Consistent taste is key when building local markets

Dec 2, 2011
by DTN

Building a market to sell home-finished beef is all about consistency. You not only have to provide tasty, tender beef one year, but every year. And there is a formula, some cattlemen say, to hitting the mark every time. The best place to start, they stress, is with the genetics of the animal.

Burlington, WV, cattleman Rick Woodworth sells home-finished beef to individuals and also markets it through his family’s farm market and deli. “We’re Angus-based,” he says. “We select for the meat traits, ribeye area, marbling, because we’re in the meat business. But we’re still in the cattle business, so the cows have to milk, be functionally correct and have longevity. We look at the total package.”

Darrell Rankins, Cusseta, AL, prefers Angus-Gelbvieh cross cattle. He sells to all local customers, who pay the processor a kill fee for the animal, as well as a perpound processing fee. Average prices to the buyer are $2 per pound live-weight before these fees.

Rankins says he watches maternal and growth traits closely. “You can trump genetics sometimes, but you need to have something that will mature at 1,100 pounds. You don’t need one at 1,400 pounds.”

Still, carcass Expected Progeny Differences are on his list. “I don’t emphasize them, but, for example, I certainly want breed average or better on the percentage of intramuscular fat on an Angus bull,” he says.

Age matters

Both cattlemen only finish young animals. For Rankins, steers are 16 to 18 months old when harvested. Heifers can go up to 22 months. Woodworth’s cattle are in the same age range.

Auburn University Meat Scientist Christy Bratcher agrees with that practice. “The older the animal, the more cross-linking of the connective tissue it has and therefore the less tender it is.”

At Rankins’ operation, he normally chooses the lightweight steers out of the cattle he markets in a preconditioned board sale in August. They weigh 580 to 600 pounds and will stay on the same soy hull-based ration he uses for preconditioning.

“We grow them along until they weigh 750 to 800 pounds,” he explains. “Then we start pushing them on corn.”

Rankins takes a cautious approach when transitioning to corn. He starts by putting steers in a small dry lot and hand-feeding them 3 pounds per head, per day. He increases the amount over a five- to six-day period up to 17 to 18 pounds of corn per head, per day, around 2 percent of their body weight.

Rankins keeps the steers on corn for 100 days, during which time they gain 3.2 pounds a day.

“There is a great potential for founder with corn,” warns Rankins, who is also an Auburn University animal scientist. The steers also get half a percent of their body weight in hay. “It doesn’t have to be good-quality hay, but it does need to be long-stemmed,” he says. “That provides the scratch factor, salivation and rumenation.”

Heifers usually don’t enter his finishing enterprise until they are pregnancychecked and found open in April. They weigh around 900 pounds at that point and go straight to corn.

Whether it’s steers or heifers, Rankins says grainfinishing is a given. “When you put young calves on a high-energy feed, they start depositing intramuscular fat. That’s marbling.”

Woodworth is another proponent of grain-finished beef.

His spring-weaned calves graze fescue, orchardgrass and clover pastures until fall. At that point, they go to the feedlot for corn silage and grain. His fall-weaned calves skip the grazing and go straight to a corn silage and grain ration. He feeds both sets of calves for a minimum of 120 days. “They need to be full fed on corn in order to grade Choice or high-end Select at the minimum,” he says. “You get a better eating experience as you move up the quality grade.” Grass-fed a gamble

When it comes to grassfinishing, both Rankins and Woodworth would rather leave that to someone else. “Some people like the taste, and that’s fine,” Rankins says. “But if I eat grass-fed beef 10 times, three or four times it has an off flavor to me. I don’t want to gamble.”

Auburn’s Bratcher says consistency can be a challenge with grass-finished beef because it is determined by both genetics and environment. “You don’t know from one year to another if you’re going to have a drought or a wet year. Also, warm- and cool-season grasses both have different flavor profiles.”

Processing phase

Both Rankins and Woodworth dry-age their beef.

Rankins ages his for three weeks, Woodworth normally ages his two weeks.

“With dry-aging, you normally get a 3.5 percent cooler shrink,” Woodworth says.

“Losing that moisture intensifies the beef taste. Both wet- and dry-aging enhance tenderness, and I feel it needs to be aged.”

Bratcher agrees. “Either way, the same enzymes work to break down the muscle fibers.”

As for length of time to age, she says research with steers shows there’s no benefit to aging past 14 days, but heifers need an additional seven days. “To be on the safe side, 21 days of aging should show marked improvement in the tenderness of any carcass.”

For Rankins, it is the sum of all the points. And he’s so confident of his product, he backs it up. “If they are young calves, finished on corn and aged three weeks, I give a 100 percent moneyback guarantee.” — Becky Mills, DTN