KILLDEER, North Dakota — A thriving off-the-farm retail meat business in western North Dakota has gained value-added strength by buying into a butcher shop and upgrading it for federal inspection, allowing the folks who take their animals there to sell beef by the retail cut.
Dunn Burgers is based at Killdeer, North Dakota, in Dunn County. Partners Ben Murphy, 41, of Killdeer, and Weston Dvorak, 43, of Manning, North Dakota — lifelong friends — formed the company in 2019. Weston’s wife, Teresa, 44, is also integral. All hold advanced degrees in relevant fields.
In 2019, the three formed Dunn Burgers as a partnership. They started direct-marketing beef to area consumers, offering homegrown, reliable nutrition.
In 2020, the partnership joined with five other producers to form 6 in 1 Meats LLC — a partnership that bought a butcher shop and upgraded it to U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection.
This assured the partners of slots for the cattle they want to market individual meat cuts to consumers — individuals and local institutions.
Teammates for life
Murphy and Weston Dvorak are lifelong, natural teammates. They played on the Killdeer Cowboys football team that won the state Class B 11-man title in 1995. They both grew up on area ranches before leaving for college, with Dvorak graduating high school in 1996 and Murphy in 1998.
Dvorak grew up on the family’s Hills Valley Ranch as the fifth generation in the Manning area. He went to North Dakota State University, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in animal and range science and a master’s in cattle nutrition. It also was at NDSU that he met Teresa Baumann, who had grown up on a dairy and ginseng farm in central Wisconsin and came to NDSU to earn a master’s degree in ruminant nutrition.
The pair married in 2005, and before focusing all of their attentions on the ranch, Weston worked as a ruminant nutritionist for the North Dakota Barley Council and Teresa first as Slope County Extension agent at Amidon, North Dakota, and later as livestock nutrient management specialist with NDSU Dickinson Research Extension Center. Weston in 2018 joined the North Dakota Beef Council, which he would eventually serve as chairman, and he is active in North Dakota Farm Bureau.
The Dvoraks have a 400-head cow-calf operation of Angus-based cows, with pasture in the picturesque “breaks” of the state’s Badlands. Weston and Teresa in 2006 added a 1,000-head backgrounding feedlot to the operation, called Hills Valley Heifer Development. They finish some of their own cattle and do some custom feeding. They have dedicated a pen in the feedlot to the Dunn Burgers operation. Cull cows and open cows are marketed through Dunn Burgers as well.
Murphy was 14 in 1994 when his father, “Red” died. His mother, Sheila, leased out the family’s 3,000-acre ranch. After high school, Murphy went to the University of Wyoming to study banking and finance and play football. He transferred in 2000 to the University of North Dakota, where he was a short yardage tight end for UND’s NCAA Division II national champion team in 2001 as well as starting center in 2003 when they were national runners-up. He studied abroad in Greece on a UND exchange at American College of Thessaloniki, then finished his master’s in business administration in 2005.
After college, Murphy joined the U.S. Navy. He worked in Saipan, San Diego and at the Pentagon, and taught logistics at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. In 2013, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, leading to a medical retirement. (Today, he manages the MS by avoiding “triggers” — heat, alcohol and fatigue.)
As he was driving home to the farm, First International Bank at Watford City phoned him to offer a job as an ag lender in the bank’s Killdeer branch. Four days after coming home, he married Ashley DeLong, a personal trainer and kinesiologist he’d dated 15 years earlier in Wyoming. She brought two sons to the union — Wyatt, now 14, and Weston, 12.
Murphy made a good living as a banker, but ranching was in his blood. He started with a herd of five beef cows and finished 150 slaughter pigs per year that he purchased through the Cloverdale Growers Alliance. He’d sell the meat within 20 miles of Killdeer, an enterprise he’d done on a smaller scale as a kid. He got out of the pigs when his cow herd increased to 180. In 2019, he left the bank to focus on the farm and ranch. Murphy has an 80-head feedlot where he custom-feeds animals.
For years, Murphy and Weston and Teresa Dvorak had kicked around the idea of getting a better price for their cull cows than they were able to get at the sale barn. They figured direct-sale beef was the answer, but they didn’t take action — until Nov. 18, 2019.
That’s when Murphy went ahead and created Dunn Burgers, a general partnership.
“I just filled out paperwork and did it — we just started the business we’d been talking about for years," he said.
‘6 in 1’ — for all
The new partners had some out-of-state customers, so they took their animals only to U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected butcher shops at Williston or Hazen. Their first beef came back from Hazen in February 2020, about the time that COVID was hitting packing plants in South Dakota.
They quickly realized people wanted ground burger but also other cuts, like T-bones, rib-eyes and roasts.
As COVID hit, it became more difficult to secure kill “slots” at USDA-inspected facilities. Plants were booking out six to eight months. And processing prices went up.
On Oct. 19, 2020, the Dunn Burgers became a partner in "6 in 1 Meats LLC,” based in New Salem, North Dakota. The primary organizers of the idea were Weston Dvorak and Daryl Lies, president of NDFB. Other partners are Mark Voll, chairman of the North Dakota Beef Commission, with an address at Sidney, Montana; Travis Maddock, now of Maddock, North Dakota, who serves on the North Dakota Beef Commission and is owner of Dakota Global Consulting LLC; Donnie and and Trish Feiring, of Beach, North Dakota; and Dwight Grosz, of Hazen, North Dakota.
The 6-in-1 company concept went beyond just the direct-sale beef enterprises that half of the partners already had. It now put them in control of the butchering of their animals, which had become difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.
6 in 1 in January hired Spencer Wirt, 29, as general manager. Wirt and his wife, Kelsey, moved their family to New Salem in March.
Wirt worked in the NDSU Meat Lab while attending NDSU for animal science. After college, he managed a butcher shop in Bowdon, North Dakota, then managed the NDSU Meat Lab, where he coordinated the popular BBQ Boot Camp. Kelsey, who holds a master’s degree in animal science, had been a lecturer at NDSU’s veterinary technologist program and now works at Bismarck State College’s Polytechnic Institution.
6 in 1 has a federal inspector on site on Tuesdays. Spencer Wirt serves on the board of the North Dakota Meat Processors Association and said he expects the state’s number of federally-inspected plants, now at 10, to expand along with interest in selling directly to consumers. 6 in 1 has increased from eight animals per week to 12 animals per week, and could further increase capacity to 16 per week before they would have to add to the building. The plant has about 630 “slots” a year. The partners “own” butchering slots, proportional to their ownership. Currently, the owners account for 20%, but that could grow in 2022.
Zero, up or down
"We’re not making enough money where we’re going to buy a second vacation home in the Bahamas. We’re just adding value to the products we already have."
- Ben Murphy
Their consumers have shifted to value-based, repeat purchases, rather than “fear sales” during COVID.
Murphy stocks the Western Choice Cooperative convenience store at Killdeer. Teresa makes deliveries in the Dickinson area. She and Weston have four daughters who accompany her to farmers markets. Murphy makes deliveries north of Killdeer and also works farmers markets.
For years, Murphy has catered to oilfield and pipeline workers in the area — many young men who enjoyed grilling. He makes 100- to 400-pound weekly deliveries to schools and nursing homes. Announcers promote Dunn Burgers burgers at the Killdeer Cowboys football games. The company recently started a web site.
Murphy said Dunn Burgers will probably have a gross revenue of about $120,000 in 2021 — up from about $80,000 in 2020. The retail sales accounts for less than 3% to 5% of their cattle numbers and 10% to 15% of their value.
Dunn Burgers meat prices have remained static. In November 2019 — pre-COVID — the partners set prices to compete with a local supermarket. They charge $5 per pound for ground beef, for example, and expect to keep prices “flat.”
Consumers like predictability, Murphy said. He said he likes taking the “five middlemen” out of the equation, at least on a portion of the sales. Dunn Burgers allows them to add 15% to 20% to the value of a cull cow, and perhaps 30% to the value of a butcher steer.
“We’re not making enough money where we’re going to buy a second vacation home in the Bahamas,” Murphy said. “We’re just adding value to the products we already have.”