Summertime grilling season is upon us, and from barbecues around the Central Coast plumes of smoke rise and float along backyard fences enticing neighbors to wonder… what’s cooking? It’s not uncommon to hear grill masters pondering the benefits of Santa Maria Red Oak over the old standby charcoal briquette, or boasting about British Thermal Units (BTU’s) roaring on a new gas grill. And there are always seasonings— rubs or sauce and injection or brine. So many different options, in fact, that often the true flavor of the meat of choice is overlooked entirely. But why worry about the flavor of the meat when you have South Carolina vinegar, teriyaki or Cajon jerk, mango salsa or chipotle cream?

The beef pro-ducers in San Luis Obispo County would disagree. They argue that flavor, tenderness and marbling are just as important as the plate on which the steak is served. That the flavoring of the meat itself and the smoke of the pit from which it is grilled are all that is desired in their perfect steak. In the hills north of San Simeon, just in from the rugged coast, Hearst Ranch is developing a cattle herd that they believe produces one of the best sides of beef on the Central Coast.

Entirely grass-fed and free-range, the Hearst Ranch cattle graze on 80,000 acres, making it one of the largest working cattle ranches California’s coast. The land on which the cattle roam will remain as is in perpetuity, largely because of one of the largest land conservation easement efforts in state history between the California Range Land Trust, American Land Conservancy and State of California, which successfully protected it from development.

When ranchers are left to run their operations without outside pressures of development, exciting things happen. Cliff Garrison, Ranch Operations Manager and San Luis Obispo County Cattlemen’s Association President, has been employed with Hearst Ranch since 1986 and took over the management of the ranch in 2000. Garrison has selected his cattle to best fit the land by crossing Heritage breeds—Certified Angus and Hereford with Short Horn.

“Selective breeding has allowed our cattle to have greater mobility, and they are able to graze on grass alone without relying on secondary supplements,” says Garrison. “The management and stewardship of the land for the last 150 years has allowed for high-quality perennial grasses to grow in abundance on the ranch.”

The plentiful forage of native perennial and annual grasses is said to produce high-quality, lean beef. Scientists believe the beef is nutri-tionally better for you.

“Scientifically, grass-fed beef contains three times more Omega-3s and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), both of which are beneficial in combating cancer cells in the human body,” says Roland Camacho, Production Manager. “The meat also has up to 10 times more beta-carotene.”

A high concentra-tion of beta-carotene in the marbling of steaks gives the fat a lower saturation concentra-tion and, therefore, a lower melting point, which means that grass-fed beef cooks faster then con-ventional beef. Hearst Ranch beef comes with cooking suggestions to help consumers prepare it properly.

The majority of beef produced at Hearst Ranch is harvested between April and July, just in time for the summer grilling season. The cattle are held for two seasons until they reach the average market weight of around 1,000 pounds.Today’s technology comes into play with tracing and identifying each animal.

“Each cow has three forms of I.D.,” says Camacho. “We have Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags on each animal, allowing us to store a tremendous amount of information.” The information is beneficial for both the producer and processer— and ultimately the consumer—as each cut of beef can be traced back to the animal and ranch from which it was produced. The information is also used to verify the certifica-tions the ranch has earned from the American Humane Society, the Food Alliance and the Good Housekeeping Promises certification from the Hearst Corporation.

To market their product, Hearst Ranch has developed a kiosk at the Hearst Castle visitors’ center to pro-mote cattle ranching, the beef indus-try and Hearst Ranch branded beef. “The branded beef program started in 2006 as a way for us to market our grass-fed beef away from the com-modity market,” says Garrison.

“We stand behind the product that we produce, and I am excited to put our name on every steak we produce.” Hearst Ranch also hasdeveloped an online store,, that currently ships their products overnight across the con-tinental U.S. Each vacuumed-packed and flash-frozen steak is packed in a cooler box with dry ice and sealed shut to ensure consumers receive their product still frozen.

As for flavor, both Garrison and Camacho say that their beef has a unique flavor not found in most com-mercial beef. Hearst Ranch beef enjoys a loyal consumer base of local and national food enthusiasts and chefs who want a high-quality product thattastes great and provides a healthy alternative to commodity beef.Ultimately, these cowboys just want to be cowboys. Garrison and his staff are practicing their version of sustainable beef production.

As stewards of the land, they have a passion for their industry and the product they produce. Garrison’s philosophy of “let cows be cows” prescribes allow-ing the animal to roam in plenty of space with abundant forage. He believes that this practice is as close to historical cattle ranching as they can come. Garrison hopes that through their work on the Hearst Ranch the entire industry will benefit.

“Promoting the consumption of beef and creating alternatives for the industry to market are just other ways for us ranchers to continue ranching and keep the industry going strong.”