GUSTINE - For four generations, the Lopes family name has been synonymous with the West Side dairy industry.
Now the family is branching out with a new endeavor focused on bringing high-quality beef, raised using environmentally sustainable methods, to the tables of its customers.
Tony Lopes launched the brand, called sustainiBeef, in April 2020 with a business model centered largely on distribution of 10-pound beef boxes - primarily on a subscription basis.
Lopes said the genesis for the beef program was the family's decision to introduce Angus genetics into the breeding program of its Holstein herd about four years ago.
In addition to improving the quality of the overall herd, he explained, the new genetics produced a higher quality of meat among the steers bound for feedlots.
"Those animals have more value to the beef industry because of their Angus (genetics)," Lopes told Mattos Newspapers. "We had 500 to 700 pound feeders that we were selling to other buyers. We decided to raise a few and harvest them ourselves. We were impressed by the taste of the meat and the tenderness."
Adding to the appeal, Lopes said, was that the steers could be raised in an environmentally sustainable manner.
"My family has always placed a high priority on stewardship and the way we care for the land, the cattle and the environment around us," he commented. "Through some of my other work and involvement, I became aware of research out of UC Davis that indicated that with this particular sourcing of beef through Holstein herds these cattle could make it to the end consumer with a pretty sizable difference in overall emissions."
"With these steers and the ability to create a high-quality dining experience, as well as the research-backed sustainability of what we do," he continued, "there is a potential for this to be a product that fills a niche in the market with a local, affordable product that was produced in an environmentally conscious way."
Lopes said he selects about eight to 10 steers each month to finish out in the sustainiBeef program. If the demand or processing capacity does not materialize, he stated, the steers will be sold in the traditional market.
One distinct advantage, he explained, is the ability to hand-pick the steers which will be kept on the farm. Once selected, the steers can be raised with attention to the individual animals.
"We are raising animals on an individual basis as opposed to in a lot, so we can tailor that program to exactly what customers want," Lopes stated.
The cattle are fed a ration formulated by a nutritionist.
"He is taking into account all their nutritional needs, first and foremost to ensure that they will be healthy, and secondarily that they will perform efficiently," Lopes told Mattos Newspapers. "They are not grass-fed, however, they receive quite a bit more forage than traditional feedlot cattle."
The steers are on pasture at times, he noted, but grain is a required component in the process of producing tender, well-marbled steak.
Lopes has his cattle harvested at a Modesto processing facility. The beef is then transported to a family-owned meat locker in Turlock.
"Once it goes through the dry aging process, it is immediately flash-frozen and packed in sealed packaging," he explained.
SustainiBeef launched in the midst of the pandemic.
One related challenge, Lopes said, was the unexpected lack of processing capacity.
"We used to be able to schedule a steer one or two weeks out. Across the state and nation, the wait lists have actually grown to up to a year to get an animal harvested," he stated. "That was a unique market headwind that we did not fully appreciate. You have to get animals into the processor and stay ahead of any customer growth that you have. We have had to harvest when we have processing capacity and wait when we don't."
Lopes said that he was able to get more cattle processed toward the end of 2020, and is continuing to take new subscriptions while serving existing customers.
He said, though, that the availability of freezer beef is being pushed back until processing ability is more reliable.
SustainiBeef products are delivered in 10-pound boxes, either on an individual purchase or subscriber basis. Each box typically includes two to three pounds of primal cut steaks, two to three pounds of specialty roasts and rib cuts, as well as four to five pounds of premium ground beef.
"We are more than happy to serve our customers however we can, but the marketing is more geared toward a subscription box," Lopes explained. Customers can purchase a single box, or can arrange monthly or bi-monthly deliveries.
SustainiBeef has been well-received, Lopes said, and he believes the product fits a market niche.
"We have seen this year that a lot of people want to have more control over the availability of their food, but I think it is part of a trend that has been going on for quite a while," he reflected. "People are realizing that not all food is created equally. People are taking more interest in how their food is produced."
SustainiBeef has shipped throughout California and to out-of-state consumers, Lopes reported earlier this year.
But many of his customers are fellow West Siders, friends and neighbors with whom he has personal interaction and feedback.
"If your producer is someone you pass on the highway every day, there is an accountability there. As we produce this food we have an opportunity to better understand their needs," Lopes commented. "In ag we are all very proud of saying that we feed the world, but the overwhelming majority of us don't deliver a gallon of milk directly to the consumer. To stand in the driveway of a family consuming my food and have them tell me that they loved the steak or the hamburger....I find that extremely rewarding, and it is something that they really value too."
To learn more, visit sustainibeef.com or the sustainibeef Facebook page or Instagram.