Completing the circle
Cooperation between Sierra Nevada and Chico State University Farm models full-cycle sustainability
Much of the meat American consumers eat travels hundreds of miles before reaching the plate. But at the Sierra Nevada Taproom & Restaurant, beef lovers can rest assured knowing the meat they’re eating comes from a steer that, likely within the last month, was standing just a few miles away at Chico State’s University Farm.
Since 2002, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has partnered with the university’s College of Agriculture to produce 100 percent of the beef served in the restaurant’s burgers, sausages, steaks and specials. While on the farm, the steers feed on a blend of spent brewer’s grain and yeast as well as corn and hay before being processed at the college’s meats laboratory, a USDA-inspected facility a few hundred feet from the feedlot.
“We like to look at everything as a cycle, as a complete circle,” explained Lau Ackerman, the brewery’s agriculture and landscape supervisor. “When we brew beer and have spent grain, then put the spent grain into the cattle, then the cattle come back to the restaurant, we’re completing the circle. We’re not throwing anything away, and that kind of sustainability is important to what we do here.
“It’s a great experience for the students because those cattle are used for various labs on the farm,” he continued. “Kids learn the ins and outs of livestock, about their care and feeding, and how it affects the health of the animal and the quality of the meat.”
Interestingly, Ackerman’s own career arc followed a similar circuit. He worked on the University Farm, first as a student (class of ’93), then as a university employee for 12 years. There, he helped the brewery develop its barley program and obtain organic certification. Today he oversees other brewery projects aimed at localization, including growing on-site hops and barley for brewing, and a 2-acre vegetable garden to meet the needs of Sierra Nevada’s kitchen.
On a recent rainy Saturday, two Chico State ag students employed by the Sierra Nevada beef project, Austin Fischer and Sara Avila, gave further insight into the lives of the cattle. As the student herdsman, Fischer lives on the farm full time, and organizes a staff made up of Avila and four other students.
Fischer said the Sierra Nevada herd fluctuates between 35 and 45 animals. Four of these are processed biweekly to feed the restaurant’s two-steer-a-week need.
The steers are “backgrounded,” meaning they’re grass-fed in the pasture of an alumnus-owned ranch in Orland, for four months after being weaned. Then they spend the last 90 to 120 days at the University Farm, where they’re processed at about 15 months of age.
Fischer explained how the cattle arrive weighing about 950 pounds and are harvested at about 1,350 pounds. While “finishing” at the farm, they gain an average of three to four pounds a day. Fischer said the average “hot carcass percentage”—or amount of final weight usable as food—is about 60 percent, or 800 pounds of meat from a 1,300-pound steer.
Avila added the market price of beef is currently “very high”—about $1.25 a pound. The Sierra Nevada cattle are all owned by the brewery, not the university, though the school has its own meat and dairy herds, as well as cattle raised to be sold as herd sires.
The student staff’s main duties are mixing rations to feed the cattle once daily and checking them twice daily for injury and illness. Fischer explained a goal is to cause the animals as little stress as possible, as it can interrupt their weight gain.
Fischer and Avila said they both care deeply for the animals’ comfort, but maintain a professional level of detachment, something ingrained in them, as they both grew up on family cow-calf operations. They also said they have a passion for their jobs and their animal charges that’s hard to explain to those outside of the industry.
“I don’t wake up every morning and think I have to go to work—I think, ‘Hey, I get to get up and go play with some cows,’” Fischer said. “It’s more of a way of life than a job.”