Rancher Q & A: Veterinarian Lowell Novy On Humanely Raised Cattle, How Grass-fed Beef Is Like Wine + The Ongoing Frozen Debate

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Thu, Dec 1, 2011 at 7:27 AM
click to enlarge Novy With An Admirer - NOVYRANCHES.COM
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  • Novy With An Admirer

After all of that Novy Ranches grass-fed eyeball farmers market talk, we had to call up the Northern California ranch's owner, Lowell Novy, a Northern California by way of Nebraska veterinarian turned cattle rancher.

A mouthful? Sure. But a good one. Novy was more than happy to chat -- honestly -- about the grass-fed beef industry. And chat he did, in that endearing and knowledgeable way that only someone who is 75-years-old and has an irreplaceable mountain of first-hand experience on the topic at hand can do. Yeah, we wanted to know more.

And so we'll let Novy get right to it, as he did when he called us back, with hardly a question from our end. Why would a vet who could be comfortably retired right now decide to invest his safety net in raising and selling grass-fed beef? And, why would he even bother to cart it all the way down to L.A.? These are the sort of honest, old-fashioned answers (Read: No press releases required; Or in Occupy L.A. terms, from the little guy) that will make you want to order that whole cow head. Or sure, a New York steak, brisket or ground beef, if that's more your grass-fed style. Turn the page.

Dr. Lowell Novy: Sorry I missed your call. Out here, I'm in a bunch of canyons and behind rocks, and I finally came out from behind the rocks [literally]. When you called and said you got the beef cheeks at the market, I had to talk to you. I thought well, you're either an awfully good chef or awfully naïve. Beef cheek is something a lot of folks don't know what to do with. Either you know how to really cook it and it's great, or you don't know what to do with it and you're not going to like how it turns out. [Laughs]

Squid Ink: Ha, well, we like to cook a lot down here, much as it seems to surprise folks. And the cheeks are so great slowly braised in the oven. Plus they're so affordable when you get into the grass-fed beef realm.

DLN: Yes, you see, when you start with 1200 to 1300 pounds total weight of an animal, and then it's dressed out to maybe 720 pounds, and then hung and dry aged for 21 days, by the time we finish, you've only got between 360 to 400 pounds of finished product. So it gets expensive. It costs about $3,000 per head of cattle on our end. I've never sat down and figured it all out by the poundage, what we sell if for and what we get, really there's only 60% that's usable. And I try on the stuff we have at the farmers market to pretty much sell the meat at wholesale prices, what I sell them to restaurants for.

SI: The prices are actually great, even the ground beef is just $5 a pound. That's why we bought it, to be honest.

DLN: Yes, well, I could sell the ground beef for $9 or $10, but that's not why I'm doing this or why I started selling in L.A. I had a few organizations in San Francisco that wanted everything I had, but I really don't have that many cattle to sell.

I wanted to take some of my meat to Southern California. I want to educate people. If we bring to the plate something that's nutritious and tastes good, that's a good thing. We should all be trying to do that. I had to work like crazy to get the place that makes my [Polish] sausages to not put corn syrup in them. They looked at me like I was crazy when I told them no corn syrup or artificial anything. They told me it wouldn't sell, people expect those flavors in a sausage now, no one will buy it. That may be so, but it's not ethical, it's crazy what we're doing with food right now.

SI: We agree. So back up and tell us how a veterinarian becomes a cattle rancher. You've had the cattle ranch for a while, but you only recently started selling to the public.

DLN: We're been out in the public for only about a year now. All the years before, I sold the cattle back to feed lots in Kansas. I didn't have to mess with the retail end of it. But about three or four years ago, that really bothered me. I didn't want to sell the cattle anymore. I wanted to do this, to sell good, quality meat that tastes good but is healthy, no hormones, all of the Omega 3s still in it, like fish. We have all of these problems now, we have children who are obese, who have diabetes -- that's crazy. We can't keep doing that to our children.

And, you see I'm 75-years-old, and this is my last hurrah before I run over the edge of the hill or whatever, and this is something I think that is worthwhile. You get to my age and you do these things if you're lucky enough like I am to have the [financial] opportunity.

SI: We could all stand to take a little more of that attitude.

DLN: And then there's the environment. We use no pesticides, no herbicides. Nothing. That's a choice we make. It makes me feel good that we're not adding to the environmental problems that we've created. One out of four of our wells in the state of California is polluted. Are we going to keep going on until we destroy this gift we've been given? Bottled water will soon be the only thing you can drink. It just seems odd to me that we have this wonderful gift, and we're working really hard to screw it up for everybody.

But even when I decided to sell the meat retail, it took a few years to get the supply chain going, to find someone to process the cattle and to dry age them. That's especially hard when you're small. When they go into that processing plant, the only cattle they handle are ours. You'll notice on the container on the meat you'll see the ear tag number, so you can go directly to that animal if there was ever anything wrong.

SI: Since we're talking about slaughter... as a veterinarian, you've probably had your share of people who question how a vet who founded a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the euthanasia of unwanted house pets and feral cats can now be raising animals for consumption.

DLN: Yes. I treat all of my animals with great respect. That's what I believe. I tell all of my men, the cattle actually own the ranch, not us. For the two and a half years they're each with us, they run the ranch. I know that these cattle are taken care as humanely as possible because it's more of a passion than a business for me. When they are put down, it should be done with reverence. The least we can do is make it a halfway decent life for them. We put up rice straw bedding when it's wet, out of the wind, so they have place to go that they like. That kind of thing.

SI: Like anyone would do for a pet.

DLN: The cattle will come right up to us when we're working the fields, they come up to you at the fence and they want to lick you. And they do. I've had [some] workers that don't know what to do when that happens. But [I tell them] there are two good things about cattle when they're having a good time. One, they can be curious when they're not frightened. They'll take stuff right out of our pickups, they're snooping around, they're so happy. And by bucking and playing and that kind of stuff, that's what they naturally do. It's even half difficult to drive our cattle with horses, sometimes you can't get them to move. They're not afraid of anything.

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