Creekstone Farms’ premium natural Black Angus beef starts in the pastures of Winfield, Kan.-based Triple Creek Ranch and with cow-calf operators like Kevette and Jerry Lester.
The Lesters run one of the smaller cow-calf ranches where Creekstone sources Black Angus beef cattle for the company’s no-antibiotics-ever natural beef. Kevette’s cattle don’t arrive at Creekstone’s Arkansas City, Kan., beef processing plant in a semi-trailer. The animals travel in a livestock trailer pulled by a huge red work truck from the ranch. When the company expanded the cattle pens at the plant, Ryan Meyer, senior vice president of procurement and marketing at Creekstone, insisted that the company keep the smaller bay with the roll-up door to accommodate producers like the Lesters.
Against the advice of friends, the banker-turned rancher gives names to all of her bovine ‘girls and boys’ and their babies; she’s tagged every single animal. She also keeps meticulous notes about them to ensure the animals are as consistent in size, conformation and quality as is humanly possible.
“I check them every day,” she said. “I go out every morning; I take a complete inventory. And it’s not just a head count – you have to look at them. Make sure everything looks right. If everybody else is grazing and one of them is laying down out there, then I want to know why.”
Her care and concern for the cattle and her attention to details regarding lineage and the resulting conformation of the animals make Kevette an exceptional partner-supplier to Creekstone’s premium natural Black Angus beef program, because the stringent standards that she and the other producers in the program must achieve demands these qualities.
Standards and partners
All carcasses in the natural program qualify for the US Department of Agriculture’s G-61 Certified Program which states that steer and/or heifer carcasses must grade US Prime, Choice or Select and be less than 30 months of age with medium or fine marbling texture, among other requirements. To qualify as Angus, the cattle must be at least 50% Angus based on genotype (traceable to one registered parent or two registered grandparents) or appearance, according to USDA.
Cattle destined for Creekstone Farms’ natural Black Angus beef program are fed a 100% vegetarian diet with no antibiotics, added hormones, growth-promoting drugs or artificial ingredients – ever. The animals are source-verified to the ranch of birth and the ranches are certified for humane animal handling practices.
The cattle are processed at Creekstone’s beef processing plant, which spans more than 350,000 square feet. The facility processes Black Angus cattle exclusively, and the animals contracted for the natural program come through the same Temple Grandin-designed handling system as the conventional animals. A US Department of Agriculture inspector is on the line grading carcasses.
“We dedicate the one day to natural production,” said Dan Stewart, marketing director. “The total week is about 1,600 to 1,800 head; it depends on what’s going on that particular week. Sometimes we will run a few less of our G-61 natural and more of our international product. Europe has a different set of requirements depending on which country it’s going to.”
The term “natural” is not recognized as meeting standards for importation to Europe. Stewart said the company’s customers in Europe want to know that beef products aren’t treated with hormones and antibiotics. The third-party source verification Creekstone uses is satisfactory to international companies. Carcass tracking capabilities enable the company to trace back to the animals at the facility and the paperwork and affidavits that come with the live animals, he noted.
“We’re not doing any DNA traceback from our facility, but we’ve got the tracking of the product from that barcode on the finished good all the way back to the rancher through the paperwork and affidavits,” Stewart said.
Ryan Meyer joined Creekstone in March 2003. Since then, he’s been tasked with developing the long-term relationships between the company and its Black Angus beef suppliers. There are 15 main suppliers to the natural beef program, he said.
Cattle are contracted six to 12 months in advance.
“You have to be able to give them a premium that makes it worth keeping the technologies out of the production cycle,” Meyer said. “If they have to give up hormones and antibiotics that help the animals grow faster and stay healthy, then we have to commit to paying that cost. Otherwise, they can’t afford to produce the cattle.”
Meyer said it’s been a fight achieving A-grades on carcasses due to a combination of factors including drought and the war in Ukraine. Prices for feedstuffs such as corn stalks and silage have skyrocketed. The costs of raising cattle for Creekstone’s natural program have increased 30%.
“It’s a big deal, especially when you take away the technologies that make them grow faster, it really affects how the cattle are going to perform and grow,” he added.
The group of producers in the natural program has been stable for the past 15 years. A lot of the same ranchers remain in the natural production system for Creekstone.
“Our largest supplier was one that we started with,” Meyer said. The value of long-term relationships lies in the institutional knowledge producers have acquired over time. Natural beef production is a “paperwork intensive” process. But thanks to well-established partnerships, there’s no need for Creekstone to re-educate producers.
Goals for growth
Creekstone generates $1 billion in annual revenue, and the natural program accounts for roughly 20% of overall production. The processor’s primary customers for natural Black Angus beef currently are niche retail chains. For example, Earth Fare, a supermarket chain that caters to health-conscious consumers, carries Creekstone’s natural beef in the southeastern United States.
“They really like our natural grinds, and they buy some whole muscle product from us to grind as well,” Stewart said. “And of course, the ribeye and the tenderloin are popular items. During the holidays, they may have a bone-in ribeye or a short loin; they may have a T-bone or a boneless strip, but their customers are a very unique customer. They’re worried about health; they’re worried about animal welfare, and they want a program that checks all of the boxes – that has all the attributes – and they enjoy a flavorful product.”
Product preferences can vary by region, said Jim Rogers, senior vice president of sales for Creekstone. Customers in California prefer tri-tips, while New England diners like sirloin flaps.
But what is common among consumers of premium beef is the desire for a ‘dining out experience’ at home. Eating experience is key for these customers no matter the location, which is why grass-fed beef, which the company can supply through a joint venture with Pasture One, doesn’t necessarily fit the bill for those niche retail customers.
“There is sometimes a disconnect between grass-fed product which may not have as rich a beef flavor,” Stewart explained. “They want all of the attributes – humane handling, source verified and antibiotic free – in addition to an enjoyable eating experience.”
DeCicco & Sons in the Northeast also carries Creekstone for the company’s center-of-plate products like a steak, and ground beef.
Yet another niche Creekstone fills is demand for natural brisket for high-end barbecue foodservice.
“They’re in the barbecue business, maybe it’s in Las Vegas, maybe it’s in Texas, maybe it’s in North Carolina – but they like our higher-quality, higher-grade briskets,” Stewart said. “They like the natural because it’s got that richer flavor and that additional corn ration that the animals are given really helps with the marbling. Of course, when you’re talking about barbecue that intermuscular fat is where all of that juiciness and flavor comes from. We do see a lot of customers that are interested in those barbecue items too.”
In addition to strong demand for Creekstone’s Black Angus ribeyes, tenderloins and strips, Rogers said, “We have significant demand for our outside skirts, which is interesting. It’s a very good product; it’s versatile. Most of it’s just grilled and served as a center-of-plate item.”
According to the ‘Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner’ website, the outside skirt steak is part of the short plate primal and is known for its marbling and robust flavor profile. It can be used in stir-fry or grilled and sliced for fajitas. Like Creekstone’s briskets, the quality and consistency of the outside skirts has captured a loyal following.
“They were shopping the premium quality products and trying to recreate what they would have gotten had they dined out,” Rogers said. “That’s a good fit for who we are and the type of products that we supply, with our strength on the foodservice side.”
The natural cattle take much more time to produce and require exquisite attention to detail, but Stewart said Creekstone would love to grow the natural business with retail and foodservice partners beyond the one day per week production schedule.
“I think we’d like to add a second day on a weekly basis for us because today’s shopper, today’s consumer is looking for more of these attributes,” he said. “They want to know more about the raising of the animal, they want to know that it hasn’t been given any antibiotics or growth promotants. As we talk to more retailers specifically that say ‘my customers are looking for this type of product,’ if we can engage a larger customer that’s willing to commit to what we have to offer, because we check all of those boxes, then we’ve got the confidence to go out to producers and say we’ve got additional demand for this product; can you help us grow the size of the herd?”
Ultimately, Rogers said, customers will dictate where growth is for Creekstone beef. The company plans to grow production company-wide roughly 20-25% over the next 18 months.
“We continue to target retail accounts that would be a good fit for our natural program domestically,” he said. “As that business grows, it will dictate that we add additional natural cattle to production.”
Parent company Marubeni, which acquired Creekstone in 2017, injected much-needed capital that enabled the company to make several improvements to the Arkansas City facility, including a new distribution center.
“Packers our size are not common at all, and there’s a reason for that,” Meyer said. “There’s a big barrier to entry financially and performance-wise.
“Really, that allowed us to turn a corner from a performance standpoint and a volume standpoint – not that we’re big by any means,” he added. “We’re still a 1-1 ½ % of the total market. But it allows us to be more efficient by expanding the hot box for carcass cooling and the distribution center which automates order fulfillment.”
Juggling production days for different programs is much easier with the addition of the new $35 million refrigerated distribution center. Opened in 2020, the warehouse covers a total of roughly 42,000 square feet. This includes 35,311 square feet of main floorspace and a 6,023-square-foot mezzanine area.
The distribution center handles all the cases of beef after they’ve been produced in fabrication. All Creekstone product that is headed for export goes through the center. There’s a documenting, labeling, stickering, stamping inspection by the US government at the facility before orders are shipped for export.
“We segregate everything by an item code and a scan label, and then those specific item codes are destined for international markets,” Stewart said.
An automated storage and retrieval system, which has the capacity to handle 27,000 boxes in a nine-hour day, features robotic pickers that effortlessly glide up and down soaring vertical storage shelves loaded with boxes of Black Angus beef. After locating the correct boxes for an order, the robot places the cartons on a conveyor system in the mezzanine. Boxes are then conveyed to a pallet which is placed on a platform and wrapped by another giant robotic arm.
“Originally, in order to ship a load of product it would take two to four employees four hours to find, palletize, stack, shrink-wrap and load on a trailer one load of product,” Stewart said. “This is all done – with no human hands – every 20 minutes.”
The distribution system also allows Creekstone to maintain the cold chain. In older facilities, disruptions in the cold chain would occur when facility doors were opened to allow trucks to back into the loading bay. At Creekstone, the trucks back into a covered bay, the bay doors open and then the truck doors open.
“It comes down to integrity of product,” Stewart said. “We want to make sure that there’s no huge door open to the outside in the middle of summer in Kansas.”
Both Meyer and Stewart acknowledge the positive impact technology has made on Creekstone’s efficiency and output. But with so much technology surrounding the beef processing operation, it’s easy to overlook the role of the processes involved to make the product. The leadership team at Creekstone believes more can be done to enhance operations at the company and beyond.
“A lot of people are using the word sustainable now when they’re talking about solar energy and electric cars,” Stewart said. “Sustainability for us is about being a sustainable partner in this industry with the family farms and ranches that can maintain generational farms. A big part of the way this program developed was Ryan going out and saying, ‘I’m going to give you a premium to do things the way I’d like for you to do them.’
“Those producers that jumped on and have been with us ever since, we’ve helped them sustain themselves through industry ups and downs. They know that they’ve got a guaranteed partner here. If they produce cattle to our specification, we’re going to continue to give them a premium for the product that they’re giving us. It’s going to help them to sustain as a family, as a generational farm.”
Creekstone is asking producers to be more sustainable in their on-farm practices, and Creekstone is mindful of steps the company can take to be more environmentally friendly.
“We’ve got some projects going on right now where we’re going to reduce our carbon footprint over time,” Stewart said. “We are collaborating with our parent company to reduce our footprint as much as we can. There are things in this industry that can be done to help lessen that impact on the environment. But for us, sustainability goes across everything from the environment to the families that help supply us and our community.”