by Cheryl Kepes
Photos courtesy BR Beef, LLC
Family friends collaborate to create successful direct sale beef business.
Starting in childhood, Erica Bianchi and Juli Figone, learned the importance of resilience and adaptability. As daughters of cattle ranchers in the rolling foothills of Gilroy, California, the two developed a spirit of determination and entrepreneurialism. The close friends and now business partners combined their passion for agriculture and marketing savvy to develop a direct sale beef business – BR Beef, LLC.
Origins of BR Beef, LLC.
Erica Bianchi grew up working alongside her parents, Robert and Chris Bianchi, running Bianchi Ranches, a large purebred and commercial cattle operation in the California Bay area. Erica returned to the ranch a decade ago, utilizing her college agricultural business degree at jobs in the ag communications industry, assisting at Bianchi Ranches, and building her own purebred and commercial herd. Erica worked hard to ensure she was making enough money to add to Bianchi Ranches’ proverbial pie, not take from it.
Juli Figone and the Bianchis are longtime family friends. For years, Juli’s worked side-by-side the Bianchi family to complete daily tasks on the ranch; from branding calves to managing the ranch social media account, Juli’s devoted herself to advancing the success of Bianchi Ranches.
Last year, when Juli graduated from California State University, Fresno with a degree in agricultural business, the idea of BR Beef started to come to life. The time had come for Bianchi Ranches to step into a new arena in the agriculture industry. After much discussion and planning, Erica and Juli collaborated with Robert and Chris Bianchi to create a business focused on marketing beef direct to consumers.
Building the Business
The ranch’s proximity to large metropolitan areas guaranteed the entrepreneurs a solid customer base. “We live at the tail end of the Bay area, so we are a really unique, diverse area where there are tons of different ethnicities in the area as well has a vast amount of people,” Erica Bianchi explained. “There are more than a million people within 80 miles of us and approximately 200 farmers markets in our area that we can choose to go to.”
The impetus for BR Beef also stemmed from the desire to maximize profits. “The difference we get paid versus what they sell in the grocery is obviously a huge difference, so we wanted to capitalize on some of that,” Erica added. BR Beef markets quarter, half, and whole beef through its website. BR Beef provides order pickup for customers at a variety of locations. The business also sells individual cuts of beef at farmers markets throughout the region.
BR Beef purchases its stocker calves from the family operation, Bianchi Ranches. Most of the animals in the program are Charolais or Red Angus cross influenced calves. The arrangement is mutually beneficial. BR Beef knows everything about the stocker calves it purchases; from birth to harvest the animal has been raised and cared for by the Bianchi family.
The stockers bought for BR Beef from Bianchi Ranches are calves that don’t fit into loads of calves headed to market. For instance, the calf may be an off age from the current group. The arrangement benefits Bianchi Ranches because the calves are purchased for the beef program instead of heading to the sale barn where they may not sell for their maximum value.
The calves are typically bought at around eight months of age and grown out to 1,200 to 1,400 pounds. The stockers are managed on sustainable grasslands. The steers receive supplemental nutrition of corn and brewers spent grain. As many as 40 steers are in BR Beef’s program at a time, with six to ten steers being harvested each month.
The fledging business encountered numerous challenges along the way. One of the most significant obstacles the Bianchis faced was being able to stay on butchers’ schedules. After much pivoting and relationship building with local butchers, BR Beef secured regular slots with USDA certified butchers. Additionally, the solution entailed utilizing two butchers: one for harvesting, cutting, and wrapping and another for grinding trim into sausage, ground beef, and hamburger patties.
Connection to Customers
One of Juli’s primary roles with BR Beef is marketing the business at farmers markets and interacting with the public. Customers frequently voice to Juli their desire to know their food sources. “It is almost every interaction I come to, everybody wants to know where the beef is coming from and more about us and our ranch,” Juli Figone said.
At the farmers markets, BR Beef showcases pictures of their cattle grazing in pastures near their homes. However, the photo in BR Beef’s display that catches the most attention doesn’t have a single cow in it. “One of the pictures I also have on our table at the markets is a picture of our family and that usually stops a lot of people in their tracks because they don’t understand that it is mostly the four of us working day-to-day on the ranch,” Juli shared. “People really like to understand that while I am able to take care of all the cows, I am also able to meet with them at the market and interact with them and tell them firsthand stories of what goes on every day.”
Juli seizes the opportunity at farmers markets and order pickup sites to educate consumers about agriculture. The face-to-face interactions gives customers a chance to learn about ranch life and agriculture. “I am able to bust a lot of the myths that they tend to believe and give them firsthand stories, just really touch base with them and let them know ranchers are out there and we really do just want to help our communities,” Juli said.
At times, California can prove to be a challenging part of the country for ranchers to operate. The Bianchis, like many ranchers in their state, must navigate new regulations passed by legislators in large cities. “All of those laws somehow affect us and the cattlemen in our area. It is an everyday struggle in this area to figure out what is coming next legislatively and to get past that,” Erica explained. The struggle spurs the Bianchi family and Juli to focus on educating consumers and legislators about agriculture. In addition to interacting with customers at farmers markets, they are all active in breed associations that advocate on behalf of ranchers.
In addition to running BR Beef, Erica and Juli work alongside Robert and Chris Bianchi to manage Bianchi Ranches. The four tackle most all the work themselves. Bianchi Ranches graze their purebred and commercial herds on 13,000 acres of owned and rented land. They manage a 250 head commercial herd. Charolais and Red Angus cross cows comprise their commercial herd. The Bianchis purebred operation consists of 125 Charolais cows, 50 Polled and Horned Hereford cows, and 50 Red Angus cows.
The purebred operation focuses on producing females that will be competitive at local, regional, and national shows. In recent years, the Bianchis added Black Angus and Simmental seedstock to their operation. They utilize the Black Angus and Simmental genetics to produce top-quality herd bulls and show females. Additionally, Erica and Juli devote time to helping juniors at livestock shows throughout the country.
The Bianchis utilize resources available in their part of the country to supplement their herds’ nutrition. They work with several local microbreweries to pick up the businesses’ spent grain. The spent grain serves as a nutritional supplement for the Bianchis stockers, bulls, and replacement females. “It is a nice filler grain,” Erica explained. “It is not going to make them super fat. It’s not super high protein, but it definitely helps get a little condition on them and helps maintain them.” The partnership benefits the microbreweries as well because it saves them from having to haul the spent grain to the landfill.
During the summer, the Bianchis’ cattle receive a special treat – cull bell peppers. The family works with local growers to purchase cull bell peppers to feed to their momma cows. Supplementing with cull bell peppers and spent grain helps stretch their forage through dry summer months.
Dealing with Drought
Prior to the drought years, the Bianchis started to enhance their water infrastructure. They worked with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to add solar pumps, troughs, and other water infrastructure. “We rely a lot on ponds and little springs to water our livestock and every single one of those were dry all summer, on all of our ranches,” Erica said. “So, if we didn’t have the water infrastructure in place, we just simply couldn’t run the cows.”
Bianchi Ranches recently installed a water monitoring system called Farmbot developed by a company in Australia. Sensors on water tanks send signals to the Bianchis cell phones reporting the water levels in the tanks. The program saves the family from having to spend time traveling over thousands of acres to check whether tanks are full or empty.
BR Beef and Bianchi Ranches battle obstacles daily, from drought to legislation and everything in between. But this longstanding cattle ranching operation remains unphased by difficulties. “Like with every business, there are these bumps that come along the road, and I think our family has done a really, really good job of being able to work together to find solutions that fit best for our company and make every one of us happy as well,” Juli shared.
Erica and Juli look forward to expanding BR Beef and possibly opening a physical store. But, no matter what the future holds, Erica and Juli are grateful for the opportunity to collaborate and to contribute to the overall success of Bianchi Ranches.
learn more at www.brbeefllc.com