Sunday, December 27, 2009

New Calves (And A Primer on Black Angus Beef)

Momma cows are fat, their udders are huge poor girls, and the calves they are a-droppin.

These will be our first calves out of the new bull, so we're excited to see what we're getting.

So far, we're pleased. Small calves means easy calving and less worry. Knowing the mommas and looking at the bull, I don't think rate-of-gain is going to be an issue.

Also, black calves are good! We've been getting good prices at the sale anyway, but in general, black cattle sell better right now. So far we're getting about 80% black with the other 20% being an acceptable solid red.

Why do black cattle sell better you ask? Well these days there's a big hooplah about "Black Angus" steaks. Frankly I think it's a bunch of hooey except for one thing: the steaks marketed as "Black Angus" are selected for quality and tenderness. I won't say flavor because if you've never had home grown beef then you have no idea that beef actually has a flavor.

Chances are that your Black Angus steak has in it's ancestry some mutt of a cow, much like ours. By the whims of fate the steer that wound up in your steak turned out black and looking vaguely like that breed of cattle that is called "Angus." Except for registered "purebred" Angus cattle, delivered as directly as possible from the breeder to your plate, you're highly unlikely to be getting "real" Angus beef as most people think of it.

Even amongst the oh-so-pure herds of registered breeding stock, you can breed a Black Angus bull to a Black Angus cow and get a Red Angus calf.

Because the difference between those two is nothing but the color gene, which is as slippery and contrary as any high strung cow in the working alley.

Even leaving aside the vagaries of your steak's genetic ancestry, the assertion that Black Angus beef is somehow inherently more tender or juicy or what have you than other kinds of beef is frankly hooey.

There are some breeds that have the characteristics that tend more towards tender meat, yes. Those characteristics include good muscle mass, a relatively easy going temperament, and a general leaning towards the big and square look.

But these characteristics are found in plenty of breeds, and mixed breeds, and do not guarantee good meat as the inevitable outcome of the process that starts with a bull and a cow and ends on your plate.

Tender meat has something to do with the animal that you start with, yes. But you want to select for those characteristics that I outlined above, to give yourself a good start. After that, the end result of tender meat depends upon how you feed and handle the animal.

Yes, you can get tender, delicious meat out of any breed of cattle, so long as you do things the right way. Longhorns and the lean breeds will tend more towards the flavorful but a little tough end of the spectrum in general, and the bulkier breeds will tend more towards the fork-tender side. But a steer, fed on mother's milk and grass (and ignored other than routine vaccinations and of course castration at as young an age as is practical to accomplish the task) for the first two years of it's life, then transferred into a pen with a hay bale and daily grain for two weeks before making the final trip to the processor, will, inevitably, turn out a better steak than anything you will find on the supermarket shelves. I'll take home-grown beef over that silly Kobe stuff any day.

It's my belief (with no real research to back it up, bear in mind) that while meat labeled "Black Angus" in the store really did come from a black bovine of some variety whether it be real Angus or some muttly mix, if for no other reason than to head off at the pass any false advertising claims, the superior quality of the meat is less due to the color of the cattle and more due to adapting, as much as possible in a mass market situation, the same technique that we use for the steers that we intend to eat.

Because lets face it folks, by the time it hits your plate you have no idea what color that steak was when it was up and walking around. I can tell you what colors the last two steers we butchered were, but not which steak came from which steer.

It seems that anyone who has tasted our beef has raved about it, which gives me no little amount of pride. But between you, me, and the wall, no one who has eaten our beef has had a single bite of what, when walking around, could have been classified in the loose methods used by the cattle industry for the most part a "Black Angus" steer.

In a couple of years, yes, we'll be eating beef that was once black, perhaps. But then, when a coat color can get you another three to five cents a pound at the sale.... why not?