I’m confused. The breed is called American Milking Devon but you say they’re a British Beef Breed?
I know – it is confusing. After WWI, it became popular to breed livestock for specialized uses. In their native England, Devons were pushed to increase their beef production and milking duties were assigned to Holsteins who produce vast quantities of less rich milk.
Today, there are no Milking Devons left in England; the original Devon cow would have been completely lost had it not been for a small group of fans in New England. Because professional dairy production is reliant on quantity Devons are not popular with farms selling the fluid milk you buy in the grocery store. However, because Devons make excellent oxen and are such thrifty family cows, New England drovers preserved a small number in their “unimproved” state.
So, today, the only Milking Devons are in America and Devon breeders have split the registry into two: one for beef and another for the original or Milking Devon. Milking Devons may be registered into the Beef Devon registry, but Beef Devons may not be registered as Milking Devons.
What USDA grade is your beef?
I am not a believer in today’s USDA grading system as a reliable indicator of excellent beef. It is based on a visual inspection of the fat deposits or “marbling” and has been adapted to support the marketing goals of the commodity grain-fed beef industry.
Visual marbling plays a role in predicting the succulence of beef, however it says little about the flavor and texture. Grass fed beef often does not develop visual marbling in the manner graded by the USDA, but rather develops a more flavorful internal fat.
Are you certified organic?
I follow organic practices, no spraying, synthetic fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics or grain, but do not pursue certification. Frankly, I am greatly disappointed with the constant relaxing of national organic standards to accommodate commodity producers and choose to not raise the price of my beef to support the program.
Also, as an animal lover, I don’t withhold treatment of a sick animal with appropriate antibiotics. Fortunately this herd is tough and the plentiful space they get makes sickness an extreme rarity around here. Should it ever be necessary, I would be sure to disclose any antibiotic use and would not sell milk or meat from a treated animal until any residual had passed.
What kind of lives do your cows live?
At Auburn Meadow Farm, animal welfare is my highest priority. Each year, the calves are born and form tight bonds. The cows are allowed freedom to graze with plenty of shade, more grass than they can eat, spring water and free choice shelter.
I spend plenty of time with the cows, knowing each one by sight and by name. They are a contented, companionable group and aside from a few inconveniences, are free to do as they please, where they choose. I always keep fewer cattle than my land can support, so food remains plentiful and our land is improved by the herd rather than polluted by it.
Where do your beef cows come from?
My cows come from two places; they’re either born right here at Auburn Meadow Farm, or they come from Ulysses Livestock Conservancy. ULC raises cattle primarily for breeding stock and has limited pasture, so after their steers are weaned, I adopt them into my herd. I never buy feeder calves at auction or sell beef raised on other farms.
Holy cow! We’ll never fit a quarter of beef into our freezer!
You’ll be surprised. Our cows are medium-sized, so are smaller than some of the more common beef breeds. A split side, or quarter of Milking Devon beef will weigh between 75 – 90 pounds. You will be surprised that a small family often goes through this in four to six months. A good rule of thumb for estimating how much storage space is needed is 1 cubic foot per 35 – 40 pounds of meat.
What do you mean beef is seasonal?
One of the great disappointments possible with grass-fed beef is tough chewy meat. Simply not feeding cows grain is not the same as “finishing” beef. Like all nuanced foods, proper aging and timing are critically important. Finishing beef on grass is more of an art and requires great attention to seasonality and quality of grass and soil.
We time our slaughter to the season when the grass is richest and the cows are fat and still gaining. No matter how fat the cattle look, it makes a big difference to slaughter while the cow is gaining. Even if a cow is plenty fat, if it is losing weight at the time of slaughter, the meat will not be as good as could be. This means I slaughter the beef only late summer and fall. When the beef is gone, it’s gone until next year.
What does “finished” mean?
Finished means that the animal is fully matured, muscled and fat. Just as with a fine wine or scotch, it takes time to create flavorful beef. Commodity beef is bred to grow very large very fast – old fashioned breeds take considerably longer. The difference between 18 and 24 months is significant. Our steer are typically slaughtered at 28 months, give or take a month. The result is that the slower-growing breeds have more time to develop a richer, intensely beefy flavor.
And here’s another interesting, science-based reason old-fashioned, slower growing breeds produce more tender meat: In some non-industrial, un-improved breeds of cattle, muscle development of slow twitch muscle fibers is greater in contrast to that in fast growing cattle. The fast growing cattle develop more fast twitch muscle fiber which is less tender.
Is your beef local?
Our cows are raised here, eat grass and hay grown here, and typically travel no more than 30 minutes to slaughter at a small, family-owned USDA inspected facility.
They have never seen a feedlot or auction barn and we don’t ship meat for sale. It’s important to keep our dollars in our community – supporting small, independent businesses means a lot to me.
Do you feed the cows GMOs, hormones or antibiotics?
No, no and no. I would not deny a sick animal antibiotics, but I keep records of medication and would disclose any use. Being so small, I know all my cows by name – records of medication are easy when you know the animals so well.
Does breed make a difference?
YES! Two big keys to awesome grass-fed beef; the genetics and the soil. Some cows will never make amazing beef no matter how pampered and well-fed. Old fashioned, un-improved British breeds have been perfected over hundreds of years to thrive on a grass-only diet. No cows perform better on scrappy forage which is why their role as family cows was so valued in the days of small, diversified farming in the UK. Feed them well and oh, my. These cows can get FAT.
What do you mean by slow-growing beef?
I don’t breed heifers until they are two years old. Calves stay with their mothers until they are at least 8 – 10 months old, and I never slaughter an animal until it’s at least 24 months old, preferably a little older. Commodity beef cows are bred around 14 months, slaughtered around 18 months. That’s not long enough for the animal to develop any richness of flavor.
What’s the big deal about grass-fed beef?
While it is true that grass-fed beef is the most flavorful, it can be tough due to a few things. Poorly bred cattle, improper cooking and storage, not finished, out of season, too young or raised on poor soil can all lead to disappointment. Producers vary widely in their artistry, so don’t lump all grass-fed steaks into one big group.
And the health benefits to the cows, the land and the eater are tremendous. Most of the unhealthy aspects of beef are created by our feedlot system. Cows were not designed to live that way and as a result their vitality is reduced as is their food value.
And, from an environmental standpoint, livestock raised in a confinement system completely reverses the benefits of ruminant animals to the health of the environment. The densely confined animals become a pollutant and drain on their communities.
Fortunately it’s true: what’s best for nature is best for us too. Even better? What’s best for nature tastes best too.
Is grass-fed beef hard to cook?
Absolutely not, but it does require a little more attention to detail. The best part is that once you’ve got it down, cooking is actually easier. When the main ingredients are so flavorful and delicious, it takes very little cheffery to make a memorable meal.
Isn’t it just easier to buy individual cuts at the store?
Short term, it may be easier, and the up-front investment is less, but you’ll pay more for lower quality and less variety. Not to mention supporting an industrial meat system that does not consider the best interest of you or the animals.
Overall, it’s much, much better to buy your meat direct from the farmer. Supermarket meat is mystery meat – you rarely know how the animals were treated or who the farmer was and how they helped or ruined the land.
Buying cut by cut, you may not get a chance to try any of the less common or high-end expensive cuts, and you don’t get all the bonus extras like the awesome home-made stock made from the bones.
Supporting local farmers by purchasing your meat direct is one of the best ways to ensure a safe, healthy food supply and send the message to commodity meat packers that their practices are simply unacceptable.
Next best is buying your meat from a trusted butcher, grocer or farmer’s market where the provenance of the beef is known.
What about pink slime?
Small processors kill 10 – 15 animals a day as opposed to the 25,000 a day common for commodity slaughterhouses. The difference in hygiene, safety and animal welfare is tremendous. Small processors handle one animal at a time and don’t mix bits and pieces and they don’t sneak in any undisclosed additives.
What’s the big deal about heritage breeds?
This is a really important issue and one that gets little mention which is kind of amazing to me. These old genetics are extremely valuable. Modern agriculture is dependent on a very small number of breeds founded on an extremely limited gene pool.
To further water down the gene pool, within those common industrial breeds, widespread use of artificial insemination means that not only are the breed varieties not being preserved, many individuals within a breed are sired by the same genes. This is worrisome because, unlike in nature where only the strongest DNA fertilizes eggs, by using artificial insemination, we make it possible for the weaker DNA to fertilize eggs too. This greatly weakens the hardiness, diversity and adaptability of these animals. Read more about why this is so scary here.
We seem very unconcerned about losing hardy, thrifty genetics like this forever, and with today’s environmental challenges, fuel prices and concerns about industrial foods, these genes are a critical ingredient necessary to restore the robustness, efficiency and adaptability of our modern livestock.
Uniform vs Craft
As with everything, once something becomes a commodity, something special and vital is lost. These old-fashioned breeds still have that rich flavor and uniqueness that has nearly been forgotten.
It is true that we have to eat them to save them – your food shopping habits make all the difference in our ability to preserve the diversity of our crops and livestock. When you commit to seeking out producers who value and preserve heritage and heirloom animals and crops, you are investing in food safety for future generations.
Fortunately, the payoff is huge and immediate – I guarantee you will never be satisfied with industrial foods once you discover the superior nutrition and flavor of real, old fashioned foods.