beatrice: braveheart, bold or just plain bad?

beatrice: braveheart, bold or just plain bad?

You’ve been spotted – don’t think she’s going to let you get away

Here she comes… who’s she?? It’s beatrice…

xxxxxxpet me ladyxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxor I’ll butt your knees

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Come on lady, I don’t have all day – What are you waiting for??

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

This weekend, I had to break down and mow some grass.  I admit it; I have developed a Scrooge-ish double hatred of mowing grass. First because now that I have cows to feed, grass = food.  Mowing grass feels like throwing food away and I have a real issue with  that.  Second because I hate wasting gas on something that could easily be performed by hand or by animal and that bugs me too. It was some green, juicy grass; the men would have happily done that job.

But alas, that field isn’t fenced and won’t be for a while, so while it pained me to do it, I had to break down and mow. But that’s not really the story.

The story is Beatrice.  Beatrice is one wacky heifer.  I thought Honey was the one who would end up knocking me on my can one day. But next to Beatrice, Honey is darn near shy.

Talk about gawky & awkward … here’s honey in all her teen-aged glory. All the calves go through a homely phase between one and two years, but my goodness. With a leggy, all elbows and knees look like this, surely she’ll be a supermodel one day…

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Honey went through a quad-chasing phase which was both funny and alarming, but she seems to have outgrown it. But even at her sassiest, Honey has a healthy respect for tractors, weed-whackers and other scary machinery. And the other “normal” calves? They stay far, far away from all that stuff.

Beatrice’s first week, she left the herd and her mom and chased the tractor all the way up the hill and to the gate after I delivered hay one morning. I had to get down and chase her away by flapping my arms, jumping around and yelling just so I could drive the tractor through the gate. And don’t think she took that without some head shaking sass.

The next unusual Beatrice encounter was when I had to take the weed-whacker and trim the grass under the electric fence. Most of the calves (and cows) are rightly fearful of me  with this scary-looking noisy gadget and keep their distance.  Not Beatrice.  She actually chased after me and wanted to get her face right into the action. Very odd.

Yesterday was the first time the calves have seen the brush hog at work. It’s noisy. And most calves think it’s scary.  Not you-know-who.

Beatrice saw that rig coming and ran right up to get a better look.  She chased me all the way along the fence line and looked really sad when I turned and drove away.  I can tell right now, pasture mowing will be a bit of a challenge with Beatrice around.

Are you talkin’ to me??

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Remember Beatrice’s kidnapping incident? I may owe Zay an apology accusing her of kidnapping and all. As unlikely as it was, Beatrice is just the sort of girl to sneak out and party all night leaving her mom crazy with worry….. sorry Zaymonster!

is this what we really think, heil hitler and all?

is this what we really think, heil hitler and all?

I’m sure Ms. Esther Simpson is a lovely lady.  Tea with her would be very nice and I’ll bet she has some interesting stories to tell. But that’s not why I’ve been thinking of her for nearly five months.

The reason she has been on my mind since before Thanksgiving is because of her comment on an article titled Is That Really a Heritage Turkey  published in the Atlantic November 22, 2011.

The article is “a quick primer on turkey origins, a discussion of the different types of species and, as you shop for the highlight of your Thanksgiving meal, a bit of advice for finding a true heritage turkey.”

The author, Nicolette Hahn Niman,  raises true heritage breed turkeys herself and in the article clarifies the complicated past of what we call “heritage breed” turkey today.  Anyway, the article is a good read and if you’d like to be sure you’re getting the real deal, is an excellent reference.

But, as always when I’m bowled over by an article in The Atlantic, it’s usually because of the comments. We’ve talked about this before; those Atlantic readers have turned commenting into a form of mean ridiculing sport that I don’t think I’ll ever find acceptable.

Here’s what Ms. Simpson had to add:

And of course, I could not help myself:

Ms. Simpson’s comment wasn’t in the least mean-spirited, but it is a perfect illustration of how smart, well read people are completely blinded by their absolute belief in science and academia compounded by their lack of nuanced connection with nature and agriculture.

Turkeys did not turn themselves into Frankenturkeys incapable of walking or reproducing naturally.  Turkey were hardy, healthy, capable birds with actual parenting skills before people decided they wanted birds with massive amounts of white breast meat.  Turkey  freaks were created by breeders who started fiddling with the dials to satisfy customer demand.

But that fact is apparently either unknown or irrelevant to Ms. Simpson and those like her.  According to them, today’s big breasted white battery turkey in its state of man-made misery is apparently NOT eugenics. But helping the turkey return to its former self-sufficient state, that IS eugenics. Heil Hitler and all.

Eugenics is the idea that one can improve the human race by careful selection of those who mate and produce offspring. Eugenics was a popular theory in the early twentieth century but is no longer taken seriously, primarily because of the horrors of the eugenic efforts of the Nazi regime in Germany.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Why is this silly exchange still on my mind? Because it is the perfect example of well-meaning, highly educated people believing that farming is something you can learn from a book and manage from a distance.  From her computer screen, Ms. Simpson is in no danger of having to find out how one-dimensional her understanding is.

Again and again we trust ridiculously short-sighted agricultural solutions.  Esther Simpson, like most Americans, believes that the hothouse varieties of livestock we have created,  requiring lots of special feed, care and midwife assistance are the more important varieties worthy of a future. After all, they are the only farm animals most people know.

Quick: what color are pigs? That’s easy, white or pink, right? Wrong. Pigs come in all colors, shapes and sizes, particularly the heritage breeds that are becoming so popular these days. All pigs, even the sweetest, pinkest Wilburs and Arnolds will become feral if allowed to fend for themselves.

Virtually all heritage breed pigs have one characteristic or another that would violate the Invasive species order which is based on how they look – not their genotype or dna

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Yet it has been decided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to enforce what they call the Invasive Species Order (ISO).  What that means is that because of a feral pig problem, in Michigan, possession of pigs with certain physical characteristics automatically makes you a felon, punishable by jail time and a hefty fine. To be perfectly clear, the DNR has the right to kill properly confined animals  on any Michigan farm or private game preserve, arrest the farmer and levy huge fines.

I am in complete disbelief  by the actions that have been taken against pig farmers already.  And especially by the millions of Esther Simpsons in the world who will never comprehend that heritage breed pigs are under unreasonable, unconstitutional attack. Or she will defend the corporate line that this is all for the public good. Or maybe she doesn’t know about heritage breed pigs at all.

Pastured pigs are being enjoyed by diners everywhere as a delicious improvement over  leaner, less tender confinement pork. And the hardier heritage breed pigs are able to live a healthier, more enjoyable life than the standard confinement hog who is selected for uniformity, leanness and fast maturation.

My question is this: Which pig genes are more valuable? The ones capable of reproducing on their own, who still remember how to be good mothers, and are more hardy and self-sufficient?   Or the hot-house hogs in need of intensive management, medicated feed, elaborate infrastructures  and are forced to endure such unpleasant pig lives? Our lack of concern for protecting biodiversity is the worst sort of arrogance. Sustainable Table will explain why heritage breeds are so very important here.

This is not a matter to be ignored. Farmers are being stripped of their livelihood with NO COMPENSATION for businesses that were perfectly legal before April 1, 2012.  It does not matter that their pigs have been properly confined and cared for – it is a species elimination, not a feral pig elimination.

Of course, the Michigan Pork Producers Association is all in favor even though these heritage breed hogs have admittedly caused no outbreaks of disease.  You can read their response to the Invasive Species Order here. At the least, very disappointing. And predictable. Read this excellent article to see how successful Big Pork was in whisking this order straight into effect. Disheartening to say the least.

This article from Mother Earth News offers an excellent and detailed explanation of the situation and the contact information for Governor Rich Snyder, who has the ability to rescind the ISO. The article tells the sad story of Dave Tuxbury who after being served a search warrant, killed his entire hog population; pregnant sows, baby piglets and all.

Even if you’re not a Michigan resident, you need to contact Governor Snyder because Pennsylvania, Kansas and New York are all poised to pass similar legislation.  This has the potential to become very ugly people. Make yourselves heard on behalf of these farmers; they really need to feel your support.

18th century Edmund Burke is a wealth of tat-worthy quotes to live by

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”             ― Edmund Burke

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

OK people. You know what you need to do. Ready? GO-GO-GO-GO-GO

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!

Cows with Jobs: Uncle Pat Goes Hollywood

Cows with Jobs: Uncle Pat Goes Hollywood

Monday Moo-sings: random farm happenings, snapshots & recipes

______________________________________________________________________________

Look what big lugs Zig and Axel are today...

I’ve mentioned this before, but maybe you forget. Some of my cows come from a long line of well trained working cows.  Devons have long been a drover favorite because of their hardiness and peppiness – they are the fastest walking breed of cow you know.

Of course, just like work for humans is different than it was 200 years ago, cow jobs are a little different too. Visit Colonial Wiliamsburg, Historic Brattonsville, Mt. Vernon, The Farmers Museum and you’ll see oxen acting out the jobs their ancestors used to do so we can remember the way life was way back when.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice Devon cattle in the movies and on TV here and there.  The lure of Hollywood is great – when it pays off, it pays big, but sometimes you have to wait on a lot of tables to become an overnight sensation….

M.J. Knight from Ulysses Livestock Conservancy in Pennsylvania once took her entire herd to be part of the cast of The Village. Not your typical day at the office.

And Uncle Pat from Ox Hill Devons has now gone full time Hollywood.  Hit the big time. No more hash slinging for Pat. No sir-ee.

I call him Uncle Pat because he is Uncle to our steer,  Zig and Axel.  Zig and Axel were two of our very first calves and my word are they a pair of gentle giants today. Their mothers, Zay and Suki were the daughter and granddaughter of Pat’s mother and aunt. Pat was trained by Howard and Andrew Van Ord from Russell Pennsylvania and with his mate Willie has traveled far and wide demonstrating the value of oxen and Devon cattle.

Well, wouldn’t you know, late in life Pat got a big promotion. You can check it out here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHs-lBNTEQ0&feature=player_embedded

I think it’s safe to say Pat isn’t letting Hollywood go to his head.

I mentioned Pat’s new gig to Zig and Axel at dinner and they didn’t really seem to be all that interested. Well, apparently I was mistaken because later, when everyone else was out butting heads and wrestling around, where were Zig & Axel??

Zig & Axel tell me they’re too busy polishing their resumes and looking for agents. They say they’ll have their people get in touch with my people….

Doing the same thing again and again expecting different results.  Isn’t that the definition of crazy?

Doing the same thing again and again expecting different results. Isn’t that the definition of crazy?

THINKING THURSDAY: SOMETHING TO PONDER IN THE WORLD OF FOOD AND FARMING.

_________________________________________________________________________

Don’t you ever wonder about the confidence we have in technology and science? For example, have you ever made a decision based on all the information you had, felt really smart about it, but later learned there was a massive hole in your understanding that made all your genius wrong?

xxxxxxxMilking cows:  then xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxand now xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Let’s get it straight right now: I’m not anti-science. I’m just in favor of pursuing scientific knowledge with a healthy portion of doubt and caution on the side.  Maybe my lack of sophistication is showing, but I’m still pretty darn impressed with the feat of genetic engineering involved in grafting a fruit tree onto hardier roots.  Even though according to this website, it seems to have been used as early as 5000 BC.

“Agriculturalists are charmed. Naturalists are alarmed; ” proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Of course my work here raising these old-fashioned cattle probably seems kind of irrelevant and quaint to many people who focus on producing maximum output at all costs.  Man is apparently wired to admire things that are complex in procedure and require lots of human tinkering.

Meet Claudia, the High-Tech Cow

Like the breeding program at Fulper Farms, a NJ dairy featured in this NPR article. This is the story of Claudia, a very desirable (and lovely) Holstein dairy cow.  The breeding goal of this farm is to replicate her until they have a farm full of Claudias.  This is the way most modern dairies approach the problem of producing enough milk to pay the bills.

Technological advances like artificial insemination and embryo transplant have made the rate at which humans can forever alter an entire breed of livestock scary-fast.  In just a few generations, we can really make a lasting impact on a breed of livestock and it often takes several generations to know for sure if what you have achieved is good or bad.  And by then, it’s usually too late to take it back.

You see, we still don’t really understand how DNA is bundled.  When you breed animals with a focus on one single desirable trait you’d like to increase, you’re at the same time amplifying several other unintended traits that are likely to be not so nice. And those traits are both physical and behavioral.

Often times, since the animals are intended for food anyway, it doesn’t matter that they can’t reproduce on their own, if they have any parenting skills or if their skeletons and hearts are up to the task of supporting their massive, fast-growing bodies. Doesn’t matter, because these animals aren’t intended to live long enough to be healthy adults anyway.  Which, while I don’t think it’s kind, I suppose the logic is sound.

Other traits affect behavioral characteristics and create animals more difficult to handle, more nervous or aggressive.  Intensely focused programs breeding animals for one trait can interrupt the social patterns relied on by many, many generations causing incidents of suffering and brutality caused by rogue individuals.

I’m no scientist, but I am pretty observant. And the more I observe, the more apparent it becomes that there’s a rhythm and scale to things for a reason.  Nature imposes a system of checks and balances that often seems harsh to us, but serves her purposes well.

As original as we like to believe we are, animal breeding programs, like hemlines and hairstyles are subject to cycles and fashion. Don’t believe me? Look at a few pictures of yourself from the 70’s. How’s that polyester pant suit looking to you today? I dare you to wear it to work tomorrow…

Fashions in animal breeding follow consumer demand for things like all white breast meat, low-fat pork, low-fat dairy and of course the ever-popular larger quantity for lower price. And, like that polyester pant suit, these demands are more likely to be created by companies steering us towards their higher profit choices than by what we actually prefer.

Cows like Claudia serve this dairy well today, but if all cows were like Claudia, without the structured diet and care Claudia gets, her ability to produce huge quantities of milk quickly becomes a liability.  The nutritional requirements to keep a high producing cow like Claudia healthy and fertile even when she’s not producing milk are not easy to meet in a simpler, less manipulated environment.

So, my question is this: Is high production more important than profitability?  If you think it’s painful filling your gas tank each week, imagine being a farmer.  I’m not sure people are aware how reliant conventional farming is on petroleum.

Petroleum is needed to manufacture the synthetic fertilizers conventional farms are so reliant on.  Petroleum is needed to run the gas guzzling machinery needed to grow and harvest the large quantities of grain these cows require. And energy is needed to manage the tons of manure produced by too many cows for their farms to handle. Not to mention the energy requirements of milking and transporting milk.

Please don’t take this as a slam for farmers like Claudia’s owners,  the Fulper family. I have nothing but admiration for what is an obviously well run dairy.  It just seems apparent that by focusing only on this as the single approach to the problem of low profitability, we are eliminating diversity in all areas: genetic diversity of livestock & seedstock, rampant loss of biological diversity and economic diversity as well.  A broader base of smaller, local dairy processors and a variety of applications for milk is needed to offset the market dominance of a small number of mega-processors.

If a cow can eat more simply, be productive longer, require little to no veterinary care and be significantly less reliant on petroleum products, is that not also increasing profitability?  If a dairy makes less milk but that milk is of the highest quality and costs significantly less to produce, are the numbers irrelevant because they lack enough zeroes to impress our Fortune 500 jaded minds?

My old-fashioned cows could not be more self-sufficient.  They harvest most of their own food, stay fat on very simple food we can grow ourselves, require almost zero veterinary care, thrive in simple facilities and remain productive members of the herd for four or more times longer than the typical Holstein dairy cow.

And a dairy farm using cows like mine has not one top shelf product to sell, but two.  Give us time and we’ll come up with even more.  The beef from these cows isn’t an afterthought sold at auction barn prices. It’s a first-rate gourmet product adding a second income stream to broaden the farm’s security.  And in these times of dairy volatility, having milk in more than one bucket sounds like an awfully good idea to me.

If you listened to the NPR clip as well as read the story, you’ll notice that they clearly stated that despite the technological advances, the farm is less profitable than it was in the 50’s and 60’s when they had a fraction of the cows and did more by hand. WHAT?

It’s true. Our industrial system of meat and dairy was productive and useful in its time. But all things run on a spectrum and that time seems to be waning. The system will be around huffing and wheezing for a long time, but shouldn’t we be working on a backup plan?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t count imported Milk Protein Concentrate from China a backup plan…

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!

in which the Kerrys are coming

in which the Kerrys are coming

Still a little shy, our new Dexter & Kerry neighbors are settling in!

Still a little shy, meet our new Dexter and Kerry neighbors

Something’s happening in the neighborhood that I’m pretty excited about. I wasn’t sure how the Ladies would take the news, especially Molly since she takes her duties as a Heritage Breed model pretty seriously.  But surprisingly, they seem pretty excited about it too.

I had heard the Kerrys were coming, and now the Kerrys are here. It’s true – I’ve seen them myself. And with the Kerrys are a few of their smaller Irish cousins the Dexters.

Until now, we were one of the few farms in these parts with old-fashioned heritage breed cows.  Here and there I see a Dexter or some Scottish Highlands; there’s a farm with beef Devons a couple of hours away and a herd of ethereal British Parks I’ve been wanting to see. Devon crosses are popping up here and there, but mostly, until now, any heritage cow friends I’ve made are from Virginia,  New York, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Known as "the poor man's milch cow", Ireland's Kerry cattle are famous for their longevity and ability to thrive on poor forage.

I’ve had a little crush on Kerry cows for some time, but have only managed to meet one just once in my travels. That’s all changed now since recently, a small herd owned by the Grossman family has taken up residence at Pasture Maid Creamery in nearby New Castle. So, not only will these Kerry Ladies (and their man) be living nearby, their milk is being put to the test by a real, professional cheesemaker, Adam Dean.

While our Girls are an old-fashioned breed from North Devon England, Kerrys are a similar type of indigenous cattle from Ireland. In fact, the Kerrys with their lovely horns look very similar to the Ladies, but are just a little smaller and are black instead of red.  Like our American Milking Devons, Kerrys are also famous for their scrappy ability to make rich milk and excellent beef while eating nothing but grass.

The introduction of Kerry cattle into this professional dairy herd is a bold and proactive response to the ever-increasing costs of farming inputs. By breeding their herd of modern  dairy breeds to a Kerry bull, the Dean family of Pasture Maid Creamery (not  the Dean’s brand in cartons – look for glass bottles of Pasture Maid Creamery pasteurized creamline milk) is shaping their herd in a way that will reduce their dependence on expensive grains and fuel as they continue to produce excellent milk and beef.

When the milk is clean, sweet and rich you don't need exotic equipment & ingredients to make great cheese.

After visiting my new Kerry neighbors, I came home with some booty and fresh inspiration: a gallon of Pasture Maid creamline milk and a dozen farm fresh eggs. I re-started my cheesemaking engines by making this pillowy soft, fresh buttermilk cheese.  Its pure, rich deliciousness is a true reflection of the beautiful milk.

I’m struggling with brain jam because I have so many things to say about this milk and cheese. But, rather than torture you with one long runaway spew, I’ll restrain myself. More to come,  you can count on it. Don’t believe me?

Get your own Pasture Maid Creamline milk and try for yourself. Your brain will cheese up with excitement too.

Molly doesn't see why I think this is a big deal. "Bring it on with a side of fresh grass", she says.

Moo-re to come….

in which we have a Steak in the outcome

in which we have a Steak in the outcome

Can you tell I really liked this book? Entertaining, bright and funny...

Bacon, called by some “the gateway meat”, is often the animal flesh that rocks the strongest vegetarian resolve. Crazy as it sounds, my path to beef farming began with my attempts to be a vegetarian.  Obviously, a not very good one.

For me, the irresistible wasn’t bacon. It was steak.  A manly steak; New York Strip or rib eye, medium rare at most.  A beautiful, one-and-a-half-inch thick piece of well-raised beef, sporting a perfectly browned crust and sitting well rested and alone on a generous plate…

I know, I’ve said this before, but it makes me sad that consistent has come to define good with regard to food in America. And that’s exactly and all commodity grain-fed beef has become: consistent.  And now, being generations of Americans who have never tasted anything other, we believe tender = mushy, and flavor = rub, marinade and/or sauce when it comes to good beef.  Steak as we know it has become the chef’s blank canvas rather than the farmer’s art.

I suppose that’s why a truly extraordinary steak is as rare, haunting and mythic as the Loch Ness Monster. It’s amazing how many people can tell you exactly where and when that nostalgic meal took place. And one man, Mark Schatzker, loves his steak so much, he took it on as a Quest.  Capital Q, Quest, that is.

The book Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef is exactly what it claims to be: Mark Schatzker’s search around the world for the tastiest piece of beef. I’m a bit jealous, I admit, but he writes about it in such an entertaining and conversational way, I almost feel like I got to tag along. He starts in Texas (wow), heads to France (super-wow) where he finds a herd of ancient auroch, then Scotland, home of the esteemed Aberdeen Angus. After that, it’s Italy where I find the words to describe the thoughts I’ve had about my farm.

“There is a term that describes this [a distinctive taste for each distinctive region] phenomenon.  It is a foreign word—from France—and one that is often bandied about by pretentious people who stifle the atmosphere at dinner parties.  It is, nevertheless, a good word: terroir.”

It is a good word and Mark’s description is the perfect illustration of why I rarely use it. It makes me feel like a pompous ass. But, it is an important word here, since it describes everything I do.  Mark’s Italian friend Tilda uses the term “pure savor” which may be even more descriptive to me:

A pure savor is “any food where you can taste the nature that produced it.”

So, “ A Podolica [a breed of cattle indigenous to Italy] steak raised on Monte Tresino is a pure savor, but a feedlot steak from Texas, fed Nebraskan corn, coated with Montreal steak rub and swimming in a puddle of canned broth produced in some unknown factory, is not.”

Now, don’t let me get stuck in Italy. Mark moves on to Japan (fascinating), Argentina (nothing’s sacred), back home to Canada where he raises his own cow, then returns to the Heartland to wrap it up with his American team of grass & beef experts.  Each location contributes something unique, insightful and remarkably consistent  about what makes the best beef.  And, can I share a secret? Not that I recommend it, but:

“Start with good meat and it will be good even if you boil it.”

 “The secret to great steak isn’t the thickness, or ultra-low heat or ultra-high heat.  It isn’t dry aging, either, which is commendable but overrated— any rib eye that needs to be aged for sixty days isn’t a good rib eye to begin with.  The secret to great steak isn’t salting the day before, marinating in olive oil, or any other lost technique from the old country.  The secret to great steak is great steak.”

And, the USDA grading system isn’t even close to being comprehensive about what makes meat good. Tip: it’s not all about marbling.  Put all your steak buying decisions in the hands of the USDA grading system and you’re pretty much guaranteed to miss out on that elusive, mythic experience of a pure, beefy savor.

Time and time again, the flavor dial tilts in favor of grass-fed.  But, some of the worst steaks were also the grass-fed.  Grain-fed feedlot beef is easy to make consistent. Rations are mixed to be the same, all you have to do is dump the bucket full of grain into the trough and watch the cows get fat.

Grass-fed beef on the other hand is more complex – it  requires the farmer to demonstrate some thoughtfulness and skill.  You need to orchestrate your grasses, birth and slaughter times and even deeper, become a master of enriching your soil.  Because, it is true that two cows of the same age and breed can consume the same types and quantities of grass but live on different farms. You may expect them to taste the same, but no. They will taste different. The minerals in the soil of their different farms make their contribution to final flavor as does the level of contentment/stress the cows experience.

It takes more than simplified labels to identify good beef. A grass-fed label does not say anything about flavor, quality & texture.  It just tells you that cow did not eat grain.

I worry because some of the beef I see being sold as grass-fed has not been finished at all. I know that the farmer simply did not feed his cow grain which means that while it may be healthier, it will not be enjoyable.  And you are likely to blame your  disappointment on the fact the cow was grass-fed instead of the fact that it was the beef “equivalent of bad home-made wine.”  Mark has much to say about this:

“Grass isn’t so easy. Williams likens finishing cattle to playing guitar. ‘Feeding grain,’  he explained to me,  ‘is like knowing a few chords and playing an easy song. Finishing on grass is like being a virtuoso.’ ”

and

“One snowy winter day, I visited a farm where the farmer was letting the wrong kind of cows eat the wrong kind of grass.  The farmer and his wife were salt-of-the-earth types-three dogs, five kids-and lived in a hundred-year-old farmhouse.  Most of their cows were fed corn, but a few of them ate grass and only grass, because growing numbers of precious foodie types down in the city had been clamoring for healthy, earth-friendly grass-fed beef.  I drove back to the city with a grass-fed sirloin and grilled it that night. …While chewing it, I debated whether the meat would make a better sandal or boot.”

So, someone who values well—raised beef and its healthful benefits is in danger of spending good money and getting a disappointing hunk of shoe leather.  And, ever after, believe the experience is proof that while grass-fed beef may be better for you, it is more health food than treat.  Which is completely false and leaves you in danger of missing out on the best steak experience of your life.

I was pretty excited also to see my belief that  old—fashioned unimproved breeds of cattle produce the most memorable beef was confirmed by experts. In particular, the old, un-“improved” British breeds are recognized as being superior in both flavor and texture and science is now beginning to demonstrate why.

Great news for our herd of compact Devon cattle - exactly the type of breed grass-fed beef experts recommend

Our Devons are as close to their original, smaller, slower growing British ancestors as can be. And their milk is high in butterfat, which, surprise surprise, is a significant indicator of good beef.

There is a documented relationship between cows producing milk with high butterfat content and superior marbling. And, a scientific reason the flavor and texture of the meat from smaller breeds who are slower to mature is so much finer.

So, you see, this book means a lot to me, especially since it reassures me that my farming decisions, exploratory and intuitive as they’ve been, are supported with data and the experience of farmers, experts and scientists I don’t get to chat with here in my small town.

Here, I’m the eccentric lady with the herd of “exotics” even though my “exotics” pre-date Roman times and the locally popular and hefty grain-fed Angus Hummers are evolutionary babies.  I could go on and on and actually paraphrase the entire book for you, but I won’t torture you that way.  I want you to read the book—it’s a four hooves up.

I could have highlighted the whole thing - important steak-y stuff from all around the world. Tag along on Mark's road trip and find yourself really hungry for something not so easy to find...

If you love beef but have felt it is somehow mysteriously lacking, you’ll gobble it up and learn something in spite of yourself. Makes me excited to get back to my work preserving and sharing something we are in real danger of losing.  And it should make you want to go out and find yourself a great steak.

If you decide to take up the Quest yourself, Mark has a website featuring contacts for some of the farms featured in the book. Also, be sure to check out eatwild.com and localharvest.org to find farmers in your area raising breeds you won’t find in the grocery store.

OK people, you have your mission….. readysetGO! And don’t forget to come back and share what you’ve found….