- Blue Nest Beef, a beef delivery startup, pays special attention to the bird populations living on cattle ranches.
- Bird life is a key indicator of environmentally conscious cattle grazing, one of the company’s principles.
- The National Audubon Society, a conservation group, is working with cattle farmers to protect birds on grassland ranches.
- View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.
You can tell if a cattle ranch produces good beef by looking for birds.
That’s the philosophy of Blue Nest Beef, an environmentally conscious company that delivers grass-fed beef to customers’ doorsteps.
Cofounder Todd Churchill inspects every cow at a ranch in Wessington Springs, South Dakota — and pays special attention to the nearby birds.
As it turns out, the little creatures are a key indicator of a healthy ecosystem.
“What we need is for the millions of people that love birds, and that want more birds, to buy their beef from the ranchers who want to use their cattle to create bird habitats,” Churchill told Business Insider Today.
Ecologist Josh Lefers, who conducts bird counts on ranches, said people have misconceptions about the environmental toll of the beef industry.
“We’ve heard over and over again, and it kind of drives me up a wall, but that cows are going to destroy the environment, right? That if we have cows on the land, that they are definitely causing erosion, they’re causing loss of biodiversity, he said. “But we really have to, as a country, come to grips with the fact that there is a place for cattle that are managed well.”
Birds need a variety of grasses for nesting, as well as nutrient-rich soil to supply their food chain. That means birds and cows living together is a sign of environmentally conscious cattle grazing.
“We are completely invested in the idea that birds tell us where life is abundant,” Churchill said. “If the birds want to be here, it’s because here is better than any place else around.”
But these kinds of places are becoming harder to find. Grasslands are now the fastest disappearing habitat in the US, and bird populations are suffering because of it.
“We’ve lost half the grassland birds in North America since 1970,” said Churchill. “Just conserving isn’t going to be good. We’re going to have to regenerate. And the only way we’re going to get that is if we can convince individual ranchers who control virtually all of the remaining grasslands in North America to do something different.”
Blue Nest Beef partners with the National Audubon Society, a conservation nonprofit that has certified about 100 ranches across the country as having bird-friendly practices.
For the National Audubon Society, working with cattle farmers is the key to protecting remaining grasslands.
“The majority of what we have left is managed and operated by cattle ranching and for cattle production,” Marshall Johnson, vice president of conservation ranching at the National Audubon Society, told Business Insider Today. “And certainly people don’t realize that that can actually work to be environmentally beneficial.”
Preventing overgrazing is a big part of that effort. At Jeannie Franceus’ Audubon-certified ranch in Wessington Springs, she oversees nearly 1,000 acres of land for just 57 heads of cattle.
“If people drive past an 80,000-head feedlot or a 40,000-head feedlot, and they smell that, it’d be easy to convince them that cows are bad for the environment,” said Franceus. “But if they come out here and spend a week with me, they would see things in a whole lot different way.”
“I don’t know anybody that works harder at trying to do this right,” cattle rancher Dennis Hoyle added about Franceus. “And I don’t know anybody that does it better than she does.”
Blue Nest Beef seeks out ranchers looking to devote more attention and resources to caring for each cow.
“When I go onto a property to evaluate it for Blue Nest, the first thing I notice is that feeling of abundant, riotous, chaotic, natural life,” Churchill explained. “And what I know is that whoever manages that doesn’t wake up in the morning trying to kill stuff. They wake up in the morning trying to get more stuff to grow.”
The company is working to spread that restorative mindset within the beef industry, but it doesn’t come cheap. Blue Nest Beef’s subscription boxes start at $99 a month for 10 pounds of ground beef, which is pricier than the national average of $4 per pound.
But Churchill says the cost difference is temporary, and ultimately, it’s an investment in changing the system.
“We have no intention of having a boutique, expensive premium beef company forever,” he shared. “This is a better way to raise capital than the current dominant system and the best way to make that change. And so we know that if we can achieve enough scale quickly enough, and get enough ranchers to manage their cattle differently, we could do this.”
And many have already seen what’s possible.
“I mean, look around,” cattle rancher Hoyle said of the Wessington Springs ranch. “This is cow heaven.”