Home grown: Thousand Hills Cattle

Why grass-fed beef is the norm at Thousand Hills Cattle in Cannon Falls

By Dan Emerson

Editor's note: This article is part of Home grown, a feature appearing in the July 2013 issue.

While working as a consultant and CFO-for-hire for a number of small Minnesota companies, Todd Churchill never thought he would return to farming. Then in 2002, Churchill read a New York Times trend-piece about grass-fed beef that reminded him of his youth growing up on a cattle farm in Illinois. 

Churchill realized he had, for the most part, stopped eating beef after being repeatedly disappointed by the relatively tasteless mass-market meat sold at supermarkets. Churchill was inspired to found Cannon Falls–based Thousand Hills Cattle Company, a meat production operation specializing in the chemical-free, grass-fed beef that was beginning to find a consumer market. 

Churchill wrote a 50-page business plan but soon discarded it in favor of a simple mission statement: to provide consumers with "an incredible eating experience."

Grass-fed beef was once the norm, until cheap grain became the preferred feedstock for raising cattle. Over time, as producers relied increasingly on antibiotics and focused on producing food as cheaply as possible, relatively tasteless beef became the norm, according to Churchill. 

Anticipating growing consumer demand for higher-quality beef, Churchill worked with experts in Argentina and Australia to educate himself in the grass-fed animal-husbandry techniques that remain standard in those countries. 

He also made a serendipitous connection by serving as temporary CFO of Lorentz Meats, a startup processing plant also based in Cannon Falls designed to produce natural, organic, grass-fed meat.

The plant and Thousand Hills both got off to a rocky start. "We got the market direction correct," Churchill recalls. "We were just a little off on the timing - three or four years ahead of the market."

Today's standard industry practice of raising corn-fed beef made economic sense when grain cost around $1.50 a bushel. But it also produced unhealthy, artery-clogging beef. Today, with corn selling for $3.50 to $8 per bushel, the economic model has shifted. Using more sophisticated management techniques, Churchill has proven raising grass-fed beef can be an economically viable proposition. One of the keys is his selective approach to buying cattle only from ranchers who meet the company's natural/organic/grass-fed standard.

Grass-fed beef costs about twice as much as the "traditional" meat sold in supermarkets. But companies like Churchill's target a growing market of consumers willing to pay more for healthier meat. Major retailers are responding to the demand, as are neighborhood food co-ops. Thousand Hills customers include major retailers like Target, Cub Foods, and Kowalski's. 

Producing about two million pounds of beef per year, Churchill has achieved annual revenue growth ranging from 20 to 100 percent in recent years.  

Thousand Hills Cattle
: Cannon Falls
Inception: 2003
Leadership: Todd Churchill, president/founder/CFO
Employees: 7
Revenue: Not disclosed
Description: Grows and markets grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef