Guest blogger, John W. Leimgruber III, shares his experiences with Red Poll cattle.
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.
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!).
 3rd Annual PASA Beef Cook-Off:
 Cold Shortening:
 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".