“Behind every successful rancher, there’s a wife that works in town,” laughs Carol Ptak, claiming that is every rancher’s unofficial motto. Carol is delightfully voluble, charismatically imparting her wisdom upon us regarding the local cattle ranching industry and how it’s been affected by the pandemic. She’s bright and energetic, describing how Gryphon Ranch, a modest cattle ranch in the Arizona Pinal Mountains run by Carol and her husband Jim, is actually thriving during Covid times.
Gryphon Ranch is unique in that it holds two certifications: Their beef is humanely raised and handled (guaranteed by an annual face to face inspection) and also grass fed and finished. To be humanely raised and handled means that — unlike in commercial slaughter, which stresses the animal — Gryphon Ranch kills their cows with a single shot to the head, guaranteeing instant death with no suffering. To be grass fed and finished means the beef will hold a better nutritional value with more Omega 3s and 6s. Their beef is naturally leaner, and it takes them three years for an animal to reach full maturity versus grain fed animals that reach maturity in just one year because they’re being fed corn, which causes them to gain weight faster. “Even when you see “grass fed” labels on beef in the grocery store, they may not be ‘grass finished,’ they can be grain finished,” explains Carol. “This beef isn’t as good for you, it’s fattier. I wouldn’t eat that meat or do that to my animals.”
Another thing that makes Gryphon Ranch special is their direct sales business model, which is already seeing a 25% increase from last year. Carol and Jim have worked tirelessly over the last five years to build and maintain the local relationships that direct consumer beef sales requires. This direct sales channel has taken lots of energy to establish, including putting out monthly newsletters, monthly recipes and status updates from the ranch. “It’s all still very active,” says Carol. Gryphon Ranch has always run tours, typically two to three each month. But now with Covid, they’re doing four on some days! The education, transparency and customer rapport is crucial to building the ranch’s brand and garnering interest, respect and loyalty from their customers. Now that the pandemic has hit, their work is paying off exceptionally well. In fact, they’ve even generously partnered with some of their neighboring ranchers to help them pivot to direct sales within their community.
When Covid19 hit, many USDA-certified meat packing houses temporarily shut down. There are six of these in Arizona alone. Once they reopened, the backlog of beef drastically slowed distribution to both stores and restaurants, causing commercial prices to the rancher to drop. But the demand for local beef was still huge and prices at the store were high. This left the ranchers at a loss, and those who weren’t versed in direct to consumer sales were stumped. “Being able to help out our neighbors who were suffering was very rewarding,” tells Carol.
“Once the meat processing plants shut down, small ranchers were coming out of the woodwork. They were left flatfooted because you can’t just start overnight to sell direct. You’ve got to deal with inspectors and find a butcher — and good luck trying to get a butcher right now!”
At Gryphon Ranch during the pandemic, Carol and Jim are able to buy from their neighboring ranches “at a price significantly above market price.” This way, Carol explains, the ranchers are getting a fair price, their customers get quality meat and the butcher always stays busy.
“We’ve established a little hub here,” she says. “We can sell for the neighbors because we’ve got the contacts and channels to get the job done.”
The minimum amount of beef ranchers can sell directly to consumers is a ¼ cow, which means you can turn a profit doing direct sales versus wholesale. “I’ll talk to a traditional rancher out here, and they’ll look at me like I’ve got three heads. So I walk them through economics. He looks at me and tells me he’d have to sell five or six animals to make the same amount of money we make with just one. Yes, it’s worth the work and the effort and most rewarding is the customer feedback.”
“Once we get the (frozen) meat back from our butcher, we do one of two things: We take it back to the ranch and the customer picks it up or we pick it up from the butcher and deliver it straight to the customer. We show up at the butcher with our truck and coolers, pack up the frozen meat and deliver the beef for a nominal delivery fee. The customers love it when we show up in our cowboy boots and ranch shirts and look every bit the part,” tells Carol. “We baby our customers! They reward us with more forward visibility which helps us plan.”
“What people are finding out during Covid,” Carol explains, “is that when all the meat disappeared from the grocery stores, you really discovered where the meat was coming from. People are buying less meat, but better meat. The desire to buy local and support the community farmers and ranchers is more evident.”
“Who is essential?” asks Carol. “The essential workers proved to be truckers, ranchers, grocery store employees. People are discovering that athletes and actors really don’t matter anymore when you can’t get food to feed your family. There’s been a shift to understand who is truly essential. It’s been a big eye opener. This is a lesson we won’t forget too soon.”
In 1881, the introduction of the refrigerated railcar turned beef into a national industry. Being able to ship carcasses across the country opened markets, versus direct sale ranchers and local butchers. With Covid, customers are now wanting to buy local and we’re seeing a step back to those direct sales avenues. However, refrigerated cars still play an important part of the entire process.
Once an animal is killed at Gryphon Ranch, it needs to be skinned, cut, cooled and transported quickly to get to the butcher. Gryphon’s first butcher was “just one guy with a mobile cooler.” He’s got a 24 foot trailer and it typically takes him two weeks to do one beef. Before moving to Arizona, Carol and Jim owned a ranch in Washington, where mobile slaughter services were the norm. But when they relocated to Arizona with their nineteen Highland cows (“Highlands are like potato chips, you can’t just have one!” quips Carol), it became apparent that most ranchers there brought their beef straight to the USDA plant for processing or sold on the hoof at wholesale. So when Carol found the only mobile butcher in the entire region, she immediately scooped him up. When Covid hit, she basically “locked down all of his butchering capacity for the rest of the year,” which wasn’t “fair to him or the future of his business.”
Conveniently, Carol had a friend in Gila County with a nephew in the process of getting licenced to butcher. Once he was ready to operate in May, there was one setback: They had no way of getting the beef chilled from their ranch to his butcher shop, that’s located about forty minutes away. They needed to create a mobile cooling trailer that could handle the trip through the mountains.
“To drop $10K in the middle of the pandemic to build out our refrigerated trailer was a major leap for us. But it’s paying off and is absolutely worth it in the long run. There’s not a lot of margin in farming or ranching. We always said the cows need to pay for the cows, but they’ll never pay for the ranch. But since my other job doing education for manufacturing companies just disappeared overnight… well, we are so blessed because the cows are paying for the ranch.”
After pricing out some cooling units, which were decidedly more than Carol and Jim wanted to pay, a store manager at the Tractor Supply Store suggested CoolBot to them. “He told us it’s an A/C unit but it’ll override, and we’d better have a look at it.”
But the first real step was to bite the bullet and buy a brand new 17 foot trailer, but finding the right trailer proved to be more of a challenge than Carol had anticipated. “We needed something tall enough and standard trailers are only six feet tall,” Carol explains. “That was already a problem, and we knew we’d have to insulate it too. So we eventually found one in Tucson that was 7.5 feet tall after weeks of searching.”
“My sixty five year old husband — who had no prior welding experience before our move to Arizona — did all the work,” she says. “First, he tore out all the wood and took the trailer down to its skin (just the metal structure). Then he put four inches of solid panel foam insulation in the walls and ceilings. We knew it would have to be heavily insulated. Arizona summer temperatures get well up into the 100s! Then he put wood back on the walls. Then he covered the wood with fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP).
“Next we used a bedliner that’s used on trucks — we bought it in white — and sprayed the ceiling and floor with it. We bought a kit and did it ourselves. The bedliner on the floor also provides good traction so you’re not going to slip in there when it gets wet.
“Then came time to cut the hole for the A/C unit in the brand new trailer. My 91 year old mother, who’s currently staying with us because of the pandemic, just couldn’t believe we were going to cut into this brand new trailer. We had purchased the A/C unit from CoolBot, as well, just to be sure everything would work together. We took your recommendation from the website and then went one size up to the 18K A/C unit with the 230v. We run it off a 230v generator that runs in the back of the pick up truck and is plugged into the trailer while we’re driving down the road. This is not a silent operation!
So Jim cut the hole for the A/C, put 2 inches of insulation into the floor and put the wood back on. And now we’re got a mobile trailer and cooler.”
The next major challenge Carol and Jim encountered while tackling this behemoth build was the fact that you can’t hang 2000 pounds of beef directly from the trailer. It’s simply not strong enough. So Jim created a “whole frame out of square tubing and welded it together,” creating an archway in the trailer on a 2 inch welded square pipe frame. So inside the trailer, there are three archways and a rail below the archways that holds the beef. Then the rollers fit onto the rail. “It’s exactly the same rail that the butcher uses, so Jim backs the trailer up to his system and they slide the hanging beef on the rollers from our trailer straight into his coolers. You could hang an elephant from this framework!” Carol brags.
“My favorite part of this whole process is the hoist/transfer system,” tells Carol. “We pretty quickly discovered that we needed a plate on the front and back of the rail so the beef doesn’t fall off. That was fun, discovering that part. Now all the rollers clamp in place. Remember, this isn’t a stationary operation! We’re driving up and down canyons that are between us and the butcher. There’s a 3000 foot elevation drop from the ranch to the butcher. Just imagine the beef on the rollers in this truck with the 230v genny running. The first time we made the drive, I was a nervous wreck!”
“You should see the looks we get going through town in our F250 SuperDuty pickup truck with the genny in the back hauling a 17 foot trailer! We were really worried this summer, what with the record breaking heat. But the unit kept up well,” she tells us.
The CoolBot did just what Carol and Jim needed it to do. “It doesn’t need to freeze, just to get the meat cold. Ideally we set the temperature for high 30s, but around low 40s is just fine for transport,” she says. Typically, you’d never butcher during the summer in Arizona. “It’s just too hot! By 9am, it’s over 100 degrees,” Carol tells us. “But we’ll start at 4:30am and we’re done by 8:30am and headed to the butcher. Our customers appreciate being able to get meat year round”
Carol and Jim dropped their first steer with the new butcher in July. “We’d never anticipated having this much volume. Before CoolBot, we’d do two steers every other month, which was half our old butcher’s capacity. But now, with the CoolBot, we are doing two every other week. That’s huge for our business,” says Carol.
“We’ve got lots of happy people coming out and touring the ranch. We show them how we butcher and the refrigerated trailer and everything in the operation. Education is a key part of how we sell. It’s very important. Visitors have been really impressed with the trailer and how all of our stuff is transported. And we so appreciate our customers. That’s the big thing,” says Carol. “We’re members of our county and state cattle growers association and it’s just so important to buy local to keep all these small businesses going.”