Monday, October 25, 2010

Red Poll - Quality Performance on Your Plate

Guest blogger, John W. Leimgruber III, shares his experiences with Red Poll cattle.

After embarking on my Red Poll adventure just over a year ago, I quickly realized the dizzying array of confusing numbers that exist in the beef cattle industry: EPDs, birth weights, hanging weights, frame scores, shear tests, ultrasound rib-eye area, genetic marbling scores- the list never ends! While all these numbers are undeniably important for tracking and improving cattle performance, I think it is possible to get too caught up in all the statistics and lose sight of what often matters most to consumers: quality, price, and convenience. So I decided to test my beef where it matters most: on the dinner plate! I entered the 3rd annual PASA (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture) 100% Grass-Fed Beef Cook-off1 where a dozen professional chefs, fine-food purveyors, and food critics sampled and rated rib-eye steaks from 14 farms representing a variety of cattle breeds all across Pennsylvania.

I understand that many cattlemen sell to the commodity beef industry, which grades and rewards for carcass quality before anybody even sees the end-product. However, a growing number of consumers are creating a market demand for locally raised beef fattened on a grain-free diet. Opportunities exist, given the right location, for beef to be marketed directly to consumers at potentially higher profit margins than conventional commodity markets. As for market volume, my experience has been that demand is increasing and currently outstrips the supply of grass-fed beef as a number of existing CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and restaurants in the Pittsburgh area can't seem to find a sufficient and steady supply. Despite all of these positives, I believe that it is imperative to maintain the momentum by delivering these three key attributes of quality: a great first impression with consistent product experiences, tenderness and full-flavor enough to convert a vegetarian, and a belief that eating this beef makes you a better person. The Red Poll breed is in a great position to excel at exactly these qualities.

Firstly, with mainstream marketing historically emphasizing corn and grain-fed beef, it is vital that new potential customers have a wonderful first impression with grass-finished beef to keep them coming back for more. Hamburger currently seems to be the best "gateway-drug" to grass-fed beef because it can be easier to control by varying the grind, can be cooked more easily by customers (than steak), and usually costs less than other cuts . As for a consistent steak, very few if any directly marketed carcasses are ever graded, so the responsibility falls to the cattleman to select for genetic consistency in order to have confidence that every piece of meat they sell will make a great beef experience. As a pure breed, Red Poll can provide a great base for genetic consistency whether as a source of prepotent sires for a commercial herd or as a straight purebred herd.

Next, while tenderness and taste can be a very subjective experience, it seems to me that consumers of grass-fed beef expect a tender (but not mushy) mouth feel and a full nutty buttery flavor. For
tenderness, it is important that your abattoir not chill the meat too rapidly after slaughter; this is to prevent the affect known as "cold shortening."2 The meat should also be allowed to dry-age in the
cooler for about two weeks. To develop flavor when finishing on grass, it is important to be patient
and allow for the animal to mature and truly fatten before harvesting. The cattleman must account for this additional time and plan for extended grazing seasons and likely seasonally finish off of the spring or fall flush. Most entires into the grass-fed beef cook-off were harvested between 18-30 months of age; my steer was just shy of 2 years old. Here again the Red Poll has advantages due to its moderate frame size, early maturing ability, ability to fatten on grass alone, and tenderness associated with the British breeds.

Finally, many customers turn to grass-fed beef because of how it makes them feel as a consumer. Grass-fed beef is typically raised with an all natural or similar protocol in a non-confinement rotational pasture based environment. Beyond environmental impact, it has been suggested that grass-fed beef may have some health benefits over traditionally finished beef.3 It also allows for a direct face-to-face connection between farmer and customer bolstering local economies and building integrity into the often anonymous and highly regulated food industry. Additionally, the status of the Red Poll as a "Heritage Breed" allows for a unique marketing proposition that consumers can quickly understand and on which they place value.

That’s all great, but how does that steak perform on the plate? The judges finished their first round of blind taste testing and narrowed the competition down to six finalists. After a second round of fresh sizzling steak samples, the ballots were cast and out of all 14 competitors: my Red Poll beef took home a third place ribbon! I couldn't have been more happy with the results! I really can't take much credit for the result, as I've had a lot of help getting started from PASA, the Red Poll community, and of course my grazier, Rudy D.H. Byler. Also, all of the steaks that I myself sampled that day made for good eating; and just between you and me, unbeknownst to me, I even rated a few of them higher than my own steak! This level of competition tells me that producers are getting serious about delivering great grass-finished beef (especially the top two contestants representing Irish Black and Salers breeds). So even though there's no one number that can truly measure success, I'm confident that my team is off to a good start and with enough time, patience, and mistakes, we'll eventually get even better at delivering consistent quality performance onto your plate (and hopefully have a little fun doing it too!).


[1] 3rd Annual PASA Beef Cook-Off:

[2] Cold Shortening:

[3] Potential Health Benefits:

John Leimgruber lives with his wife Stephanie in a one-bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh's Northside neighborhood of Manchester. There they farm approximately 36 square feet of garden in their backyard and have one steer of a mutt dog named Linus. John purchased his foundation herd of Red Polls from Dr. Dan Schmiesing of Mardan Acres in May 2009 and contract grazes his cattle with Rudy D.H. Byler of Eastbrook Homestead near New Castle, PA. John became interested in raising grass-fed beef cattle after reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and watching Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm DVD. He decided to actually do something about it after attending the 2009 PASA 100% Grass-Fed Grass-Finished conference track where guest-speaker, Greg Judy, suggested that he should "just get started".

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

New Heritage Turkey Publication Just in Time for Thanksgiving!

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) is pleased to announce the release of a new Heritage Turkey resource entitled Selecting Your Best Turkeys for Breeding. This is the second publication in the ALBC Master Breeder series, which is a collaboration of known master breeders, researchers, and ALBC staff working together to codify knowledge and historic information about heritage breed selection, husbandry and breeding.
With growing consumer demand for tasty Heritage Turkeys to grace their holiday tables, more farmers are trying their hands at raising them. However, farmers often find themselves struggling to find production information specific to raising these colorful cousins of the Broad-Breasted White turkey found in supermarket freezers. Since the industrialization of turkeys in the late 1950s, much of the knowledge and printed information on how to select, raise and breed traditional turkeys has slowly been lost.

The information found in Selecting Your Best Turkeys for Breeding was once widely available at a time when small-scale agriculture and pastured-poultry keeping was commonplace. Changes in agricultural practices have caused this information to be largely lost to subsequent generations.

“ALBC recognized that there was a knowledge gap when it came to raising and breeding Heritage Turkeys and many other rare breeds,” said ALBC Research and Technical Program Director Marjorie Bender. “If we want to establish a sustainable market for these birds, we’ve got to give the farmers the tools they need to raise and breed quality animals.”

As people once again become interested in the systems suited to rare breeds, it is extremely important that the knowledge once used to successfully manage these systems be made available again. ALBC is pleased to lead the effort to re-educate the entrepreneurial farmer in the production of one of America’s agricultural treasures, the Heritage Turkey.

As recently as 1997, Heritage Turkeys were in danger for extinction – remembered only by the “old-timers”. At that time, only 1,335 breeding birds were found in the United States. Today, thanks to the efforts of breeders, producers and consumers, the Heritage Turkey’s numbers are on the rise, with a reported 2006 census number of 10,404 birds.

To download and view ALBC’s new publication Selecting Your Best Turkeys for Breeding, visit: