Dec. 2, 2010 - Several years ago, Michael Klein had an idea whose time had not yet come. Klein wanted to sell prime Angus beef locally and avoid sending his cattle to feedlots and taking whatever price he was offered. The idea persisted until, in recent years, a growing interest by consumers in locally-produced food has made his idea a reality.
On his Windy Bar Ranch, located in the Gillespie County town Stonewall, which is known statewide for its peaches, Klein raises registered Angus cattle that are turned into choice Angus beef and sold to a few select markets. The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa has right of first refusal on all his beef. The Navajo Grill in Fredericksburg serves it too, and the hamburgers at the Lakeway Resort and Spa come from the lifetime bovine residents of Windy Bar.
Though it might seem like the market blossomed overnight, Klein has been working toward this business model for more than 25 years by raising 100 percent registered Angus cattle and spending considerable time and money learning about genetics and then applying what he learned to producing the kind of cattle he wanted to sell. About 10 years ago, he decided that selling the beef locally would someday be the way to go.
"There just wasn't the interest in locally-raised food then that there is now," Klein said.
Part of Klein's interest comes from the fact that he too is a local product of Gillespie County, where he grew up working cattle on his father's place. The Kleins have been in the ranching business for since 1858, when Michael Klein's great-great grandfather, Christian Klein, started raising cattle in Gillespie County with the Half-Moon K brand. Michael grew up on a cattle ranch and went to college just down the road at the University of Texas and today practices law in Austin.
The day-to-day operations are handled by David Anderson, who, among numerous other daily duties, moves the cattle from paddock to paddock to give them a fresh supply of all the grass that they want. "My job is to keep 'em alive," he says. He refers to himself as the ranch's "herdsman."
Windy Bar runs about 130 mama cows on the ranch in Stonewall and on other Gillespie County pastures that Klein leases. Windy Bar cattle are not exclusively grass-fed; their diet is supplemented with feed that consists of peanut hay, corn gluten pellets and a little bit of corn. They are not administered hormones or antibiotics. The feed helps provide the marbling that is important to Klein and his customers.
"The cattle eat all the grass they want, and most of their diet is grass," Anderson said. "Really, the cows decide how much grass they want to eat. They even eat it in the winter."
Klein bought his first Angus cattle in 1983 and bought 42 more between 1984 and 1987. Those are the only outside females he has ever purchased. The rest are Windy Bar offspring.
After years of observation and meticulous record keeping, Klein has determined what he wants in a cow and what he doesn't want. He wants cattle with good maternal instincts that calve easily and have desirable carcass traits for marbling, tenderness and feed efficiency. What he doesn't want are cows that don't produce.
"He's pretty ruthless if a cow comes up open after it's been bred," Anderson said. "Sometimes he might give two-year-old a second chance because that's a tough year for most cattle, but generally if they don't produce, they're out of here."
Klein's goals met opportunity when he started working with Lone Star Foodservice. Lone Star is a meat processor that specializes in portion control steak cuttings for steakhouses and full-service restaurants. Their services include sending photos of each cut as it is produced so Klein can see that it meets his standards. The JW Marriott purchases its Windy Bar beef from Lone Star.
"They face some huge obstacles working with us because we're a small producer," Klein said. "They're more used to delivering, say, an order for 40 boxes of Angus but they work with us, on our schedule, and they let us set own schedule for slaughtering.
"Feed lots are interested in getting the cattle to slaughter as soon as they can. The feedlots were always a hassle for us, and we had to accept the price that the packer set. We grow our cattle a little slower than other producers, which I think gives the beef more taste and tenderness. A lot of our cows are two years old, compared to a feedlot animal that might go to the packer when its 15 months old."
Windy Bar sold and had processed about 30 head in 2010 and, with the business from JW Marriot, expects to increase that number to 50 or more in 2011.
"We've had good feedback from customers and from (Lone Star Foodservice owner) Franklin Hall and his staff," Klein said. "It tells me we're on the right track."