There are the cows. Where is the beef?
This rather dreary February Monday has me dreaming about steak, and when I’m in la-la land these days the steak I’m picturing is grassfed. Call me a product of the times, I don’t care.
I’m thinking about steak, which, in turn, makes me think about some confusion I’ve observed among customers who follow our media outlets. They’re wondering how it’s possible that I’m posting current pictures of cattle on pasture, yet there isn’t any of our grassfed beef available in the Beef Barn. Isn’t the equation like this: cows = beef?
Well, I’m glad you asked! It’s a little more complicated than a = b in this case. I’ll briefly elaborate on the pasture to plate process that takes place on our farm.
Let’s start with a female calf, known as a heifer. We want a steak to sell, but we don’t want to eat her for two reasons: she’s just a calf, and, as an adult, she’ll keep making more calves (this is how the herd grows, providing females for breeding and steers for steak, generally.)
So we have to raise our little heifer for a year before she’s ready to breed. Bulls are introduced in August, so the summer months are pretty romantic for the guys and gals around here (one bull breeds a lot of cows, so it’s extra romantic for him.) Once bred, her gestation is nine months, just like a person. Calves come in late May and early June when the grass is deep and lush.
At this point it’s been a year and nine months we’ve been waiting for a steak. But the wait isn’t over. Let’s say our girl (who, upon calving, has transitioned from a heifer to a cow) had a bull calf. He is our future steak, but he’s freshly born; he’s too small to eat. (If she had a female, we’d keep the little lady to raise up and breed, so the whole process would start over without a steak.) We’ll quit focusing on his momma now and start following the male offspring.
I’ll insert a brief clarification detour here. The ideal target harvest age for grass-only cattle is somewhat elusive; we’ve tried 18 months and we’ve tried 24 months, and both have had their advantages. We’re looking for the perfect balance between rich, beefy, and unique flavor balanced with tenderness that is expected by American consumers. In 2019 we’ll be harvesting some 24 month old steers and some 18 month old steers for side-by-side comparisons. This delicious research will help us make better decisions in the future. Got it? Good.
Back to the story. Let’s assume a best-case scenario of an 18 month harvest age. In other words, after a year and nine months of waiting for the calf to pop out, we’re now staring down an additional year and a half of waiting for our bistecca fiorentina. And remember, I’ve been awfully happy with the flavor of 24 month steers, so it could be two more years, depending on the management decisions at the time.
After harvest, it’s a short wait while the carcass ages and develops additional flavor, then, ta-daaa! There is grassfed in the Beef Barn!! For about a minute, until everyone who’s been waiting swoops in and hauls it back to their personal stash. From my perspective, living every day with the animals, the process has taken three years and three months, and it’s over in a flash. That’s the definition of frustration.
The key to the whole equation is to accumulate enough females to produce an appropriate number of replacement heifers (girls we’ll keep and raise to have more calves) and bull calves (which are castrated and used for beef) every year while maintaining a group of yearling steers that are then placed into a finishing program that produces grassfed beef on a yearly basis in large enough volumes to meet demand. Oh, and don’t forget, we need to manage a rotating stock of bulls to breed the cows, too. And the grass quality fluctuates with the seasons and the weather and even the day (grass is sweeter in the evening) so we need to make sure our harvest dates line up effectively with lush green pasture or we could end up with some less than stellar steak that makes people angry instead of happy. Easy, right?
Here is the summary of my rambling today:
Yes, there are cattle on pasture on our farm as you read this, but we don’t eat every animal in the herd. We have to grow the herd enough so the ratio of cow-producing-cows and beef-producing-steers balances and creates a reliable, steady supply of our grass-only steaks and roasts. This process has been grinding away since 2012, and we’re getting close to a critical mass that will even out the roller-coaster availability that’s been plaguing us since the beginning. In 2019 we’ll have more grassfed beef than ever before, and by 2020 the supply should be stable enough that you won’t have to fight for a taste like people trying to haul the last TV out of Walmart on Black Friday. Our goal is grassfed born from the (sometimes agonizing) fires of trial, error, and adjustment, resulting in grassfed that is better than any grassfed you’ve ever tasted. That will be a lifelong process.
Surely you’re curious to learn more at this point, right? COME AND SEE WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT at our winter farm tour on SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23 from 4pm until dark. Food from Daddy’s Main Street (featuring Clarion Farms BEEF) and discussion will highlight the evening, followed by a farm tour so you can compare our grain fed beef production to our grassfed rearing. Friends, if you can’t get out and touch a cow and smell the smells and feel the wind on your face and shiver in a pasture, you’re missing most of the real food experience. It’s not just a steak on a plate. Come see the rest of the story! Tickets are $25 and must be purchased in advance at the Beef Barn. Call me at 814-221-0219 with questions or comments!