Thin Economics and High Quality Fat

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:10/27/2011 Updated:03/23/2012

This is part of our Lava Lake series.  Brian and Kathleen Bean’s family-owned ranch is located just southeast of Sun Valley where the Pioneer Mountains meet the Snake River Plain.  They own 24,000 acres and control 900,000 acres of grazing allotment lands.  Posts continue Tues/Thurs through October 2011.

The Lava Lake story is remarkable for its success on so many fronts, but that does not mean it has been easy.  “The bitter truth,” says owner Brian Bean, “is that it’s hard to make a profit in the ranching business.  The thin economics of the sheep business led us to seek improved methods of production and marketing.

“Sheep operations, in general, are price takers, we have no choice.  The year 2001 was terrible, when the price of lamb went down to 38 cents per pound. That year prompted the creation of the Mountain States Lamb Cooperative, of which we’re a charter member. It was formed by producers to have a voice in how their product was marketed and sold, in the hopes that it would help stabilize prices. MSLC also built in incentives for producers to raise all-natural lamb.

"In 2004," continues Brian, "we decided to take this one step further, and we established the Lava Lake Lamb brand to market our all-natural, grass-fed lamb. We started by selling lamb to local Sun Valley area restaurants, who gave us a lot of support, and then created a website ( to offer our product throughout the U.S.

Like Copper River Salmon

“We now have a national distribution arrangement with the Cooperative to provide fresh grass-fed lamb during a three-month selling season.  Like Copper River salmon, our product is only available when it’s fresh – in our case, during the summer and early fall. We just finished our second year in this program, and were really pleased to be in some of the best restaurants in Manhattan, and fine butcher shops and grocery stores all over the country. By selling as much of our lamb as possible through branded channels, we’re able to retain more of our profit margin.”

Organic or Grass fed?

Consumers are increasingly interested in where their food comes from, and Lava Lake Lamb has a great story behind it, because of the conservation work, and especially because of the way they raise their animals. Although a portion of the animals have been certified organic in some years, the Beans are most committed to the standard of grass-fed.  "Much of the lamb sold in this country is finished on corn and other grains in feedlots," says Brian, "which increases the fat content and changes the meat. We believe grass-fed has a better taste and texture, it’s more natural and healthier.  Grass-fed lamb has less fat overall but more of the healthy omega-3s.  
“If you want to focus on the relative environmental ramifications of grass fed versus corn-fed lamb - with the tillage agriculture, transfer of corn to the feedlot, and biomagnification of chemicals through the food chain - it’s almost ridiculous that corn-fed can be called organic!

"We’ve branded our lamb for economic reasons, but it’s grass-fed because we believe in it.

"Landscape-scale conservation is our mission. We are accomplishing that by carefully managing our allotments, which requires us to raise sheep. Because we raise sheep, we produce lambs, and have chosen to do so according to grass fed, all natural standards to bring the healthiest, most delicious product possible to the market. This is what we’re passionate about. We think this approach honors the land, and the animals we raise," concludes Brian.

Our series on Lava Lake concludes next week with an expanded vision for the future.

The entire Lava Lake Series:
Making Working Wildlands Work for Conservation

Cowboys, Heroes and Family Roots
How a Childhood Working with Cattle Led an Investment Banker Back to a Working Ranch

Getting Grazing Right
Using High Tech Tools to Manage the Flock and Follow the Grazing Prescription

The Heroes are the Herders
The duty of all staff at Lava Lakes Ranch is to leave the landscape in better condition than they found it.

Ranching Side-by-Side with Wolves
An Ecological Philosophy of Ranching

Co-existence with Wolves Through Research
How using nonlethal methods of wolf control has decreased sheep predation by more than 90%

Pronghorn: Spirit of the Grasslands
Using pronghorn antelope as a charismatic species to engage communities in maintaining and reconnecting rangelands

Thin Economics and High Quality Fat
How grass fed meat can support health while sustaining western ecosystems

Stepwise to a Grand Vision in Idaho
The many ways that ranchers in Idaho are contributing to the conservation of a great American landscape.