Mark’s Meat Matrix: Grass Fed Beef

Mark’s Meat Matrix: Grass Fed Beef

First we got the chickens (CLICK HERE for Urban Chickens post), then we investigated GMO foods (CLICK HERE for Got GMO-free Milk post). Now we are making a run at Grass-Fed Beef, local style. After watching the “scare you away from McDonald’s” documentary called Food Inc. earlier this year, and reading Michael Pollan’s

The Omnivores Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, I (Mark) became very interested in meat. I wanted to know how to get the highest-quality chicken, beef, and pork locally. So I started out by creating a spreadsheet (yes, I’m an engineer) that listed all the locally available meat vendors and ranchers in the Sacramento area. The “meat matrix” is divided into two categories – Grass Fed meats and Grain Finished meats that received no antibiotics, no animal proteins, and non-GMO corn. I then sorted each meat vendor by how many miles from downtown Sacramento so I could see how things stacked up from a local perspective. I really enjoyed investigating all the options available while creating and populating the meat matrix because it became a great learning tool. I talked to a lot of butchers, ranchers, grocery-store workers, restaurant chefs, and farmer’s market vendors about a whole range of topics. “What do you do if your cow get’s sick?” “How do you kill your chickens?” “Is your steer grain-finished or grass-finished?”

meat matrix blog June 2010.xls

So it became obvious really quickly that the best sources of the most responsible grain-fed beef and pork came from our local farmer’s market and co-op. But the biggest challenge was finding a local supplier of grass-fed beef. I checked some websites such as, and, and came across one rancher in El Dorado (about 45 minutes east of Sacramento, on your way to Tahoe) called Forni Ranch. We emailed back and forth, and they seemed like the real deal right off the bat.

Here is their story (from their info sheet):

“Forni Ranch in El Dorado County reflects four generations of commitment to quality beef and sustainable land management. Our beef is what is known as “grass fed”. That means our animals are not confined in a feedlot; they range on foothill pasture. Nor are they subjected to the use of steroids or hormones. For you, the consumer, that means the flavor of the beef you purchase will be slightly different than what you’re used to. It also means you will be buying fresh, locally produced food.”

And here is what they say about their cost:

“Three costs are involved in the purchase of Forni Meat. The cost of half an animal runs approximately $425 – $450, depending on the size of the animal. This is paid directly to Forni Ranch when the animal is taken to the butcher. A flat fee, known as a kill charge, is paid directly to the butcher – approximately $65 for a half animal. The butcher also receives approximately 80 cents per pound of hanging weight for cutting, wrapping and freezing your meat.”

I had to get some of this grass-fed stuff! I can’t be sure I have ever eaten grass-fed beef, all I know is that it is very expensive when you go to Whole Foods (usually costs about $8/lb just for the ground beef!), but cutting out the middle man brought down the price for half a cow to around $5/lb. Now when you purchase half a cow, you are looking at about 140 lbs of meat, and our family would take about a year to go through it all. So we talked to some of our friends in Sacramento, and it didn’t take long to find three other families that wanted to share our half a cow.

In April I emailed Forni Ranch requesting our half a cow, mailed the $100 deposit, and waited. And waited. During all that waiting, I thought it might be fun to visit the ranch, and see the cows with our own eyes. Hey, it can’t hurt to ask. I guess I was a bit surprised when the Forni’s said yes, I wasn’t sure they would be up for it. So during one weekend in May, Bill (my father-in-law) and I took the kids on a trip to the Ranch.

Hay Ride
Forni Cows

I have to say it was well worth it! The kids had a blast – they took us on a hay ride through their 400 beautiful acres in El Dorado, California, and we got a chance to feed the cows, walk around some marshes, and even catch some frogs (the kids favorite activity). Toni and George Forni were class-acts, very friendly and so awesome to spend so much time with us.

Frog Hunters
Caught One

And then a week later, I received a call from the butcher. He asked me about thickness of cuts (we went with 1”), size of packages (two steaks in each package, one pound of ground beef in each package), and went through a selection of cuts to see which cuts into ground beef. Our group of families wanted about half steaks, and half ground beef, so we converted the all of the roasts (rump, chuck, cross rib) to ground beef. Here is a breakdown of our 135 pounds of beef:

Steaks: top round, T-bone, Porterhouse, Filet, Tri-tip, Sirlion, Flank, and Prime Rib

Other: ground beef, stew meat, liver and bones (for soups).

About two weeks later, the butcher called to say that our beef was cut, wrapped, and ready for pickup. So the next day Kate drove out to Castle Meats in Shingle Springs, picked up the meat, and then the four families met for a “meat-swap”. The butcher’s facility was actually beautiful, clean, and friendly. Now our family has about 33 pounds of various cuts of beef in our freezer, that should take us through the summer.

I really have enjoyed working with a local rancher that can be our new source of beef, and I hope that our friends want to keep sharing a half of a cow in the future. If you live in Sacramento and are interested, contact Forni Ranch directly. They may still have some left this year.

Now for a local source of pastured poultry!