Starting from scratch
First-generation beef ranchers Shannon and Kelly Douglass turn a few calves into a viable business
Shannon Douglass raised rabbits, sheep, goats and pigs in 4-H and FFA while growing up in Sacramento, but she had no experience with cattle until meeting her now-husband, Kelly, who grew up on a dairy farm in Glenn County. The couple began buying calves a decade ago while still attending college for agriculture—she at Chico State and he at Butte College. Today, they have grown their herd of breeding black Angus to close to 50 head.
In spite of being first-generation beef-cattle ranchers, the Douglasses have settled into ranch life quite well, establishing a sizable herd and making a name for their Orland-based Douglass Ranch as producers of high-quality local meat.
“We enjoy the lifestyle,” Douglass said. “We really enjoy the cattle.”
The couple sell their weaned calves at about nine or 10 months of age commercially, but they also sell directly to beef-loving North State residents. And what they do bucks the trend of grass-finished beef. Douglass has great things to say about that technique, but she noted how difficult it can be to do well. It takes a lot of very high-quality grass, for starters.
It wouldn’t have been a feasible option for the Douglasses, who pasture their animals on rented properties. But when they found out there was demand for locally raised grain-finished beef about five years ago, they decided to give direct-marketing a go by holding back a few animals and raising them for another eight or 10 months until processing age. This year, they are raising about 15 head. The couple’s cattle live on pasture without antibiotics and growth hormones, and are supplemented with a corn and barley mix 90 days prior to butchering.
“The beef has that traditional butcher-shop flavor. It’s all dry-aged, which gives it a more robust flavor,” she explained. They sell the animals in halves and quarters—delivering straight to their customers’ doorsteps, mostly in Chico and Paradise—and in smaller quantities at the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market every other Saturday.
In 2011, Douglass Ranch expanded with the birth of the couple’s son, Heath. Douglass recalled being able to easily manage selling beef at the market with Heath in tow when he was an infant. She enlisted help in the form of a Chico State ag intern when he got to be a busy toddler.
The Douglasses, both 29, got into the beef-cattle business with the intention of eventually buying their own property on which to raise their herd. They’ve found, however, that prospect to be financially unsound. They’d need to buy a whole heck of a lot of property to sustain what, at peak times of the year, including new calves and older ones almost ready to be shipped off, is a nearly 100-head herd. To make things work, the couple leases eight parcels around Glenn County too small for large-scale ranchers. In recent years, they’ve also diversified their ag interests, growing vine crops and sunflowers for a seed company.
In addition, Douglass teaches ag business and plant science at Butte College part time. To say her life is busy is an understatement.
She takes pride in the fact that all of her animals are raised and butchered within her zip code. Douglass noted her good fortune of being able to rely on Johansen’s Meats—a USDA-inspected facility in Orland that’s willing to work with small ranchers—for processing. The grain supplementing the cattle comes from the nearby Artois Mill.
Douglass said she and her husband are in an interesting phase in their careers as cattle ranchers. Even though they’ve won over some very loyal customers, she explained that they aren’t sure directly marketing the cattle is a long-term plan, given the amount of work and the number of loopholes to jump through compared to the financial reward.
For now, though, the couple still enjoy a job that, including the animals’ gestation stage, takes 2 1/2 years to accomplish.
“It’s just really rewarding to see the process through to the end, and see that someone enjoys our work,” she said.