Farm-to-Table beef big part of young farmers’ operation

Jan Shepel
Correspondent
Columbus-area farmers Bryan and Sheri Guenther added baby Everly to their family ten months ago. They fit parenting in alongside Sheri’s full-time career off the farm and Bryan’s work on his family farm. He took over his parents’ operation raising 500 dairy heifers and then the couple added a farm-to-consumer direct beef enterprise – Countyline Beef.

A farm-to-table component has become an integral part of young Columbus-area farmer Bryan Guenther’s operation. At the Countyline Cattle operation he operates with his wife Sheri, he raises around 50 head of steers. She is in charge of running the website and social media sites (a job he gladly handed over to her) that help make this part of their farming operation a success.

“I told her you deal with Facebook and the website,” he says with a laugh.

Bryan took over the farming operation from his parents Dan and Diane Guenther, who are recently retired but still live on the farm and help him with some of the work. The mainstay of his farm is raising 500 or so dairy heifers and cropping about 500 acres of cropland to produce feed for the heifers and have some corn to sell.

Bryan is the youngest of three siblings. His two older sisters are not involved in the farming operation, but said his Mom has always been actively working as a farmer with his Dad.

At one time his parent’s operation included their own dairy herd before they transitioned to heifer growing. The younger Guenthers had always had a goal to do both – raising the heifers and growing steers to sell to the community.

Sheri grew up on a farm in the Waterford area in southeast Wisconsin and her parents – Steve and Michelle Heyer – raise chickens, hogs and beef on pasture and do a lot of direct marketing of their meat.

“Sheri’s parents have found a niche in the market and she brought the idea to me of direct marketing beef,” Bryan says.

Bryan Guenther, 31, is making a success of taking over his family’s farm, after earning a degree at UW-Platteville and working as a custom applicator and managing the FS Marshall location and then returning to the farm. He farms 500 acres, raises 500 or so dairy heifers and is the proud creator of a direct marketing beef operation that he and his wife Sheri call Countyline Beef.

The young couple – who recently added 10-month-old daughter Everly to their family – live on a small farm about a mile away from Bryan’s parents in the East Bristol area. Their place, where the steers are raised, is right on the Dane-Columbia county line which gave them the idea for the name of their startup beef operation: Countyline Cattle.

Bryan has always gotten his calves from local dairy farmers in small groups, preferring that to calves that have gone through sales barns. This way he knows how they have been handled.

“I don’t buy groups of 40 or 50 calves,” he said. “It just makes me feel good to do it this way. It’s important to me.”

They are under his care from weaning to market weight.

He has raised mostly Holsteins but says he may transition to dairy-beef cross calves – Angus-Holstein and a few Hereford-Holsteins.

“Even if you have to pay more for them, they finish much faster and spend fewer weeks on feed,” he says.

The biggest challenge this past year has been finding a place to get his steers processed for his customers.

“It’s hard to get a spot locked in. Even prior to the pandemic you had to plan ahead,” he said. But once the effects of the pandemic hit and people began to worry about food insecurity it’s been much more difficult to book slaughter dates.

“When Covid hit, it changed everything. I don’t totally understand it,” he said. His advice to anyone else who is thinking about getting into direct marketing of meat is to “make sure you can get bookings for processing” which is the real bottleneck right now.

The Guenthers slogan is “responsibly raised beef” and they pride themselves on giving their cattle good feed, fresh air and responsible care. They have found customers who believe in what they are doing and buy steers from them by the quarters and halves. They work with a number of preferred local processors to get beef processed for their customers who can get it cut and packaged to their preferences.

Consumer education

Bryan says educating the consumer also is a huge part of what they do.

"Some people are used to buying beef by the quarter or the half but others aren’t. We spend some time helping them realize how it’s done and how much meat they can expect from an animal,” he explained.

A few consumers have asked if they can see the animals and the Guenthers are open to that. The Guenther’s slogan is “responsibly raised beef” and while they don’t regularly hold visits at the farm, they don’t mind if people want to see how the meat they are buying is raised, he said.

“People need to understand how food is produced,” he said.

Since they began their farm-to-table steer operation, the Guenthers have worked with certain preferred locker plants and they list them on their website – countylinecattle.com. Recently they have also been working with a company that can come to the farm to harvest the animal.

Bryan said their future plans include getting their own label – they are halfway there with their name – and they hope to be able to sell meat products at farmers' markets.

Sheri explains that she met Bryan when both were students at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

The Guenther’s direct-to-consumer beef operation is called Countyline Beef because the small farm where they live and raise their 50 or so head of steers straddles the Dane-Columbia county line. Bryan and Sheri hope to one day have their own brand and sell at farmer’s markets.

“He was my brother’s randomly assigned roommate when they were freshman,” she said. “I appreciate my brother’s random roommate.”

He studied Ag Business and later worked as a custom applicator and then a site manager for FS before coming back to the family’s farm. She majored in Criminal Justice and Psychology and then earned a Master’s at UW-Madison.

She works full-time as a social worker for a service that helps people with intellectual and physical disabilities. But she helps on the farm when she can and is the one who designed their website.

Responsibly Raised

It explains their philosophy of “responsibly raised” beef – cattle that are “raised happily, with a view.” They offer a shout-out to their “greatest farm hand” Louie, their dog, and explain how people can order a quarter or half of beef and the pricing. Countyline Cattle also offers custom orders or bundles and various cuts based on availability and special pricing.

The website explains their process and how the customer needs to go about getting their meat processed the way they want it. Customers pick up their meat directly from the meat plant and pay the processor for those services before making final payment to Countyline Cattle for the beef.

It also explains how much meat can usually be expected from a quarter or half of beef and how to help customers decide how to pick which cuts of meat they want and how pricing is arrived at.

She seconds her husband’s assessment of the marketplace for their locally grown beef. Demand is high and went even higher in the last year. Before the pandemic “we didn’t think about booking out the dates for each beef but all of that changed dramatically when the pandemic hit and people had these fears about food insecurity.

“Demand is way up. We are still selling out very quickly but the availability of butchers went down. We get in where we can,” she said.

One piece of the puzzle, Sheri says, is the on-farm slaughter service they are now using.