin, which inhibits the production of traditional fat cells that produce heavy marbling in meat from traditional breeds.
“We DNA test every single calf that hits the ground to ensure each one has at least one copy of the Certified Piedmonteses’ inactive myostatin genetics,” Swain said.
The fat is still in CP meat and delivers the rich flavor, but it is evenly distributed through each cut and throughout the carcass. The breed association that developed and maintains and preserves the genetics of the Certified Piedmontese breed is ANABORAPI, the national association of Piedmontese cattle breeders founded in 1960 and based in the scenic region of Italy, near Switzerland.
The herd has grown over the years to ensure year-round slaughter and a better balance has been struck between supply and demand than during the first few years.
“We knew it was going to be a struggle in the beginning with a limited number of head,” Swain said. “I mean there were weeks when we had nothing. We would harvest and then there would sometimes be two weeks when we didn’t harvest anything. We just didn’t have it. I had to call everyone and tell them we had nothing.”
Thankfully, many of those early customers who got those calls stuck with the company and are placing much bigger orders today. Currently the retail-to-foodservice product mix is retail heavy, at about 70%. The target is to move closer to a 60:40 ratio
Swain became a disciple of Certified Piedmontese more than 12 years ago while working as the former director of meat and seafood for Earth Fare markets in North Carolina. He took the leap of faith based on the vision of Tom Peed, whose Lincoln-based publishing company, Sandhill Global, has produced numerous offshoot ventures, including the launch of Great Plains Beef, the purchase of Montana Ranch and eventually the introduction of Certified Piedmontese branded beef.
Tasting a difference
But convincing the market to realize there is a viable option to premium Angus programs and Wagyu products has been a slow process.
“It’s been a grueling 12 years,” Swain said of the process of selling customers on a product that doesn’t have a USDA grade and instead touts genetics as its measure of superior quality.
“We felt that we did not need a USDA visual grading to validate the quality of our products.”
In 2011, Swain said he faced the unenviable prospect of calling current and potential customers to tell them that the products he was selling would not have the grades they were used to seeing.
Fortunately, almost every customer converted once they tried the products.
“Once we get a customer on our program, we can’t lose them – we can’t shake them. They try our product and nothing else is the same.
“The hardest thing is to tip them over just to give us a shot. Once they give us a shot and they try the product and then they let their guests try the product, then they realize it’s really a no brainer.”
Once the product was available the market didn’t just automatically open their mouths and wallets to the superior beef. While many meat companies rely on national distribution companies to give foodservice customers access to their latest offerings, CP’s beef products haven’t been readily embraced by all distributors. To overcome that hurdle, Swain appealed to some of the top chefs in the country and sent many of them cases of the beef products to merely try, convinced that once they tasted the product, they would be sold. One of those targeted was one of the original celebrity chefs, Emeril Lagassé. Emeril’s Delmonico restaurants still carry the product today, because the celebrity chef went right to his distributor and asked them to add Certified Piedmontese to its product list, Swain said. With many programs, once the customers realize that CP is not considered a premium Angus program and is therefore not in violation of any exclusive purchase agreements with programs like CAB, doors have opened, and the slow and steady conversion of customers continues at foodservice and retail outlets.
A growing number of customers, be it chefs or retail buyers unanimously try one cut and end up buying the whole program, versus the common practice of cherry-picking products, usually based on price.
The strategy of patience and a willingness to let customers just try CP on a small scale has worked, but it took time. Swain still encourages retail customers to just try a ground beef option and one cut and then once their customers try it, he waits for them to tell him what they would like to try next.
With a price point that typically falls between Prime beef and Wagyu, CP beef isn’t the right fit for every retail meat case or just any foodservice menu.
“We’re not the cheapest guy on the block and we never will be. But we will blow you away with the performance of our product, the consistency of our product and pricing and our superior service. We strive to match our service level with our product quality.
“We will be a household name before it’s all over with, but in the meantime we’re all working toward perfection. We’re not perfect; we make mistakes every day, but we’re working toward that,” Swain said.
Leap of faith
Swain started a year before the Peed family brought Certified Piedmontese to Nebraska. Swain believed enough in the family’s vision that he moved his wife and young children 1,400 miles away from the town they both grew up in and left friends and family behind.
“I started in August 2008 with the Montana Ranch Brand, so I’ve been with them from the very beginning,” he said.
As the company has grown, it has added operational elements based on what was learned from its former third-party partners, from the ground beef operation that was brought in house when CP moved into its campus one year ago to operating the warehouse facility and steak cutting operation at the Lincoln complex. Previously, the meat company shared space with the Peed’s established publishing company, Sandhills Global, also based in Lincoln, outsourcing most of its processes.
“We worked from the Sandhills campus from the start,” said Ben Mohl, sales and marketing manager for CP. “So for 10 years, we utilized many of the resources of the publishing company, including IT, development, catalog printing, etc. We also worked with third-party processors in Nebraska and Minnesota to produce our steaks and grind, all while working toward eventually doing that ourselves.”
That culminated with the move to the current campus.
The new headquarters is home to about 100 employees and includes a 30,000-square-foot office, which also is under the same roof as the company’s fine dining restaurant (Casa Bovina), which showcases Certified Piedmontese beef on its opulent dinner menu, as does the Mercato, a company-owned CP-themed, premium butcher shop, which welcomes incoming diners and tempts them on their way out. Adjacent to the office/restaurant building is a 50,000-square-foot warehouse that includes 20,000 square feet of processing space divided equally between a designated steak-cutting room and a ground beef processing operation.
Some of the processes are still outsourced and likely will be for the foreseeable future. Due to zoning restrictions in Lincoln, CP relies on two processing facilities to slaughter its animals, one located in Colorado and the other in Nebraska. Those facilities currently slaughter CP cattle twice a week and Swain anticipates another day of production in the future is likely. As volume and demand continue trending higher, plans for adding another slaughtering facility to the network are in the works.
The warehouse, cold storage, steak cutting and beef processing operations are overseen by Nick Lahm, production manager who worked at the Peed’s publishing company prior to joining Great Plains Beef about 10 years ago. Lahm’s team of about 50 workers are in production five days per week alternating between grain-fed and, increasingly, grass-fed products and switching between steak cutting and ground beef processing. In total, the operation typically produces up to 25,000 lbs per week. Its weekly ground beef capacity is upwards of 60,000 lbs, while the staff of about 16 steak cutters is almost maxed out, which made the recent investment in a Grasselli slicer a welcome addition. As the on-site facilities are expanded to accommodate more products, including a smokehouse and the addition of cooked foods in the coming year, Lahm expects production to increase to as much as 45,000 lbs per day. The company is expecting it will process an average of 400 head of cattle per week for 2021, which includes its core grain-fed products and the fast-growing grass-fed beef.
The warehouse and processing area is currently being reconfigured to accommodate order fulfillment and shipping for e-commerce, which was originally a minor part of the business that turned out to be a well-timed profit center, going from about 100 orders a week up to as many as 1,200 orders per day.
“Now it’s time to expand,” Lahm said.
Like other parts of the business, e-commerce has been a learning process and the resources dedicated to the growth and refining the execution has grown exponentially.
“By the time it was truly behaving and operating like an e-commerce company, we were already fulfilling and shipping from our campus here,” Mohl said.
That space that was previously used for order fulfillment and shipping is being renovated to a smokehouse and bakery, another example of implementing what it has learned from third-party partners. The new operation is expected to be up and running by Spring 2022.
In another example of breaking the mold, the beef processing operation distinguishes itself from others by running its beef first through a 700-lb capacity bowl chopper before an auger moves it to one of two lines, where the beef is conveyed to a grinder/mixer and then dumped into a Vemag stuffer either for loaves that are directed to a thermoformed packaging area or onto a patty forming line and vacuum tray packed. The Reiser-heavy line is a good fit for the grinding operation, Lahm said.
High on grass-fed
With a growing on-property garden and plans to one day even raise chickens on the property, “we’re really trying to make a ‘from our farm to your table’ type of approach,” Swain said.
While the company’s core products are from cattle raised on vegetarian, grain-based diets, about a year ago, CP launched its grass-fed-and-finished line of products. Grass-fed was tested early in the company’s development but it was put on the side burner while details were worked out to ensure the genetics would produce consistent product with the bulls in the program. Once that was established, Shane Peed led the effort to purchase a handful of ranches with enough land to grow the grass-based feed to sustain a growing program. In 2020, as a newer program, grass-fed cattle were slaughtered and processed about every four weeks, but in 2021, as it matures and demand has grown, the program is on a 52-week harvest frequency. The production of the animals is an 18- to 22-month process.
“It’s just a matter of time before our grass-fed really catches fire. It’s all about the performance [of the cattle],” Swain said. “We’ve seen it develop that way with the grain finished and know it’s going to come with the grass finished.”
York Farms is home base where the company’s dedicated grass-fed and finished Certified Piedmontese cattle are produced. The production of cattle in the grass-fed program is approximately 24 to 25 months from birth to slaughter while the core, grain-fed cattle require between 18 months to 22 months. The company is able to feed up to 6,700 head of cattle in its grass-fed program. The program was started about 18 months ago and the company supports it by growing about 460 acres of alfalfa and 280 acres of grass, rye and millet specifically for the cattle in the program. Brian Friesen manages the York Farms feeding and finishing process. The acreage, which was previously used to grow corn and was heavily fertilized was converted to grassland about two-and-a-half years ago, when Friesen began managing it. Today, the grass and alfalfa grown on the property sustains the program.
“We’re self-sufficient here,” Friesen said. “We don’t have to buy anything and in fact we sold some hay last year locally.” In the past two to three years, he said none of the land has been sprayed or fertilized with anything but water, which is a precursor to making an organic claim on the fed and finished cattle raised there.
Mohl said the official transition to USDA Certified Organic will likely become a reality in the next year.
That transition is made more unique because the grassland is being grown in Nebraska, where the vast majority of crops are corn and soybeans, not grass and alfalfa.
It isn’t uncommon these days for Friesen to oversee about 600 head of cattle grazing on grass or being fed grass rations from feed bunks as they get closer to slaughter. Once the young cattle arrive at York Farms, they are approximately six months old and weigh around 600 lbs. They are fed at York for under a year, targeting a live weight of 1,150 lbs and a target age of 17 months before shipping to slaughter.
“I try to keep them as consistent [in weight] as I can,” Friesen said, “and when I get the slaughter sheet I want to see everything with a hanging weight within 20 or 25 lbs.”
“What is unique about York Farms is we’re out here in the middle of farmland and yet we’re producing grass for our program. This is really a flagship. Our future growth is going to be coming from here,” Mohl said.
Another new offering indicative of the growing appetite for the premium beef is the case-ready program that recently launched. Once the right number of SKUs for that program is identified, Swain said it is positioned to appeal to the needs not only of larger retail customers but boxed beef foodservice customers as well.
CP’s modified atmosphere tray packed patties are one of the company’s newest products, available using a subprimal grind of brisket. CP recently developed a blend of chuck roll, brisket and beef belly for a foodservice customer that is packaged and shipped using modified atmosphere packaging. The team is also rolling out beef options to be included in meal kits as the demand for more meals at home have flourished, especially in the past year.
The leanness and nutritional attributes of the CP beef has been a selling point as the company promotes those attributes by sponsoring sporting events, professional and collegiate sports teams as well as Ironman Triathlon competitions. The company also works with bodybuilders and other athletes to serve as brand ambassadors using the “Powered by Certified Piedmontese” tagline, capitalizing on the beef’s lower saturated fat and cholesterol.
Swain beams when he talks about the company’s new campus, the 25% to 30% growth in sales each year and the growing team of people who have joined the company that are just as passionate about CP beef as he is and the bright future.
“It brings tears to my eyes to see us at the point where we are today,” he said, “because it has been a long, hard fight and a lot of people have worked so hard to get here.”