Sustainable food production and ethical sourcing are top of mind for restaurant operators today, according to the National Restaurant Association's "What's Hot in 2014" survey. While chefs and restaurateurs are very knowledgeable about purchasing, cooking and menuing beef, few can actually leave the kitchen to visit a cattle ranch. So it was with particular interest that this city girl travelled to Montana's cattle country last week to see first-hand how that steak on my plate is produced. Here’s what happens back at the ranch.
Cows and cowboys
You may think of cowboys as mythical creatures on horseback, but who knew that their skills could actually influence the flavor and texture of meat? I learned that there is a small segment of the industry—including the 40,000-acre ranch I visited near Missoula, Mont.—that employs bona fide cowboys to oversee the cattle operation. The personal interaction from these "cow whisperers" makes for less stressed cattle; the less stress, the better tasting the beef.
Along with the daily chores of the ranch, the cowboys’ job includes the mating of the bulls, herding the 1,000+ head of cattle on horseback and spotting and treating animals that may not be flourishing. It’s part of the ranch’s naturally raised and handled program. When we drove past another ranch down the road, we saw that the ranchers were herding the cattle with noisy ATVs instead of cowboys on horseback—a more widely used and less sustainable method.
It’s calving season and the pregnant Red Angus cows (called “the heavies” for obvious reasons) had a wide expanse of lush green pasture all to themselves to relax in. Instead of calving taking place in March and early April, like it’s done in many locales, the pregnancies are timed for a May or June delivery when the weather and ground are warmer. And impregnation takes place the old-fashioned way; a bull is let loose in the “bull pen” among a large group of cows for two weeks to do his business. In that time, a 17-month bull can service 17 cows; a 24-month-old, 25-30 cows.
The ranch would not allow us to get close enough to actually see any cows giving birth (so as not to stress the animals), but I did see a few wet and startled newborn calves testing their land legs for the first time. If a calf-mama cow bonding doesn't seem to be taking hold, the two are removed to a corral for observation. Sometimes another mama cow has to be brought in to feed the newborn calf. But the others are left to tend to their babies until the calves are weaned in the fall when they reach about 600 pounds.
I had been led to believe that grass-fed beef is the most sustainable, but that method produces beef that isn't as richly marbled and to my taste, not as flavorful. On the Montana ranch I visited, hay is baled from grass and alfalfa grown on the grounds, supplemented by barley, wheat and triticale, a grain that’s a cross between wheat and rye. The feed is then blended with a dose of minerals and vitamins calibrated by computer to complement the composition of the hay and grains. Ranch director Jim Phillips explained that he recently swapped out corn from the feed mix to try this new vegetarian combo when corn prices jumped to $7 a bushel a few years back. The triticale is also grown on the ranch. Judging from the prime rib, short ribs, chili and sliders I ate, all prepared by the ranch chef, the lack of corn did nothing to affect the beefy flavor, texture or marbling of the meat. I cleaned my plate.
Natural beef defined
The USDA sets the protocol for “natural” beef, defining it as minimally processed. But naturally raised beef goes a step further—it’s never injected with antibiotics or hormones. If an antibiotic is administered to a sick animal, that cow gets ID’ed and separated from the herd. When the rest of the herd goes off to the packing plant to be processed as naturally raised beef, the cow injected with an antibiotic goes off to the commodity market.
Drought and prices
The good news is that runoff from a snowy winter brought an end to a couple of years of drought in Montana and the Midwestern cattle producing states. Drought was one of the factors that decreased herd size and jacked up beef prices—to the tune of 7.3 percent since May of 2013. The bad news is that prices won’t decrease in the foreseeable future, according to ranch chef John Enright. But the bright side was his prediction that prices would stabilize as long as there is no flooding or another force of nature over the summer. And that stabilization should last over the next few seasons.
While naturally raised beef is going to be more expensive than commodity beef, certain well-known chains and independents are steady customers—and they’re not in the upscale category. These include Chipotle Mexican Grill, The Counter, and Frontera Grill and Rosebud Restaurants, both in Chicago. But Chef Enright explains that these and other operators are buying more economical skirt steaks, short ribs, briskets, flat iron steaks and dry-aged ground beef for their menus. These are the cuts that take well to barbecue, fajitas, burgers and sandwiches. He’s expecting a shift back to some of those middle meats that used to be in higher demand—the rib-eyes, tenderloins and New York strip steaks. Perhaps the stabilization of beef prices will push these back to the center of the plate.
I left the ranch with a belly full of beef and a much reduced stress level. Looking up at that big Montana sky not only calms the cows, it mellowed out this city girl.