For the past 30 years, Duncan and Susan Blair have been in the business of raising cattle everywhere from Wickenburg, Arizona and Santa Barbara County, California to La Pampa Province in Argentina. Since 2006, however, they have focused on producing grass-finished beef in the tradition of Argentina in Santa Cruz County, Arizona, where they hold grazing permits to 11,508 acres of the Coronado National Forest along the international border with Mexico.
After nearly 20 years’ experience as cattle ranchers, a trip to Argentina drastically changed the way Duncan and Susan wanted to raise cattle. The Blairs learned that not only did Argentine beef taste better than the beef they ate at home, but the traditional Argentine methodology for raising beef was to finish on grass. This method of raising animals from birth through slaughter on pasture and range was not only a more satisfying way to manage cattle, but actually presented a way to be more economically viable than the cow-calf model the Blairs had followed, which requires selling cattle on the commodity market. They began to study various grassfed systems and eventually bought Angus cattle with high-quality, forage-based genetics.
Today, Duncan and Susan have their own breeding program on La Chamba, LLC, a ranch which is on their Coronado National Forest land. Breeding their own calves allows them to deepen and improve the forage-based genetics that help cattle fatten consistently on grass rather than grain. At 10 months, calves are brought to their finishing ranch, Rio Santa Cruz, just six miles away, where they will graze for 10–15 months on lush irrigated pastures. These well-managed pastures offer cattle both annual and perennial forages like sorghum-sudangrass, clover, bermudagrass, rye grass and alfalfa. This year-round diet of high-quality forage benefits the cattle, and produces healthy, delicious beef for Duncan and Susan’s loyal customers.
Raising Rio Santa Cruz cattle in a low-stress environment is also an important aspect of the operation that affects the welfare of the cattle—and quality of the meat. Cattle are moved calmly without yelling or whipping, and transported a short distance each month to for weighing to monitor their progress and genetic quality, as well as acclimatize them to transportation so that the process doesn’t induce stress.
Duncan and Susan decided to become AWA-certified because of the marketing advantages of being validated by an independent third-party audit with the highest standards in the industry. They were also open to improving their own practices. “I’m a strong believer of not handling cattle the same way that many conventional producers do, but no matter how forward-thinking you think you are, it’s always good to test your practices and protocols against others,” says Duncan. “By signing up and being audited, it gave me the opportunity to have the program’s perspective and protocols compared to what I’m actually doing to see what I could do to improve—I benefitted from that. You can’t just assume that you’re using the best practices.”
While Duncan and Susan hope that their AWA certification will improve the marketing efforts that are an important part of the survival and success of the ranch, they’ve learned that it’s even more important to produce a consistent, high-quality product. “Keeping quality up is extremely important to keeping loyal customers, and then you can sell almost exclusively by word of mouth,” explains Duncan. While their sales started with just a few discriminating customers, the demand for their delicious meat now exceeds the supply. Duncan hopes to expand in the coming years beyond the 8-acre irrigated ranch that limits the number of animals they can finish on grass.
Duncan and Susan encourage the public to visit the ranch to see how cattle can be raised on pasture with high-welfare management techniques. “We want to be open and transparent,” says Duncan. “It’s good for people to understand where their food comes from and we benefit from the questions that come up.”
Rio Santa Cruz Grass Finished Beef is available at restaurants and markets in the area—visit AWA’s Online Directory to find locations. To schedule a ranch tour—or for information about buying through one of the Rio Santa Cruz buying clubs in Sierra Vista or Phoenix—contact Duncan and Susan at (520) 604-6120 or email@example.com. For more information, visit www.rscgrassfinishedbeef.com.