Ranchers interested in carving out a marketing niche for their specialty meat products will get the latest information on economics, processing, organic production and grass finishing at a conference co-hosted by the University of California Cooperative Extension March 21 to 22 in Chico.

Niche meats are growing in popularity as consumers hunger for exotic flavors, such as grass-fed beef, goat, sheep and other livestock; while others seek to support small-scale farming and conservation; and health-conscious consumers pursue more nutritious meat produced and processed using non-conventional methods. But moving into niche meat production can be complicated.

"Many people involved with niche meat today need a better understanding of the economics of their marketing enterprise," said Roger Ingram, the UC Cooperative Extension livestock farm advisor in Placer and Nevada counties. "Does it make sense to do it all yourself? If someone offers you $1.50 a pound hot carcass weight, should you take it?"

These questions will be addressed by the conference keynote speaker, Dave Pratt, chief executive officer of Ranch Management Consultants. Pratt's expertise on sustainable agriculture and profitable ranching is sought after around the world. He believes the high prices paid in supermarkets for niche meat products may lead some ranchers to assume producing it is profitable. However, that's not always the case.

"Most grass-fed operations that I've looked at operate at an economic loss," he said. "It is business structure, not price that drives profit. Overhead costs exert three times the pressure on profit as product price."

Profit secrets

In his presentation, Pratt will convey his "three secrets to profit" and how they relate to niche meat marketing enterprises.

Processing is also a stumbling block for many niche-meat producers. The conference will include a processor panel that will address the current situation, plans for and barriers to expansion, and ways producers can work collaboratively with processors.

Organic production and grass-finishing will be discussed the second day of the conference. Organic topics will include market trends, certification, animal requirements and processing. Results from a new UC organic beef niche market cost study will be presented for the first time. The grass-finishing section will cover animal requirements, forage flow, filling in the forage gaps and using crop by-products.

The final afternoon will be devoted to a meeting of the Northern California Lamb Producers Feasibility Study Committee, which is evaluating niche market opportunities for lamb.

The Niche Meat Marketing Conference will be held at the Chico State Farm, California State University, Chico. Registration for the two-day conference -- which includes two lunches, dinner and proceedings -- is $70 before March 13 and $80 thereafter. To register, send a check payable to "UC Regents" to Niche Meat Marketing Conference, 11477 E Ave., Auburn, CA 95603. For more information, contact Robert Ingram at (530) 889-7385, rsingram@ucdavis.edu.