Duane Neiffer drives slowly through the gate and across the bumpy green pasture toward his cattle. One or two animals look up as he gets out of the truck, but most of the cows and calves keep grazing, unworried by his presence.
Then Duane opens his mouth and calls, “Hey Boss!”
The cows look up. The ones closest to him amble forward. Cows start to moo and more of them move, picking up a trot. Within a few minutes, Duane is surrounded by cows and calves, all regarding him with friendly interest.
He has been called the cow whisperer. It’s not hard to see why.
Duane and his wife, Linda, wander among the cows for a few minutes as Duane talks about the couple’s grass-fed beef operation.
“The base of our product is the grass we raise,” Duane says.
The Neiffers pasture their cattle on bunch grass in the spring, then irrigated pastures of fescue and rye when things start to dry out. In the winter they feed their own grass hay and, especially in the spring, a little alfalfa for calving.
Duane grew up on grass-fed beef from his family’s dairy farm in eastern Montana. He follows the same practices today on the Neiffer Triangle 4 Ranch just north of Ione.
“We butchered in the summer or fall when the animals were at their peak as far as grass was concerned,” he says. “We didn’t put them on a feedlot.”
The Neiffer family moved to Western Oregon when Duane was a senior in high school. He stayed in Montana to attend a year of junior college before enrolling at Oregon College of Education in Monmouth, where he majored in chemistry.
“I had no intention of becoming a teacher, but you go to a teachers’ school and they have a lot of influence on you,” he says
His first job took him to Heppner, where he taught science from 1972 to 1986 and worked for the Forest Service in the summers. That is where he met Linda.
Linda grew up in Minnesota, graduated from college with a degree in natural resources and went to work as a Forest Service seasonal employee for the Heppner Ranger District. She and Duane started dating during her second summer in the woods and married the next year.
The couple took a contract as the lookouts at Madison Butte and worked there on and off for several years. Their three boys, Jacob, Adam and Paul, spent their earliest summers at the lookout.
“We lined the whole catwalk with plywood, because we were concerned about the youngsters crawling off,” Duane says. “All five of us lived up there in a 12-by-12 room. Our only electricity was solar and we had a propane refrigerator. We didn’t have enough glass stools for everyone, so we insulated the feet of the bed.”
Eventually, Linda went back to school for an elementary teaching certificate. She taught in Boardman, where the Neiffers bought their first farm and started building their cattle herd.
In 2000, the family moved to Ione. Linda now teaches at Ione School. Duane, retired from teaching, runs the ranch full time.
“We run about 100 mother cows, Red and Black Angus,” Duane says. “They are one of the breeds that are good for finishing out on grass.”
The ranch takes its name from the triangle four brand used by Duane’s grandfather in Montana.
The Neiffers raised grass-fed beef for themselves, and sold calves like most ranchers do. Then a new career direction for Adam, their second son, opened an unexpected new market.
“Our boys kept clamoring for our beef, especially when Adam opened a CrossFit gym in Vancouver, Washington, in 2008,” Duane says. “The people in his gym wanted grass-fed beef and couldn’t get it anywhere, and when they could they were paying a high price. That was a turning point in our operation. Adam said, ‘We can raise quality grass-fed beef,’ so we started supplying him.”
CrossFit is a fitness program with affiliates, like Adam’s gym, located throughout the world. Nutrition is a big part of the program, and grass-fed beef fits in well.
The Neiffers started with a freezer in the Vancouver gym, which has since expanded to freezers in a number of different outlets, including the Ione Market. Last summer they began selling beef at the Heppner Farmers Market.
The cattle are butchered when they reach 1,200 to 1,300 pounds.
“You have to raise them somewhat longer, because they don’t grow as fast as they do in the feedlot,” Duane says. “It’s cheaper feed, but more time. Our butchers cut some steaks and see if it is marbled enough. If it’s not, that animal goes into hamburger.”
The beef is processed by a USDA-inspected facility near Troutdale, where it is aged for three weeks before being packaged for retail sale.
“We’ve tried to hold the price down because the CrossFit customers are a lot of young families who want to eat healthfully but can’t afford a lot of money,” Duane says. “I guess I’m saying we sell a lot of hamburger.”
They sell a lot of roasts, steaks and jerky, too.
Linda likes to cook the burgers a little on the slow side, and let them rest after they come off the grill so the juices are reabsorbed.
“I always like a good barbecued hamburger,” Linda says.
Duane nods. “I’d have to concur.”
Learn more about the Neiffers’ grass-fed beef on their Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/pages/Neiffer-Triangle-4-Ranch/212950902080000?fref=ts.