Innovation and love of cattle run in the Esch family genes. It’s a foundation on which they’re building a nationwide branded-beef business: Oak Barn Beef. At the center is whirlwind Hannah Esch, a 21-year-old college junior with a contagious enthusiasm for the beef.
The University of Nebraska student was beef ambassador for the state in 2017 and 2018, traveling and talking to youth about the industry, and educating consumers about where their food comes from. She realized along the way there is a tremendous gap between producers and consumers, motivating her to look for new ways to bring the two groups closer together.
“There were people I spoke with surprised to hear that eggs and milk don’t both come from cows, because they are next to each other in the grocery store,” she says. “That was a real conversation, and it impressed on me how far we have to go in educating our consumers.”
Hannah wanted to build direct connections to those consumers, leading her to the idea for a branded program. She started it when she was 20 and hopes by the time she graduates in 2020, it will be a full-time business. It’s already on a growth trajectory that led to a doubling of beef harvested for the program between 2017 and 2018. Hannah says her dad, Don Esch, has his hands full keeping up with the growing consumer demand.
Don runs the Esch cattle operation, based at Unadilla, Nebraska. He says the family moved here from Colorado about nine years ago and, along the way, began to run a unique composite breed: the Chiangus, a Chianina and Angus cross. The Chianina is an Italian cattle breed Don happened on when he was moving cattle to Oklahoma to feed during a drought. He’d always used Angus bulls from Montana but found a 2-year-old Chianina bull in Kansas he wanted to try.
“We got 60 pounds better weaning weights and calves that fed out 30 days faster on that Chianina-Angus cross. So, we transitioned the herd to that,” he says. They found a major benefit of the composite was tenderness and says, “since then we’ve chased that in our program.”
Don carries about 150 cows in these rolling pastures and focuses the breeding program on specifications for tenderness (7 to 10 on Igenity scores) and for marbling (6 to 10). He harvests at a yield grade of 2 to 3, with a quality grade of Choice or better, around 14 to 18 months of age. He adds they were marketing bulls and females at one point, but no more. They are now all in on Oak Barn Beef.
In 2017, they harvested 26 head for the program; in 2019, that number will hit 60. Interest continues to grow in the beef, which is all grass- and creep-fed, and grain-finished. No implants are used, and any calves requiring treatment with an antibiotic are pulled from the Oak Barn Beef program.
“Perception is everything,” Don says. “It takes us longer to feed cattle out that have not been implanted, but it’s important to our customers. If I have calves that don’t go into the branded program, I may implant them for the performance. But, we don’t have many of those calves anymore.”
The Oak Barn herd is bred using AI (artificial insemination) and genetically tested to ensure bulls they choose will produce good intramuscular marbling and tenderness.
“We are getting into a premium area comparable with Wagyu,” says Don of the beef program.
This is all just a starting point for Oak Barn Beef, Hannah says. Her dad calls her “the entrepreneur” of the operation, and she brings with that a supersized portion of initiative. It’s how she talked her way into an internship that didn’t exist with a company she found researching perishables. And, it changed her perspective on the business.
Hannah says shipping Oak Barn Beef around the country was an ongoing challenge. So, when she found a California family farm selling meat products across the U.S., she identified with the operation. That company, Five Marys Farm, is a small operation made up of Mary, her four daughters and her husband. They sell lamb, pork and beef, shipping it anywhere in the country. When Hannah called them from Nebraska asking them to let her come work for the summer, they were gracious and open to the offer. They got a pair of extra hands for the summer; Hannah got an education.
“They taught me the ins and outs of farm to table,” Hannah says. “I learned how to ship perishable product and a lot about social media marketing. That experience was so positive. Being able to see a woman who runs this business, who is a mother and a wife, and is raising livestock, it was cool, and it gave me the confidence I needed.”
Hannah explains when it comes to shipping, she learned timing is the key to everything. And, it is a continual challenge.
“How to have cattle ready and be able to supply customers 365 days a year is something we are still working on,” she explains. “We think if we spread our calving groups out throughout the year, it will help, but it’s hard to predict demand cycles when you’re such a new company. We have some ideas, including sourcing calves from other producers with the right genetics to transition us between calving times here at Oak Barn.”
Along with the art of supply, Hannah says Five Marys gave her insights into the challenges of shipping. She adds her mom, Linda Esch, is glad to know there’s help on the way.
“I know now we need to add a shipping and distribution center,” Hannah says. “That is probably our next step. Right now, there are Oak Barn Beef boxes in Mom’s office and in bedroom closets. Really, they’re stacked anywhere we can put them right now.”
She says they won’t just ship Oak Barn Beef products, either. The goal is to start to ship perishable products for other companies in the area, lowering their own input costs and providing a new revenue stream. That could start as early as 2020.
Hannah has already secured some of their start-up capital. She recently won the University of Nebraska’s “New Venture Competition,” which came with an award of $25,000.
In addition to a shipping and distribution center, Hannah says they need one more component to bring it all together: their own USDA harvest facility. It’s a big leap.
“The locker we use now is about 1 1/2 hours away,” Hannah says. “We dry-age the beef there for about 21 days. I tell people you dry-age beef the way you’d age a good cheese or wine. By giving it time to mature, the natural enzymes break down muscle tissue, making it more flavorful from the fat.”
She says their own facility would help them provide more jobs in the area and provide a processing point that could handle other farms’ livestock, as well.
Hannah adds her business acumen comes largely from the way she was raised.
“My parents are business owners, and I’ve seen all that goes into this from behind the scenes. I know what I’m getting into. My mom and my sister are accountants. That is a huge help come tax season. My dad is the cattle guy. He knows what we need to do to make that side of things work.
“From the time I was a kid, if you asked my parents a question, they would take the time to explain things to you. We’re all in this together. Which is a good thing, because we have a lot of boxes to fill with Oak Barn Beef.”
Don Esch crosses an Italian breed of cattle, the Chianina, with Angus for a unique composite that works well in Nebraska’s environment. He says when he put a Chianina bull on his Angus cows, he saw 60 pounds better weaning weights and faster feed outs. They later discovered the cross provides an exceptionally tender carcass.
The family’s direct-market branded program, Oak Barn Beef, expects to harvest 60 head this year. All beef produced and sold through the program is grass-fed, creep-fed and grain finished. No implants or antibiotics are used in the program.
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