The engineer in V. Mac Baldwin is always looking for a better system. Baldwin and other producers like him in the South are part of a “back-to-grass” movement in cattle production who are taking advantage of the consumer's desire for locally grown beef with health benefits.

Cattlemen and other producers of sheep, goats and bison in Southern states are latching on to this movement because it fits the South so well, Baldwin says. “For the most part, we can pasture animals year-round in the South.”

Auburn University and others are really getting hot on pasture-based systems. Grazefest '04 was a big kickoff in Montgomery, Ala., this past summer with more than 600 grazers attending. This year's meeting is scheduled in Jackson, Miss.

Baldwin, a retired engineer, who farms south of Yanceyville, N.C., in Caswell County, began his operation about 35 years ago with two-bred Charolais heifers and no land. Today, his operation encompasses 650 acres of deeded land and 500 acres of leased pasture. He points to 1992 as a pivotal year for the farm.

That year they began to replace fescue with winter rye and Marshall ryegrass for winter grazing and Red River crabgrass for summer grazing. The move essentially gave him year-round grazing and doubled his capacity.

In 1996, the addition of four, 500-foot hen breeder houses gave him the cash flow and nutrients needed to expand the farm. The layer houses annually yield more than 1,200 tons of the “finest organic plant food that feeds over 500 acres of top-quality grass.”

Bypassing the traditional middleman, Baldwin sells direct to the consumer, using savvy gleaned from direct-marketing gurus and a down-home, easygoing, word-of-mouth approach that has built a loyal consumer base.

He also sells some truckloads to Laura's Lean Beef, an all-natural beef company based in Lexington, Ky.

Baldwin says it's all about tapping into a better informed consumer.

”The housewife of today is very health conscious and is doing research on the Internet about her family's food,” Baldwin says. “She has learned that grass-fed beef is higher in Omega-3 fatty acid and in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is reported to aid the human immune system in fighting off disease.

“She is also having problems with other things than can get into beef such as hormones, antibiotics and preservatives,” Baldwin says.

On a recent trip to the supermarket with his wife, Peggy, Mac noted up to seven different sodiums in free beef. “I was shocked! This does not help the consumer's high blood-pressure problems,” Baldwin says.

His goal is to direct market his all-natural, grass-fed Charolais and create a “buzz” with his customers that makes them tell their friends, eventually making them customers. Armed with direct marketing books with titles such as “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell; “Permission Marketing” by Seth Godin; and “The Anatomy of Buzz” by Emanuel Rosen, Baldwin focuses on making strangers into friends and friends into customers and letting word-of-mouth do the rest.

“The hard part is first getting the attention of strangers and moving along to the first sale,” Baldwin says. “Then the product must be contagious enough, with enough inherent value, to create the buzz and keep them coming back.”

The per capita consumption of beef in the U.S. is about 65 pounds. Baldwin starts by selling his customers a 10-pound to 18-pound box of assorted cuts he calls “Family Pacs.” The he gradually works them up into a lifetime customer by selling them 40-pound boxes, quarters, sides or whole steers. The larger the purchase, the lower the price.

The Baldwins produce their steers from a herd of about 300 purebred Charolais cows that calve in April-June. “We calve late and wean early by Thanksgiving and keep the young, growing cattle — we call them kindergartners — on the very best grass,” Baldwin says.

“The ‘football team’ is the big 1,000-pound to 1,200-pound steers that are getting close to harvest. We don't give the football team the ice cream.” These steers graze behind the calves and move through a rotation over 35 paddocks. The dry cows are moved to “sacrifice farms” where they over-winter cheaply on stockpiled grass and byproduct feeds. The Baldwins feed very little hay. “Hay's too expensive to make or buy for dry cows.”

An old airplane hanger on the farm houses byproduct feeds bought in tractor-trailer loads. Feeds like soy hulls, wheat midds, peanut hulls and corn bran are used mostly to keep the cattle in good condition. Baldwin uses this system to extend the grazing when winter grass is short or in case of a summer drought. He stockpiles rye/ryegrass September through December and feeds it over the rest of the winter.

“Grass-fed steers can be supplemented on grass with some of this high-fiber, high-protein products without flipping the rumen bugs and losing the Omega-3 and CLA benefits,” Baldwin says.

Mac and Peggy began their operation in 1969 on rented land and Peggy's 19-acre home place. Baldwin was working as an electrical engineer for Bell Labs and Peggy as a registered nurse. “I didn't want to marry a farmer, but he tricked me,” Peggy says.

Baldwin tells young people who want to farm, “First get a good job, and then rent a good farm and do what you can, where you are, with what you've got. If you will go to work, God will do the rest. After all, he is the one who thought of work.

Baldwin publishes a free monthly e-newsletter he calls “V. Mac's Beef Tips.” You can subscribe by sending him an e-mail at vmac@baldwincharolais.com The Web site is www.baldwincharolaisbeef.com. Beef can be purchased on-line, at their On-Farm Beef Outlet and several Farmers Markets.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com