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May 2010 Archive for Out to Pasture

RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

Read the latest blog from Steve Cornett.

Your Cows and Your Prostate

May 27, 2010

By Steve Cornett

If we could watch ourselves working cattle through the eyes of a teenager from downtown Houston, what would we think?

We are, in these days of Facebook videos and spy phones, sitting ducks.

I want to think about that a little because of two videos that appeared on AgWeb this week. One was the dairy cow abuse video. The other was the probably-not-Emmy- nominated thing I shot at my own chute, showing how to use that new syringe.

Most of what you see in that dairy video is not only needlessly cruel, but stupid. Plain bad management. You don’t want your people beating on calves as an outlet for aggression. You don’t want guys poking your cows with pitchforks or beating them in the face with crowbars. I mean, duh. What’s a dairy cow worth these days?

But I have twisted a tail in my day. I have seen lots of guys take their fists and boots to cattle to get them to do one thing or another. 

I don’t think I’ve ever spoken up. I’m not sure that’s part of our ethic, to be telling the neighbor-help not to club the cattle.

Two things bring it to mind. I bought some bred heifers from John Hall over at Hedley a couple years back. We had some help in running them for PI testing and I noticed that John DID speak up. “Just give her time,” he would say.

And the truth is that if you’ve got decent facilities and are willing to “give her time” you never need to abuse a cow. Too few of us are always willing, and conditioned, to give them time. If you watch the pros work a set of calves at a commercial feedyard—where they do have the right facilities and right training—you don’t see that sort of mistreatment anymore.

We owe a lot of credit to Temple Grandin’s empathy and outreach for that, but feedyards also have enough experience and numbers to know that proper cattle handling pays dividends.

And it’s a good thing. Because look at that video I shot. I am not what you call your technological elite, but I shot that with a hundred dollar camera. After it was posted, I learned it even had audio. How many feedyard employees, or neighborhood cowboys, would be willing to shoot video like that for a few dollars from some animal rights group or news organization?

Even watching my own video gives me the shudders. We were giving that cow a vaccine to protect her from disease, mind you.
Like your doctor checking your prostate, if you get my drift. It isn’t exactly voluntary, but it’s for your own good. And certainly not something a (normal) doctor does for the fun of it.

But that cow—which in five minutes would happily walk up and eat cake from your hand—looked in that video like she was being tortured with a stun gun--for all that Houston teenager knows.

Just something to think about next time you work cattle or decide that proper handling facilities are too expensive.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at scornett@farmjournal.com.

 

A Better Syringe

May 26, 2010

By Steve Cornett

We did our spring work this weekend, and I wanted to pass along a tip about a new gizmo. I like gizmos, you know. I prefer gizmos involving duct tape or innovative uses for PVC pipe, but a real, officially engineered, store-bought gizmo is OK, too.

This is a “self-tenting” syringe and we think it worked just like they said it would. Except it didn’t actually “tent,” we think. It just did the subcutaneous injection without tenting. So it’s as easy as giving an intramuscular shot.

I heard about it in a news release from Elanco last week.  

The gizmo was invented in New Zealand: http://www.simcro.com/products/sekurus/sekurus_home.html

Elanco likes it, I suppose, because of their educational efforts regarding the use of injectable products, including Micotil. Accidental injections are possible if you’re pinching up skin with your left finger and shooting a nervous calf with a long needle in your right, and especially if you’re trying to hold onto a beer, too.

So far, so good on the need for Micotil in these cows and their babies. But this syringe works for anything up to 12 ml, and I’m trying to do all the sub-q stuff to be a good cow citizen. With a regular syringe, it’s not nearly as easy or quick as the old days with a pistol syringe in each hand, jabbing needles like Roy Rogers used six-shooters.

But we learned that all those intramuscular shots were creating lesions that showed up as yuckies in peoples’ beef steak. So all the good citizen cowmen have moved their IM shots to the neck and gone subcutaneous with everything cleared for it.

This new syringe (if we used it right, and no promises there because I’ve never seen it done right and I presume the instructions in the package were translated from the Chinese or New Zealese, because they’re hard to figure out, and stupid me kept trying to figure out how to use it to make a “tent” like you pinch up) works just like the pistol syringes: You simply stick it up against the skin and pull the trigger. But instead of you sticking a needle deep into the muscle, there is a retractable needle guard which keeps the needle from going too deep, so the vaccine stays between the hide and the muscle.

I tried to find videos of the technique online, but failed. So I made my own with my little Canon pocket camera. (I never did a pocket camera video before, so you may notice there is room for improvement in the video technique. I reckon next, I’ll learn how to turn off the video part before I put the camera away. But you’ll get the gist.)

Anyhow, besides being faster than two-handed tenting, we didn’t break a single needle in this thing. I suppose that would mean you would, at some point, need to change needles, but I’ve never kept a needle straight long enough to know how often you do that. 

I don’t know where you buy these things. Y-Tex is the U.S. distributor for Simcro, but they don’t have them in in stock yet, I guess. I borrowed mine from Mike Simpson, a local friend who works for Elanco. But if I can find them, I’d like to own two by weaning time this fall.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus of Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at scornett@farmjournal.com.

 

Meatless Mondays

May 19, 2010
By Steve Cornett

 

The Washington Post has a take on Meatless Mondays that is fairly well sourced and presents a more balanced view of the anti-meat movement than some of what you read these days.

Well, “balanced” in the sense that writer Jane Black does include a couple of quotes from the meat industry and does end with a quote suggesting “moderation.”

She does, like about all of the reporters who follow food trends, fail to note the long-term decline in red meat consumption in the U.S. and seems not to have noticed that the decline has coincided with a long-term incline in obesity and weight-related health problems.

Someday, they’ll notice. Until then, red meat will continue to be the least trendy food in the U.S.

You can see her article here.


Beef Isn’t What It Was

May 17, 2010

By Steve Cornett  

Steaks don’t taste as good as they used to.

That’s what Mark Schatzker thinks, and it’s what I think, too.

And, yes, I’m aware that there is more Choice and Prime beef today than there was a few years ago. But we’re agreed that USDA quality grade is not a precisely precise indicator of eating quality.

But we have our differences. I think USDA grades are the best measure we have in a commodity-graded industry. I wish we had something better, but I’m not sure we ever will.

He seems to blame corn feeding.

I am compelled to revisit Mark’s book, Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, because I did a short blog last week that seems to have been misunderstood. To the point that one responder accused me of not having tastebuds.

Judging by the context, the responder probably meant that to be hurtful, but in the world of modern food, a lack of the ability to taste might be regarded as evolutionary progress. It certainly would help explain poultry’s gain in market share in recent years.

I didn’t mean to condemn the book last week. I said I hadn’t read it and didn’t plan to. Not to seem close-minded. I just can’t read everything. However, based on some (less hostile) reader feedback and recommendations, I’ve ordered it.

But before it gets here, I got hold of Mark and had a nice conversation with him. I don’t feel inclined to argue tastebuddish stuff with a guy who writes about food for a living. He can probably discern the difference in, say, “a woody flavor like oak or cedar” and “a hint of blueberry” when he tastes wine. I can hardly tell the difference in the most sublime of your wines and the more subtle of your vinegars, unless I look at the label.

I’m quite highly evolved in that sense, thank you Mr. “Someone with tastebuds” responder. I happen to think I’m more typical than Mark and the sort of people who buy his books and read his magazine articles.

As it turns out, Mark and I didn’t have to argue over everything. Once Mark said “the best steak I ever tasted was grassfed, but so was the worst,” I figured we were on the same wave length. We’re both looking for good steak.

But he approaches beef steak as a culinary experience. I like to do that, too, as a consumer. But mostly, I have to approach it—as a reporter for beef producers--as something you can make a living producing. Alas, the two are not always the same.

Most of us have taken a steer to the locker and found that most of a darn cow isn’t steak at all. You get a couple of weeks of good steak and months of roasts and hamburgers--where taste is hidden behind all sorts of herbs, spices and ketchups.

Only about a fourth of the retail yield of a steer is steak—and steak is the only part of the carcass that isn’t ground or slow cooked. You can pay more for grassfed hamburger meat if you want, but I’d defy you to taste the difference once it’s stirred into spaghetti or fried and sandwiched with mustard, pickles and lettuce.

So steak palatability—flavor, juiciness, tenderness and all the stuff that makes a fine dining experience—affects only a small portion of the weight of a steer. Even if it mattered.

And, in the commodity world in which 95% of beef producers operate, it doesn’t matter. Not much. Most retail consumers in retail buy steak based on how it looks and how much it costs. We’ve trained them to expect that usually it will taste great but sometimes it will taste ok. Importantly, though, it will almost never be bad.

The same cannot be said of grassfed beef. 

With the average customer, retailers have little reason to care how beef eats. The customer inclined to seek better stuff will probably have the same experience at the grocery down the road. So when the retailers buy beef from packers, they base their buying decision on grade—USDA’s official, professional, way of signaling how it looks—and price. And so it goes down the line. Packers buy cattle based on how much beef they think they’ll make and how they think the cattle will grade. So feeders base the price they pay ranchers on expected yield and grade and how much it will cost to get them finished.

And so that’s how producers make their breeding decisions.

We’re a grade, yield and price based system—heavy on yield and price, thank you. If USDA quality grades were a perfect indicator of eating satisfaction, that would be fine. But they’re not. Yield and price are darn near perfect, however—and thus provide perfect and immediate feedback.

Eating satisfaction, not so much.

We produce what we’re paid to produce, and it’s a lucky coincidence, I suppose, that the same corn that cheapens cattle back and allows for a year-round system also adds flavor most of us find irresistible. 

Someday that may change. It’s not that people don’t want to produce, buy and sell good-tasting beef.  Maybe we’ll find the right gene markers which, combined with the right management and feeding practices, will provide new tools to allow us to put more emphasis on affordable palatability.

When that goes mainstream, I bet it happens in an intensive management, feedyard-type environment. Rations may or may not center on corn. There may be other feedstuffs that provide better flavor or more desirable nutrition. Diet certainly impacts palatability. But in the modern economy, it will take science and it will take precise management to make it predictable.

For now, if you want to get paid for palatability in your calves, you about have to find or create a niche market. If you can get $40 a lb. for T-bone instead of the $10 a grocery might charge, it changes the math a little in favor of flavor. And there are, indeed, a lot of folks willing and able to pay the extra. But the worst of commodity fed beef isn’t that bad. It certainly out-tastes the pork and poultry competition.

I’ll admit it’s possible that Mark is right about the best beef in the world being grassfed. But, again, so is the worst. And also the second and third worst on down the line for a lot more worsts. You can’t build a business around such unpredictability. Not in today’s world.

Corn feeding cattle provides consumers a year round supply, predictability, affordability and taste that--those of us without subscriptions to Conde Nast Traveler, at least--think is great,
I’ll read the book if it’s good and get back to you.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at scornett@farmjournal.com.


 

The World’s Very Best Steak?

May 07, 2010

By Steve Cornett

I guess it’s possible.

Some years back, I was forced to spend a few months comparing steaks at the country’s great steak houses. 

The idea was to find out what those really good joints do to beef to make it fetch $50 or $100 a steak from repeat customers. I got good enough that I could, for a while there, tell the difference in wet and dry aged beef. That, my friend, is an acquired, rare and enviable talent.

To answer your question, in my opinion—OPINION, that’s all—the best steak I found was at  Peter Lugers in Brooklyn

As I recall, their method involved, first, having an owner meet every meat truck that pulled into New York and take her pick of the high-fed, Prime carcasses coming out of those little corn feedlots in that part of the country. These were swinging carcasses in bobtail trucks backing up to little wholesale businesses that somehow survived the boxed beef revolution. It was like 1957 all over again, as I recall, except the cattle were taller.

But just as, uh, rich in tallow. The worst—measured by marbling--of the beef I saw unloaded from those trucks would exceed the best of what you’ll see hanging in a plant in my part of the world. Well, maybe that’s a bit of hyperbole. But not much. They were some longfed sons a guns.

And then the steaks were dry-aged for a secret amount of time at a secret temperature. And then they were cooked hot and buttery. I’ve been back a few times, on my own dime instead of the expense account, mind you. Never was disappointed. Not only do I say the best steak I ever had—and I’ve got my own mesquite forest, mind you, and there is nothing better to complement steak flavor than mesquite—was from Peter Lugers, I say the second and third best came from there, too.

What brings that up is this book report from Canada. Like I said, it may be possible, but I’d need to be convinced that Glenn Elzinga’s grass fed beef could equal Peter Lugers. My experience with grassfed beef has not been all that impressive, and, without getting too snotty, I believe there might be some culinary placebo effect involved in the perceived taste of “organic,” “grass fed” and other trendy things. 

Well, like arugula. Arugula tastes fine if you know it’s arugula and you know the president can’t afford it. But let your wife sneak some in your salad some day and not tell you what it is.

It’s bitter. Plain lettuce is lots better.

But there are so many variables in beef quality from breed to diet to post mortem management, that I sure don’t doubt it’s possible that the Elzinga family raise the best beef in all the world. And I don’t have anything against organic or grassfed beef.

The rich have to eat, too.

At any rate, I don’t know anything about the book under review, and don’t personally plan to order it. For all I know, the author may have found some blind taste tests to back up his claim. But the darned review is so well-written, I thought I’d pass it along.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at scornett@farmjournal.com.

 

Why We Import Beef

May 03, 2010

By Steve Cornett

Thursday, April 29, 2010 7:28 AM by: Anonymous
I have a simple question, why are we importing beef? You mean we can't raise enough of American cattle right here in our own country. Also why are we beholden to the OIE? As I understand it, the American farmer usually has no trouble keeping disease in check, these problems all originate from cheap beef importers. I'm starting to like R-Calfs line of thinking.

First, an important thing. And not just because I’m tired of arguing with anonymouses (anonymice?) about beef imports. I’m also a music aficionado. Something of a connoisseur, if you will. You should go to http://www.rathergood.com/beef where you can find a mighty fine song about beef. Well, maybe not “mighty fine” but for sure mighty interesting. You didn’t see that many cats sing about beef before computers, you know.

Second, as to the simple question, above, posed after last week’s blog let us think a while.

Why are we importing beef? Why are we beholden to the OIE?

We import beef because we export beef. Until the BSE disaster, we got more dollars selling beef than we spent buying beef. And we will again. Because the U.S. has cheap grain and lots of feeding expertise, we have a unique position in the world market. If we can ever get fair trade established, we will sell a lot more beef than we import. In fact, we will export more beef than we consume domestically.

Our imports consist of a few cattle from Canada which compete directly with the cattle we grow, a few feeder cattle from Mexico, which compete with our own feeder cattle, and a lot of grass fed beef from Australia, which our processors mix with the excess fat from our fed cattle to make hamburger. We don’t sell much beef to Australia. That would be like selling aggies to Texas. We’ve got too many of our own. But we do sell a lot of beef to Canada and Mexico, so what we get from there is not all imports.

Our exports consist, primarily, of a bunch of byproducts that Americans won’t eat. You can follow the value of those byproducts at http://www.ams.usda.gov/mnreports/nw_ls441.txt if you choose to. They add about $130 to the value of a fed steer at the moment, and would add much more if the markets were fully open.

(But, of course, the anonymice don’t ever get those dollars, do they? The packers ge tthose dollars and no anonymous ever believes that packers base what they pay for fed cattle on what they get for what they sell. No, it’s all based on what the packers agree to pay for cattle on Monday morning, during their weekly squawk box confab, and that price is, of course, determined by how many independent producers they want to run out of business this week.)

Yes, as last week’s other anonymice pointed out, the markets are not fully open to U.S. beef. There is a lot of protectionism out there, and in just about every country we trade with—and our own, for that matter--farmers enjoy a disproportionate share of political power they employ to fight imports.

Which brings us to the second part of the questios. “Why are we beholden to the OIE?”

The OIE attempts—attempts—to establish a set of rules under which beef can flow freely. They look at the science and they decide what does and does not pose a risk.  In theory, if everybody followed the rules, that would limit the impact of protectionist sentiments. But, if everybody “followed the rules,” hockey and professional wrestling wouldn’t be so popular, would they.

But if they did follow the rules, we would sell a lot more beef. For instance, experience and science in the years since the United Kingdom mad cow epidemic indicate that mad cow, or BSE, is no longer an important threat to health. The scientists found the cause of it and the regulators eliminated the threat. There are vestiges of BSE among cattle herds in some countries, but that’s all they are. Artifacts.  Banning beef imports from countries with millions of head of cows  because of a few BSE cases is not scientifically justified.

It is justified only by protectionism and by public misinformation. The OIE is designed to reduce the impact of protectionism and misinformation.

If I were to argue with my last couple of pro-trade blogs, it would be to call me “naïve.” I would say something like this:

“you are so naïve, you anti-American fool. Don’t you know that everybody out-trades the U.S. and has forever? You naïve fool. You’ve lost your mind. You redefine insantity!”—Anonymous.

That’s what I would argue.

And if I did argue that and then I had to answer, I think I would say something like:

“Well, yes, I guess you’re right. But if we pushed harder, if we used our buying power to force our trading partners to play fair, we could force them to play by the OIE rules.” And then I would say, again, that 9 out of 10 humans live not in the U.S. but elsewhere and I would say, again, that as they get more wealthy because of free trade the will eat more beef and there is not enough cow-making ability in the world to meet the demand of a future of global affluence and that all that portends a prosperous future for the U.S. beef industry. If we let it happen."

Well. Maybe I wouldn’t argue that again. Maybe I’m tired of arguing with you guys.

So let’s all go listen to that cat sing about beef again.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at scornett@farmjournal.com.

 

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