Friday, February 7, 2014

Late last year, my kids' science teacher asked me some questions about beef production. My responses turned into a novella and so to make it seem that the time was not wasted, I thought I may as well publish them here. If you have any questions or wish to point out how wrong I am, please do so below or over at our Facebook page.

(some names have been removed to protect the innocent)

I am writing to see if you can help me with background knowledge for science class. The 6th graders have previously studied evolution and with it artificial selection and are currently studying the nitrogen cycle. Both of these are directly relevant to cattle ranching. And as your family are ranchers (this is correct, no?), I wanted to discuss with your son how these scientific concepts directly affect his own family. Also, I am curious about the answers.

How involved his your family in the breeding of the cattle on its ranches? What qualities are selected for (size, ability to put on wait, etc)? Are the genetics of the cattle examined? Have your family seen changes or improvement in breeds over time?

A big part of the nitrogen cycle has to do with feces and its decomposition. Animals poop, it gets broken down by bacteria and fungi, nitrogen compounds are released into the soil, etc. It's a whole circle of life thing. However, as I'm sure you know excess fecal contamination in aquifers and runoff is a bad thing. Does your family ranch deal with cattle waste? What should one be aware of when thinking about this issue?

I realize that you are very busy. Any help you could give would be much appreciated.

Have a good weekend.


Mr.  Science Teacher


Hey man, good to hear from you.

Yes, the family business is very active in selective breeding and we maintain multiple cow herds, for different markets, bred for different traits.

On a macro scale, all of the individuals in each herd have to fit a basic standard based on economics and environment. The animals must be structurally sound so that they can walk long distances to water, they must be able to efficiently grow on the native grasses that are present, be able to survive the relatively cold winters and hot summers that we have in the Sandhills of Nebraska, and must be able to reproduce on schedule once a year and raise the calf to weaning without assistance.

We have a herd of registered Hereford cattle that is for seed stock production. This is a small herd of females, about 100 or so, that are selectively bred using AI to whatever bull we think will make a good match. The offspring are then sold to other ranches that want to improve their genetics. A smaller sub-group of these females are sort of the "elite" group and they get super-ovulated a couple times a year, the eggs are then flushed out and implanted into recipient cows (who are good mothers that give a lot of milk, but don't have any of the other traits we are looking for) so that the donor cows can have a litter of anywhere from 2 -20 offspring each year. With this herd we are breeding for a certain phenotype that conforms to our interpretation of a breed standard. This means that the cattle tend to be larger than commercial or "commodity" cattle, have a proper color patter, have good pigmentation around the eyes and udder which reduces sickness due to sunburn, nice shaped head, smooth neck, narrow sloped shoulders, straight strong back, large depth of rib, be level from their hooks to pins, have a square hip, and exhibit a medium amount of bone in the skeletal structure. Additionally, we are generating a genotype that is measured through a tool called EPD's (Expected Progeny Difference), this is a data score that is generated using a central breed's database that keeps records for traits like growth and fertility of different blood lines.
Here is a heifer we have for sale:

We also have a herd of full Hereford cattle that are for club calf production. In a lot of rural areas of America, it is popular for kids to buy a steer or heifer in the spring, groom the animal and take it to competitions as they grow it out. There’s a bunch of different youth organizations that do this that you might have heard of like 4-H, FFA, etc. There are about 200 females in this herd, some are bred using AI, but the majority are paired up with bulls that we own. The selection criteria for this herd is nearly entirely devoted towards a certain phenotype once baseline standards are met. With these animals we are looking for more muscle, especially in the hind quarter, a more square composition, shorter rib, wider stance, and the ability to grow lots of fluffy hair. These animals look like this:

They probably look the same to you, but the heifer on top is a lot longer and much lighter boned. The steer in the second picture is built more like a box, has a lot more muscle in his hip, and with a straight shoulder like that, he won’t have as long a stride. The heifer will grow up to be a cow that can move really easily over long distances and can survive on little feed. The steer below only needs to live for up to 24 months, he will have every meal brought to him on a silver platter, and just needs to grow fast and look pretty. As an aside, the vertical D, M, underscore on the right hip is our brand.

We also have a herd of Wagyu cattle from Japan. This was probably our most challenging undertaking in that we had to take a small herd of seed animals and adapt them to our environment while still maintaining the aspects of the breed that make them desirable. Wagyu in Japan are the perfect example of single trait selection breeding. They have been bred for marbling, a trait which is controlled by only a couple of genes, along with a couple more that influence they types and amounts of amino acids that are produced. The first Wagyu that arrived on our ranch looked like some form of experiment gone wrong. A doctor in Oklahoma had done some sort of surgery on a minor member of the Imperial family and as a thank you had been gifted a couple bulls and 6 heifers. These had then been allowed to inbreed to the point that when we got them, they were about 30 head, many with cleft palates, unsound mobility, and just plain ugly. To grow the herd we out crossed those Wagyu with Hereford and angus cattle, this gave us what is called an F1 cross, 50/50 Wagyu. The best animals from that crop were then bred back Wagyu for an F2 which is 75%, then F3 which is 87.%, and so on. By F4 you’ve pretty much come full circle and have pure bred and now our herd is all F4 and above with all kinds of possible combinations, for example F3’s bred to F4’s, etc. If you’ve done it right then you’ve added in enough genetic diversity to get rid of the undesirable recessive traits and hopefully kept the traits for marbling. All in all, with bull lease programs and buy back options, there are about 2000 cattle in this herd under our control Visually, these animals now look like normal black cattle and they can survive in Nebraska. However they grow much more slowly, whereas it takes 18 – 24 months for a normal steer to get to slaughter weight, our Wagyu take 30 months and far less efficient at converting feed to meat. They taste much better though and so are worth a lot more money. Wagyu in Japan are raised in small herds, usually less than 10 animals, mostly indoors or in small grazing fields. They get a lot of individual attention so they don’t need the ambulatory, maternal, and survivability traits that we needed in Nebraska. We also bred the horns off of them because horned cattle are a pain in the ass to work with. A Wagyu cow looks like this:

She looks like a grown-up black version of the heifer in the first picture, small head, long smooth neck and shoulder (important for calving ease), straight back, long body, light boned. This photo was taken in July, she had a calf in May and hasn’t been given any supplemental feed since March but she’s pretty fat so she can handle the range pretty well. The difference in her and a commercial cow, is that her offspring will produces carcasses that are marbled like this:

The highest marbling grade given by the USDA is Prime, only about 2 - 3% of all cattle are graded Prime. Our Wagyu are over 99% prime, in fact they are off the scale in terms of marbling. When an animal does not produce a highly marbled carcass, we then remove those genetics from the herd.

Breeding for carcass quality is by far the most difficult of all traits. With the show steer herd, evaluation begins at birth, the offspring are sold within 6 months, and we can change what traits we are breeding for within a couple of breeding seasons. With the seed stock herd, the offspring are being sold at 1 – 2 years of age and it may take 3 or 4 years to react and bring about a genetic change in the herd. With the Wagyu, the evaluation doesn’t happen until the carcass is on the rail a full 3 to 3.5 years after conception, with 2 – 3 more calf crops on the ground, so it takes 5 – 8 years to make any meaningful breeding changes. We are keeping track of carcass data, tracking back to the breeding stock, and then making decisions that we won’t know are right or wrong for years down the road.

By the way, a good exercise on phenotype vs. genotype is the genetic determination of whether or not a calf will be horned, polled, or scurred. You’ve got dominant versus recessive, sex-linked, and the phenotype will only present for scurred if the animal is not horned. (Maybe a bit much for 6th graders)

Run-off is a big issue for feedlots. We have a very small (just a few hundred head) dry lot on the ranch which is a back grounding dry lot. Since it is not a finishing lot the concentration of animals and the type of feeds don’t present runoff problems. At the feedlot that we use for finishing, the utilize a lagoon system that catches runoff, stabilizes it through microbrial action, and then pumps it out for fertilizer on nearby crops. There are some pretty strict EPA requirements to minimize the chance of spillage.
Here is a pic of the feedlot outside of Burwell, Nebraska that we use:

The little dark dots are cattle. The big trapezoid shape at the top is the waste lagoon. Our feeder is also a farmer so he is using the runoff to fertilize his own crops which saves him money on purchasing nitrogen fertilizers. So there is a form of market-based incentive for the feeder to practice good environmental stewardship as the manure is a resource.

The issue I have to explain to people far more often than nitrogen cycles is carbon cycles. Ruminants do indeed produce large amounts of methane, which is a green house gas, however it is part of a carbon cycle that naturally occurs whenever plant matter is broken down by bacteria, whether inside an animal’s gut or decomposing on the ground. It is very different than methane pumped out of the ground which belongs to a carbon from a cycle that has been sequestered for millions of years.

Sorry, this turned into a book.


Jason P. Morgan
The Meat Guy on Amazon
TMG International KK
Tangodori 4-8-1
Nagoya 457-0822 Japan
Tel: 81-52-618-3705
Fax: 81-52-618-3706 

Bonus! Follow-up questions.

You said that you keep close tabs on the genetics of your animals. I imagine you take blood samples and have them sent of to a lab. Since when have ranchers been able to do this? Has their been some sort of Bovine Genome Project? How has this changed ranching, breeding, and meat production since when only phenotypes could be observed?

It is possible to run a variety of DNA tests on cattle to determine if they are carriers of a specific gene or trait. But the technology is certainly not at the level where you could look at an entire genome and evaluate it. The technology is more often used to identify animals that are at risk of being a carrier of a specific detrimental gene. For example there was an Angus bull that was very popular a few years ago that, through semen sails, sired thousands of offspring. It turns out that bull was a carrier for a recessive gene that would cause calves to be born with spinal issues, usually resulting in a dead calf. Now if you want to sell an animal that has that bull listed anywhere in it’s pedigree, you need to have a test done to certify that it’s not a carrier. We don’t really have to worry too much about that, we focus more on highly heritable traits like calving ease. If one sire tends to throw a lot of dystocia issues, you don’t breed to him again and you purge your herd of those genetics.  

Also, from your email, I have an image of a database where you keep track of all your cattle's family line, its and their genetics, observable phenotypical traits while alive, and quality of beef when slaughtered. Is that correct? Is this what the EPD is?

We have our own database for some traits include carcass traits that we use. However the EPD data base is maintained by the breed registry so it’s able to aggregate data from a blood line from all of the different ranchers that are using that bloodline. It’s all done through self-reporting and there is a lot of manipulation of data though.

With the inbred Wagyu, it sounds like the one breeding with the angus injects the needed genetic diversity to overcome the inbreeding and the subsequent F2, F3, F4 breedings are to get you back to 100% Wagyu. Is this correct? 
My understanding of the process goes something like this... 
The Angus provides the needed dominant alleles to mitigated the homozygous recessive genotypes that caused the problem phenotypes (cleft palette, etc.) in the F0 Wagyu. However, the genotypes that provide for the favorable Wagyu phenotypes (marbling, etc.) have to be bred back in while avoiding the problem homozygous recessive genotypes. The subsequent breeding of the F2, F3 generations accomplishes the former while selection of the most desirable offspring accomplish the latter.
Do I have this right?

That is pretty much how it works.

Also, I wanted to ask about GM beef. Does your family's ranch use GM livestock? Why or why not? What should I be thinking about when I think about GM beef?

There is no such thing as GM beef or any food animal for that matter. The technology is far too expensive at the moment and it’s likely that it always will be on a first generation basis. For example if they could modify a chicken to have four wings instead of two, while maintaining normal fertility, then they would only need to create a few GM hens and from then on just raise chickens like normal. But the benefit of the modification would have to really be game-changing, i.e. four winged chickens, to make this feasible. Plants are much easier to modify.

Another question, it seems that the cattle your family raises are largely grass fed and are free range. My impression is that is substantially different from most of the industry which use high density feedlots and uses corn feed. Any background on this would be appreciated.

Our operation is not significantly different than industry standards, except the scale is much smaller. Nearly all US beef cattle spend the majority of their lives free range and grass fed. The final finishing portion where corn is about 50% of the diet, with a mixture of other grains, and grass in the form of hay and other roughage making up the other 50%. Feedlot density is limited to how much feedbunk space you have and there is no such thing as an “overcrowded” feedlot. If you overcrowd, then not all the cattle can get to the feedbunk, and soon the feedlot starts losing money and going bankrupt. Most of what you’ve probably herd about the evils of CAFO’s and corn are the result of some extremely ill-informed pseudo-journalist/pseudo-scientists.  Here some more reading on grass fed if you want

And as far as the waste goes... how does the handling of cattle waste compare to the handling of municipal sewage? Are the processes comparable? It seems like the cattle waste is not as treated as municipal sewage. What are the issues when it comes to waste?

I don’t know shit about municipal sewage. I flush the toilet and after that, it’s dead to me.

One final question. We have also when studying the energy pyramid in class. I've heard a lot from sustainability advocates that eating "down the food chain" is more sustainable than eating up it... that one kilo-calorie of tomatoes represents a much smaller investment in terms of water, land, and energy usage and has a much lower carbon footprint than a kilo-calorie of beef or chicken. What should I know about this?

I really like to deal with things that can be measured and though I’ve read lots of arguments from food “sustainability advocates”, I’ve yet to see anything based on quantifiable hard science. With a system far less complex, for example fossil fuels, we can measure with a pretty high degree of accuracy how much we’ve pumped or dug out of the ground in the last century, how much still remains, what rate we use them, what impact it has on the environment, and whether or not the temperature increase is going to kill us before we run out of oil. Even with all that science, it’s still pretty hard to determine what the yard stick is for sustainable versus unsustainable.

Agriculture, on the other hand is far more complex than just energy. From a calorie standpoint, yes, you can get calories more efficiently from eating corn, than from eating cows that are fed corn, if you were to conveniently ignore the fact that cows have the ability to turn a wide variety of indigestible cellulose into tasty and nutritious steaks. However, currently the largest threat to public health is due to calorie excess rather than deficit. So calories are a pretty poor yardstick. Nutrients might make a better measuring tool, in which case beef, which is one of the most nutrient dense foods we have, might do a little better, but even then, it’s really hard to measure and compare nutrients because there are just so damn many of them. Too bad we aren’t koalas, things would be much easier if we only had to keep track of eucalyptus leaves in and eucalyptus leaves out.

There are a few more issues with the “down the food chain” model. It ignores our ability to utilize animals as an integral part of environmental stewardship. It also assumes that food and agriculture are a closed system. That eating a pork chop means taking x kilograms of food and water away from some other eater. Actually, a lot of animal feed utilizes left over ingredients from other product streams. For example we feed distillers grains which are a by-product of ethanol production (which may or may not be a “green” form of energy, that’s an entirely separate, equally complex issue). Finally, this top down model fails to equate luxury food with other luxury items. Basically, anything more than a few greens, a few grains, and a bit of protein is a form of luxury eating. Just like anything more than a bicycle or scooter is basically luxury transportation. The philosophy behind “down the food chain” that I have so much trouble with is that it doesn’t allow for individual consumer desire for something beyond a subsistence diet. If we were to apply that thinking to all areas of human life, then the most sustainable way to live would be for all of us to be housed in large dormitory dwellings, wearing mass produced smocks, and travelling in big underground tubes to work (I may have just described Japan). Nobody really wants that so I think we need to look at food and judge it as we would any other luxury product. A steak should not be compared to a bowl of beans, a steak should be compared to a silk tie. Now if we only had some way to place a value on all the labor and resources required to bring each in front of the consumer so he could make an informed decision about which one to buy…In short, I get annoyed when the meat industry gets attacked for being “unsustainable” when industries like alcohol, or entertainment, or jewelry are not called upon to justify their use of resources to produce items that have no nutritional value. (For the record, I don’t think we should get rid of any of those things)

Final final question: the two pictures of the cattle you showed me looked exactly alike. Even after reading your explanation of the differences I am at a lose to tell the difference.  How long would one have to work around cattle to develop an "eye" to discern these differences?

I don’t know, it’s probably a bit like language acquisition in that the earlier you develop the skill, the better your chances of fully being “fluent” in cow. There may be adults who, with no background in cattle, have learned to visually appraise animals, but I’ve never met any. Nobody ever goes into ranching, your either born into it or somehow grow up around it. I’ve been away for so long that I am definitely rusty which is very embarrassing when I go home. To a trained eye, the animals all look different and ones of higher quality jump out just like a pretty face in a crowd.



Congratulations/Condolences if you've actually read this far. Now go outside and do something.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Grass Fed Beef – it’s probably not what you think it is.

Most of what you’ve heard about grass fed beef is, forgive the pun, bullshit. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this. As a meat seller, I should just get some grass fed beef, jump on the bandwagon, jack up prices and merrily push it down the tubes. Unfortunately, I’m also a meat grower and every time I read another missive on how grass fed beef is so great it makes me want to rip out my eyeballs.

Alternative beef has been gaining traction for years now. I think this is a great thing. Just like a booming micro-brew business gives consumers extra choices and brewers increased employment, a plethora of protein options gives us all greater food security and a healthier agricultural economy. But somewhere along the way a few sensationalists jumped into the fray and started a snowball of faulty analysis that has turned into an avalanche of disinformation.

I think the largest contributor to this is the writer Michal Pollan, whose book, “The Omnivore’s Dilema” has become something of a bible for the grass fed beef industry. I have not read the book, I don’t plan on reading the book because maintaining a stable blood pressure is important to me, but I’ve had hundreds of people tell me all about this book so I think I’ve got some idea of what it says. However since I haven’t read it, I’m not going to address the book, rather I’m going to address what I’ve seen as the most common conventional wisdom regarding why grass fed beef is so gosh darned great.
In a nutshell the popular belief seems to be:
1.   Cows in their natural state are grass eaters but
2.   Feedlots confine them and force them to eat corn and then
3.   Their stomachs go haywire so
4.   Feedlots feed them antibiotics which
5.   Create antibiotic resistance in humans if only
6.   We all ate grass fed beef, everything would be peachy.

On the surface, this seems to make a lot of sense. To the layman this is a very logical argument and it has a nice feel good message to it. It’s simple and people love simple problems with simple solutions. But this slippery piece of pseudo-scientific reasoning has more holes than a high-end whorehouse.

The problem is that:

  1. Cows eat all kinds of grasses, grains, stalks, leaves, etc. Cows are amazing in their ability to turn just about any type of cellulose into protein. Cows can get fat at the salad bar, how cool is that? They’ve got these massive rumens, inside of which are a host of bacteria that ferment their forage until it can be absorbed. They even chew it multiple times just to squeeze all the nutrients out.  So to oversimplify a cow’s diet into two fields (ha!), grass or grain, is very misleading. *In case you were wondering, the four stomachs of a cow are the rumen, the reticulum, the omasum, and the abomasum. If we ever get into a trivia match, I will ask you that question.
  2. You can't force feed a cow anything. Food is put out for them twice a day, hopefully they will eat it all. But if cows aren't happy, they stop eating, don't gain any weight, and that makes farmers sad. Feedlot operators, who are often farmers who buy cows to feed their crops to, get paid by the difference in weight of the cows going out, versus that of the cows coming in. They hope to have an average daily gain of over 3 pounds. To do that they need to have a feed mixture that is balanced with enough energy, protein and roughage. Corn is used as the energy portion but cattle are fed a lot of things other than corn. Another thing on the subject of feedlots, cattle are not crammed into them. There are guidelines regarding how many square feet is needed for one steer or one heifer. But the real limiting factor is the amount of feedbunks. There has to be enough feedbunk space for every animal in the pen to eat or they won’t gain weight. Since the bunks usually run down one side of the pen, that’s how you determine how many animals you can fit in the pen. Huge pens don’t mean anything. Cows are herd animals, you could give them 20 acre each and they’d still all be bunched up together right in the spot that you don’t want them to be.
  3. Their stomachs do occasionally go haywire, the two biggest problems are bloat and acidosis. These can happen on rich grass as well as corn. Feeders don't want this to happen because it makes them go off feed and sometimes die. It is not only possible, but it is actually normal for feedlot cattle to have a very low incidence of both disorders. This is because the feeder does a good job of blending the feed allowing the cattle to slowly grow accustomed to new feed mixes. If the feeder doesn’t do this well, then his cattle don’t gain weight, he doesn’t make any money, and his daughters end up on the pole down at Bubba’s Lusty Longhorn. Feeders don’t want that to happen.
  4. The antibiotics that are used in the beef industry are mostly to influence the flora of the gut to increase feed efficiency. Prophylactic drug use tends to be reserved for high stress times like when cattle have just been moved into a feedlot or when the animal is really sick. It is OK if you read the word prophylactic and sniggered a bit at the thought of steers in condoms. When antibiotics are used for anything other than to promote daily gain, the goal is to get them off the antibiotics as quickly as possible because they are expensive.
  5. There is some risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria crossing over into humans. But it's not been happening and people have been looking for it pretty intensely. Two types of antibiotics make up 70% of those used in food animals; Ionophores at about 28% and Tertracyclines at 42%. Ionophores aren’t used in humans at all. Tetracyclines only make up 1% of the antibiotics used in humans. However one of the uses is to treat Chlamydia, so that’s a bit scary right there, fortunately there are other antibiotics that work better so you’ll be OK if things get a little out of hand at the Kyabakura. (My internet history is currently really sketchy…) If you’ve heard any of the anti-antibiotics mantra, you are probably familiar with the statement that 80% of the antibiotics used in the US are for animal agriculture. That’s a frightening number, but it’s not really news. Antibiotic use in animals has been regulated since the 50’s, and yet the vast majority of the science regarding resistance in humans has firmly pointed to the overuse of antibiotics in humans. This is something that we should keep a close eye on, but it really has next to nothing to do with grass fed beef.
  6. So if you have been using those arguments to solve the dilemma of being an omnivore in a complex food landscape, you might say the points are moot.
In addition to the grass fed movement playing very hard and fast with the facts, there is still not really a hard definition of what grass fed actually means. Nearly all cattle spend a portion of their lives on free range grazing. The typical steer or heifer raised for beef in the US will be slaughtered at 24 months of age. The final finishing portion in which the steer is fed a diet high in corn and other grains is usually for just the last three or four months, up until then, it was almost all grass. Also, inside the feedlot they get fed a lot of hay, so basically any US beef could make a 90% grass fed claim and be pretty honest.

Most places promoting grass fed beef like to call their beefmake 100% grass fed. I have no idea what this means. The USDA does regulate the grass fed claim, this is what they say about it:
Grass (Forage) Fed – Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen. If incidental supplementation occurs due to inadvertent exposure to non-forage feedstuffs or to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions, the producer must fully document (e.g., receipts, ingredients, and tear tags) the supplementation that occurs including the amount, the frequency, and the supplements provided.
There are a couple holes big enough in that definition to steer a bull through. First, grain crops can be fed in their pre-grain state. So while you can’t harvest corn and then feed them the corn, you can turn cattle out in the corn field and let them eat if off the stalks. Or you can even go out and chop down the corn before the kernels have dried into grains and feed them the silage. Second, the animals need to have access to pasture (I don’t know what size a pen has to be before you start calling it a pasture) during the growing season. Well, where I’m from in Nebraska, the growing season feels like it’s about 6 weeks long but is in fact 123 days. So you could theoretically background on grass all summer and fall, put them in the feedlot and feed them corn silage all winter, slaughter in February and call it grass fed. If you’ve ever had any really tender and juicy grass-fed beef in the US, this was probably what you had. I really don’t get the point. The reason it’s so confusing is because grass fed beef as a market niche has evolved due to a dislocate with reality as a result of some massive consumer confusion and the industry and regulatory bodies are having a very difficult time catching up.
At the moment there are a lot of different products that can make the claim to be grass fed. 
·         There’s beef that comes from cattle that spend all of their lives roaming pastureland and grazing with no supplemental feeding until they are finally captured, killed, and cut-up. This can only come from places that don’t have a severe winter because snow seriously impedes a cow’s ability to graze. Our Australian grass-fed is like this. The problem with this is that it’s very hard to have much consistency. The animals are harvested according to the calander, not according to their size or how fat they are. Sometimes it will be great, sometimes it will be so-so.
·         There’s beef that comes from cattle that graze part of the year and then are supplemented with hay or silage for part of the year. The quality of this beef depends on what breed of cattle it is, what types of grass they are grazing, and what the terminal weight and age of the animal ends up being. There is a huge range of quality in this category with most of it being on the low end.
·         There is beef that comes from animals that are raised in intensive rotational grazing environments on a variety of farmed forages. I got to see some of this in New Zealand (although it’s not the only method there and New Zealand is not the only place that does this) and I thought it was pretty cool. They plant their paddocks, which look a lot like pastures only smaller, with different plants like kale, oats, I even saw chicory, depending on the phase of the growout. Then they turn their steers lose in a small fenced off area until it’s all been consumed and move them to fresh forage every couple of days. This will produce very tasty beef, but considering all of the labor it requires, it really seems like it would be easier to just harvest the crops and then feed the cattle.
·         There is beef that comes from cattle that are in pastures that have feedbunks in them, and into these feedbunks cattle are given feed which is made up of a mixture of hay and cereals that are still “in their vegetative state”. I reckon that from a distance these places would look a lot like a feedlot, but I bet these feeders would get a bit touchy if you called it that. The best looking and tasting grass fed beef that I’ve seen came from places like this.   

“But grass-fed beef tastes better.” If you say that in my presence, and if I think I can get away with it, I will smack you on the back of your head. There are a couple of reasons why grain fed beef has become the standard in the industry. Feeding cattle grain during a final fattening stage called finishing produces a very consistent product with a higher level of marbling than beef that is not grain finished. Marbling is the single most important factor in determining palatability and tenderness. It’s not a matter of personal preference, our taste buds recognize the fats in marbled meat and our palates prefer that fat. In every blind taste test ever done anywhere by anyone anytime in the history of eating cow meat, abundantly marbled beef tastes better than beef with little or no marbling. Corn does a very good job of increasing marbling.

“But what about the Omega 3’s?” Whenever I hear this, my smacking hand starts to get twitchy. First off, you should never make dietary decisions based upon one micronutrient, with the possible exception of Vitamin C because scurvy is a bitch. The studies on this have been very limited and while there is some correlation, that doesn’t mean that it’s a causal relationship. I personally suspect that the formation of Omega 3 fatty acids in beef has more to do with genetics than with feeding. That would explain why Japanese Wagyu, which are more intensively grain fed than any other beef on the planet, is also high in Omega 3. The science of nutrition is still in its infancy, if you want to eat healthily, eat a lot of different things.

“But what about sustainability?” This is fodder for a different posting, but without defining what sustainability means, it’s hard to make any claims. I have yet to see a measurable definition of sustainablitly, but I see the word used a lot to sell things that are definitely not good for the environment.    

My apologies for the exceedingly long post, but I think beef is great, some beef is greater than others, but there’s no reason to denigrate any particular method. There are a number of large challenges facing the beef industry, issues like concentration in the packing industry, reluctance of youth to enter agriculture as a profession, conservation of resources, etc., etc. But grass fed versus conventional is not one of the serious issues of the day and it pains me that so many people think it is. The import take away form all of this is to buy all of your beef from The Meat Guy! Because beef from any other source will cause your hair to fall out and force your female offspring to enter into salacious employment.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sous-Vide in a Cooler! (A cool recipe)

It's winter time and my cooler was feeling neglected. I've been wanting to try out some sous-vide cooking and have been reading about a good hack that uses a beer cooler to hold the proper temperature. Last week, a customer with poor quality identification skills, returned a perfectly nice eye of round because it "looked bad". An eye of round is excellent for sous-vide since it really benefits from low and slow cooking.

In case you don't know, sous-vide is a method of cooking that involves putting whatever you wish to cook in a waterproof bag, and then submersing that in a water bath that is the desired internal temperature you wish to cook to. There are loads of benefits, the main one is that your meat (sous-vide can be used for fish or veggies as well, but we'll stick to meat) will be evenly cooked to the same degree of done-ness throughout. Because this is low and slow cooking, the collagens in the meat have adequate time to break down into gelatin, making the meat soft and palatable. Also, since the meat is not exposed to high temperatures that cause the proteins to contract and squeeze out moisture, sous-vide cooking creates a juicier result.

Sous-vide can be slightly riskier from a food safety point of view than conventional methods, so if you have a compromised immune system, you probably shouldn't try it. Of course, if you have a compromised immune system, you probably shouldn't try anything. For medium rare, the target temperature is about 55°C, this is well below the official "safe" temperature of 63°C° (held or "rested" for two minutes) for whole muscle cuts and 70°C for ground meats. This is normally not a problem with conventional cooking methods because the outside of the meat, which is where the bacteria are, is brought to a much higher temperature. Fortunately while a short stay at a high temperature kills nearly all bacteria, a long dip at a lower temperature, like our 55°C Medium Rare roast, does just as good a job. The danger is if the chef isn't paying attention and allows the water bath to drop into the 40°C range. Bacteria love that temperature and they start having single celled orgies and can also release toxins that, even if you later kill all the bacteria, can still send you to the outhouse - and not in the fun way. The other danger is the Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which is a hardier bug that, rather than dying at low temperatures, just goes dormant and can come alive later like some kind of microbiological zombie. Fortunately botulism is very rare and so long as you keep hot foods hot, and cool them down quickly for storage, the risk is very small. I'm pretty sure that my greatest risk of accidental death due to sous-vide cooking comes from the possibility that I might get drunk and drown in the cooler. I encourage you take steps to mitigate that risk, perhaps wear a snorkel while you work.

Now, on to the cooking! What you will need:

Step 1. Admire your meat.

Step 2. Rub some salt on your meat.

Step 3. Rub some spice on your meat. So good.

Step 4. Put the rocks in the bag. Put the meat in the bag. Pour some beer in the bag. The rocks weigh the bag down so that, in case you aren't able to squeeze out all the air, it will stay submerged in the bath later. The beer has two purposes; first it makes it easier to squeeze all the air out of the bag since it's kind of hard to do that with just rocks and meat; second, when the wife asks, "why are there so many empty beer bottles in the kitchen?", you can say it was "for the cooking!" 

Step 5. Squeeze all the air out of the bag. The easiest way to do this is to submerge the open bag in a big tub of water (with the opening above water), as you press it down, all the air will come up, then tie it off underwater.

Step 6. Chuck the whole thing in your cooler which is filled with water that is at a slightly higher temperature than your target. I was shooting for 55°C. I knew I was going to be gone for several hours so I filled up my cooler alternately with boiling water and "hot" water from the tap until I got it the temperature to around 62°C. I checked the temp about 10 minutes after I put in the roast and the temperature had dropped to about 58°C so I threw in one more pot of boiling water, just for good measure. I should have probably checked the temperature again a few minutes after that, but I just allowed the power of my personal awesomeness to carry me through. The more water you have in the cooler, the better it will be at holding a stable temperature, so fill the cooler up.

Step 7. Close the cooler and wait. It might not seem like it, but you now are cooking. For this example, the roast was in the cooler for about 8 hours. The cooler was never opened and the temperature of the water when I took it out was about 54°C. Sous-vide is very forgiving, a few hours more or less will barely affect the product at all. It's not uncommon for chef's to leave meat in the sous-vide bath for 2 or 3 days. If going beyond 8 hours in a cooler though, you will need to periodically add hot water to keep the temperature up. An eye of round is the tenderest of all the tough cuts of meat, if doing something that starts out more tough, 12 hours or so would probably be best.

Step 8. Take the bag from the cooler.

Step 9. The moment of truth. Notice how the shape of the roast has hardly changed at all. If this were roasted in an oven the areas with fat cover and connective tissue would have shrunk more than the red meat and it would look a little shriveled.

Perfectly done, nice even pink, and none of the juices are running out.

Step 10. Get your Maillard on. It's perfectly fine to eat the roast right now, but to make it even better, a nice crunchy crust is the way to go. The process where meat sort of caramelizes on the outside and gets all tasty is called the Maillard Reaction. It is hastened along in the presence of butter so...

Then turn off the fire alarm and add meat.


Step Finished. Slice it up, serve it with a sprinkling of sea salt, if you have guests, tell them you've been slaving for hours.

Note: The other half of the roast I sliced thicker and cooked like steaks in the pan, fabulous!

You can Add an Eye of Round to your shopping cart right here!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Turkey up in your turkey

Yo Dawg, I heard you like turkey...
and stuffing...
and cranberry sauce...

So we put some turkey, 
and stuffing, 
and cranberry sauce,
all up in your turkey, 
stuffing, and 
cranberry sauce.

Totally Festive Stuffed Turkey Breast!

Cooking turkey is fun. Most folks only do it once or twice a year. I do it a lot more than that because, I sell turkey, but also, I like turkey. It's the least foul of all the fowls and because turkeys have great big breasticies, there are many things you can do with them. Like, for example, play LA plastic surgeon and stuff 'em up!

1. Gather around some company. Turkeys get lonely, you should always plan a feast when cooking up turkey meat. You'll need some starches, some sweets, some green stuff. Get it all together.

2. Tenderly lay out your breast and prepare it for the sacrifice.

3. Splay out the breast. Lay you knife flat, leaving about 5mm on the bottom, and cut it open into one big sheet.

4. Now prepare the sweet, sweet edible silicon replacement that we will use to pump this breast up. In a blender, throw in some of our stuffing mix, some olive oil, and about a half can of cranberry sauce

5. You may need to force it all down into the blender to get it all chopped up, but it should then look like this...not tasty looking at this point.

6. Now, lovingly spread it all over that breast. As always, whenever touching meat, this is a good time to whistle. It calms the meat and makes for less awkwardness should someone walk in on you.

7. Roll it all back up, not too tight, you don't want your stuffing to be forced out. Then gently slide some kebab skewers through the roll to hold it all together. Finally, rub a bit more olive oil and spice (Almighty Spice) on the top.

8. At this point, the breast is ready for some hot, hot lovin'! It needs heat, about 180ÂșC worth, for an hour or two. After the first few months at least, man cannot live by breast alone. Thus pick out a few side dishes and make them all supplicate themselves to the heat source of your choice. In this case, a Roaster Oven.

9. There are many ways to tell if your feast is ready. But pop-up timers are an easy one, and it just so happens that we offer them for sale.

The timer will look like this:

10. Next, let the breast rest. It's worked hard and needs some time to recover. no less than 10 minutes, 20 - 30 is better. This will allow the juices to re-align themselves, much like impotent dictatorships following the Cold War. However in you kitchen, you'll be able to reign in the blood-loss and the waiting makes for a more succulent breast.

11. Carve it on up! If you've done well, or even if you've only done it half-ass, you will be rewarded with a spirally, meaty, masterpiece.

12. This really was not that much work, it didn't cost much either, so to overcome your guilt, you should serve this on some sort of big wooden plank raised up off the floor. There should be fire, captured on a stick, plates and utensils that peasants can wash later, and plenty of God's inebrious nectar straight from the bottle.

Of course, if you've done everything to perfection, dirty little street urchins will invade you house and try and steal your turkey. Really bad "Yo Mama" jokes will usually drive them away...

Happy Turkey Hunting!

The next time I make this I might do a couple things differently:
  • Rub a bit of salt on the breast once it is all spayed out. This will extract some protein and make it all stick together a bit better. A bit of pounding with a meat mallet would do the same thing.
  • It would probably be better to turn the bread portion of the stuffing into crumbs and then mix in the liquid. This would make it a little dryer so it sucks up more of the turkey juices.
  • I'd drink more wine. I've never seen a recipe that couldn't be improved by the cook drinking more wine. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Turkey Confit in a Rice Cooker

This is an oldy but a goody.
I’m always looking for new ways to cook stuff, partly from curiosity, partly because my oven sucks. I was speaking with the chef at one of our restaurant accounts and got interested in confit. Confit, which is French so the “t” is silent for some reason (to get the pronunciation just right you should slur like you’ve just polished off a sixer of chu-hi), is an old-fashioned way to cook and preserve meat.Traditionally you salt the meat and then cook it in it’s own rendered fat, duck leg confit is a staple on the menu at most French restaurants.
Even though confit is cooking in oil, it’s different than frying, it is slow cooking at low temperatures for several hours. I’m not really good at doing anything that takes several hours, both my attention span and memory are so short that the last time I tried to make regular coffee as opposed to instant, the pot sat for two day before I remembered to turn it on. However, I am really good at chucking meat at a heat source and turning up later to see if it’s ready. It turns out that I have an appliance in my kitchen that is perfect for this sort of thing—the rice cooker!
The way a rice cooker works is that it does three basic things. First it brings the pot to a boil under pressure to capture the steam, next it holds that temperature for about 15 minutes to allow the rice to absorb the moisture, then it goes into a “warm” phase to keep it hot. So it quickly heats to 100°C, then drops down to around 50 or 60°C, hot enough to cook and kill any bacteria, but too cool to fry, perfect for confit.

I started with a nice little 7 pound turkey that I had laying around and a pulled out the timer and the plastic thing that holds the legs together, you don't want to cook these in oil.
My rice cooker is not so big so I cut it up into pieces, if you have a large enough cooker, you could do this with the whole bird, that would require a lot of oil. I broke the bird into the leg and thigh portions, wings, back, and breast. There is not much meat on the back so I threw that part into the soup pot along with one wing that wouldn’t fit.
Next I scored it so that the spice rub would penetrate into the meat, then I rubbed it all over with some of our Almighty Spice (oh so very mighty!). This bird was pre-brined so I didn't really need to do much more. If you are working with a bird that has not been brined, then you should generously rub some salt on it as well and let it sit for 10 or 20 minutes.

Pack it into the pot of the rice cooker and fill it full of olive oil. Theoretically you could use a differrent type of oil, but olive oil adds some flavor without greasiness and doesn't produce any bitter aftertastes.

Normally when cooking rice the cooker needs about 10 or 15 minutes to heat up, then it switches into warmer mode. Because I had the bowl totally filled with turkey and oil it took about an hour for it to heat up. I then got drunk, went to a nudie-bar, got kicked out, passed out on the sidewalk, got a lift home from a scooter-gang, and stumbled in to see that my rice cooker had been warming for 6 hours. You can do whatever you want while it cooks, you don't have to do what I did.

I had the munchies somethin' fierce so I pulled the turkey out of the cooker and let them rest on some racks for about 10 minutes. You need to let it rest because the turkey gets tired after all that cooking, and you should probably give yourself a little break as well. You deserve it!

After a little rest, just start carving. This bird came out perfectly done. The meat could be pulled off the bone but it wasn't flaky. It was not greasy or oily AT ALL! The herbs and spices really penetrated and the only way I could tell that it was cooked in olive oil is that the fruity flavor of the oil was infused throughout the meat. This was, by far, the best tasting turkey I've ever had! I recommend you give it a try.

Edit:  I've been asked if it's possible to reduce the oil consumption and it is! Take the turkey, cut it into small pieces, pack it into ziplock bags filled with olive oil. Squeeze out all the air. Then fill your rice cooker with water rather than oil and you will get the same result. Since oil is lighter than water, your bags will float, so it will work better if you weight them down with a rock or something.