Grass-fed beef worth the extra work

When Mark Hollenbeck, Edgemont, S.D., assessed the resources available to him for producing beef on his southwestern South Dakota Sunrise Ranch, he knew raising grain-fed beef was not an option. His land would not produce grain.

He did have an abundance of grass and knew there was a fairly strong market for organic grass-fed beef. So Hollenbeck began organizing a plan to produce and sell organic grass-fed beef.

“We took a few small orders at first, used every opportunity we could to spread the word about our meat and found ways to market without spending money,” Hollenbeck says. “One of our most difficult issues has been finding a way to produce grass-fed beef on a year-round basis.

We haven’t figured out how to do that yet. What we have done is found a restaurant with seasonal demand for the meat over summer when tourist business is intense. We also sell some live animals to a wholefoods system.”

Key Points

This Edgemont, S.D., rancher developed a grass-fed beef business.

He sells direct and to several different institutional markets.

He transitioned by shifting a few head to grass every year.

In addition to the restaurant, Hollenbeck has organized a network of several small businesses catering to tourists, as well as some area health food stores. He recommends diversity in the customer base to stabilize demand.

“I belong to and keep in touch with Northern Plains Sustainable Ag group to stay on top of what’s happening in the locally grown foods market,” he says. “We’re certified organic. Wholesalers require that.”

The bulk of his private customers come to the farm and purchase a supply of meat once or twice a year. He’s attempted to sell frozen product over the Internet, but shipping costs are prohibitive. He also produces organic lamb and grass-fed lamb, free-range pork and free-range chicken.

In an effort to draw potential customers to his ranch, Hollenbeck built a six bedroom lodge that houses up to 22 people.

Determining the market value of an animal on the hoof can be daunting. Hollenbeck continually strives to provide reasonably priced products for customers while receiving a fair market price for his work. He usually asks several other organic grass-fed producers what their most recent sale price was.

Securing proper genetics to produce quality beef on forage took Hollenbeck several years. Because mainstream beef producers utilize grain-fed diets, cattle that thrive on a forage diet are not readily available.

“Find old-fashioned genetics,” Hollenbeck says. “They’re probably going to be smaller than your neighbor’s cows. You’re also going to find that grass-fed meat has a distinct flavor. It takes 24 to 30 months to finish cattle on grass, so there’s more time for flavor to develop.”

For beef producers desiring to follow in Hollenbeck’s footsteps, he recommends having an income plan for at least the first two years because there won’t any meat to sell until late in the third year.

“We made the transition from selling weaned calves to organic grass-fed beef by moving a few cattle into the organic program every year for several years,” Hollenbeck says. “It’s great to sell direct to customers. You obtain a premium price for your product, and customers have an opportunity to personally observe your growing practices.

It’s work, and you maintain a lot of records. I’ve found that dedication to making your marketing process work is one of the most important aspects of being successful in this business. For us, it’s well worth the effort.”

More information about Sunrise Ranch is available at

Sorensen writes from Yankton, S.D.


family business: Mark Hollenbeck’s family is involved in the grass-fed beef production he manages outside Edgemont, S.D.

This article published in the January, 2012 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.