This Brahma is a lot of bull, with horns that look like they could open a car like a tin can, but also droopy ears that make him look like an oversized goat. Alex Fleming has no problem going right up to him — while I maintain respectful, journalistic distance from those horns — to give him a pet. “He’s kind of the babysitter here,” Fleming says. “I always feel he should be decorated in flowers on some street in New Delhi.” This approximately 25-year-old senior is sort of a mascot for the Zaca Ranch Cattle Co., a boutique beef operation out on Foxen Canyon Road in the midst of wine country (and, no, the ranch isn’t connected to Zaca Mesa Winery).
“The ranch has been in my family for three generations,” Fleming relates, “and when Dionne [Fleming, his wife since 2010] came on the scene, we took a portion of the cattle-calf operation and turned it into the grass-fed side. Zaca Ranch Cattle Co. is an offshoot of Zaca Ranch proper.” That’s 25 percent of the 300-400 head of cattle on the 1,000-plus-acre property. “A grass-fed operation like this is the Gucci of beef,” Dionne makes clear. And they mean completely grass-fed, for Fleming stresses, “Some larger beef providers not on the Central Coast lay claim to being grass-fed, but only 20 percent of their cattle are.”
What’s the difference, you might ask? Well, it’s only been the past 50 years or so that cattle have been mostly fed on corn, or grain, instead of grass. Fleming points out that the feed is only one issue, for “our cattle aren’t getting the growth supplements that make them fatter faster.” That means they have to keep them at pasture longer, and that’s one reason the end product costs more than most commercial beef.
You will taste the difference, though. Dionne, realizing the joke, says grass-fed beef “tastes grassier,” but by that she might just mean it tastes less like other things besides beef. Fleming wants to call it “gamier,” but that’s mostly in the sense that it tastes more like a wild animal, less like something kept and fed. Grass-fed beef does tend to be leaner (so cook it for less time), and many claims are made about other health benefits, from more Omega-3 good fats to fewer bad saturated fats. A chef like Leonardo Curti at Trattoria Grappolo finds their beef more like what he knew in Italy, and places like the Williams-Sonoma in Beverly Hills invite them for demos.
Right now, with the fields barely stubbled with green, the cattle get the oat hay that’s also grown on the ranch. Nightly, Fleming drives the red pickup and Dionne rides in the flatbed, dropping off 10-14 hundred-pound bales of hay. “Say a Pineapple Express comes in, and the grass shoots start coming up; well, that grass is 60 percent water,” Fleming explains. “That green grass goes right through them like the three of us tucking into a big bowl of lentil soup — you give them hay on top of that to get their metabolism back up again.”
The beef products are wide-ranging, from ground beef to flat iron to jerky, including one flavored with Zaca Mesa Winery syrah they can’t keep in stock. And they’re diversifying, too — the property’s sage makes it a natural spot for wild sage honey come summer — and then there are dog products (treats and bones).
“One thing I hate seeing in this valley is places getting chopped up — all the white fences and McMansions. If I can hold that off here, I will,” Fleming says. “What people don’t realize is most ranchers are the biggest environmentalists; we live on the land, so it’s in our best interest to maintain it.”
Where’s the grass-fed local beef? Find Zaca Ranch Cattle Co. at the Thursday Carpinteria and Friday Montecito Farmers Markets and by visiting zacaranchcattlecompany.com or calling (877) 946-9722.