Playing for High Steaks: The Quest for Better Beef
The Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation and Michigan Good Food Charter are working to develop local food production and distribution systems to source 20% of the food for the Traverse City area within a 100-mile radius by 2020. The plan also states the meat portion of supply should be pasture-based. According to Jason Rowntree, Assistant Professor, Beef Cattle and Forage Utilization at Michigan State University, to achieve this pasture-based livestock supply, producer and culinary education must be greatly enhanced. This story features Rowntree's NCR-SARE Research and Education project, which is developing a pilot for a Northwest Michigan beef production system by connecting area beef producers, local processors, distributors and retailers in order to begin to meet the 20% benchmark.
Source: Edible Grande Traverse, by Patty Cantrell
Paul May stands in his pasture near Frankfort in Benzie County, dreaming about worms.
“They are without a doubt the most important livestock out here; their castings have the perfect mineral profile,” he says. “The problem is I don’t have enough of them, and I’ve got to have them.”
More worms will help the May Farm continue building the productivity of the pasture, which feeds the cattle and sheep that eventually make it to the dinner plates of more than 60 pay-in-advance customers.
After three years of grazing animals in an intensive rotational system, the May Farm has doubled the forage that the pasture produces. The process of moving cattle frequently from paddock to paddock keeps them eating grass at its optimum nutritional level, and leaves plenty of turf behind for the next round of fertilization and growth before the cattle return to eat the grass again.
But more worms and more awareness, like more people knowing how to cook pastured beef, will help May Farm grow. Even though grass-fed and pastured products fetch premium prices, farmers can still end up losing profits because of production and marketing challenges.
Enter Michigan State University’s Lake City Research Center, an agricultural experiment station in Missaukee County specializing in pastured beef and seed potato research. With a new three-year federal grant, the research center is on a mission to help northwest Lower Michigan identify and address the issues that have kept pastured beef from reaching its full regional potential.
In particular, the project is designed to help the region meet its goal of 20 percent local food in local markets by 2020. This goal comes from the broad-based Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network, which has helped make the idea of a more robust and resilient local food system a regional economic development priority.
“It will be a huge effort to reach 20 percent local beef by 2020” says Jason Rowntree, assistant professor in animal science and the research center’s faculty coordinator. “But you have to start somewhere.”
And when you’re looking at local beef, you have to look at raising it on grass, he adds.
The cost of importing grains for feed is becoming prohibitive for farmers, with the driving factors being rising fuel prices and competition with ethanol markets for the same feedstock. Grazing systems, on the other hand, can virtually eliminate fuel, machinery and fertilizer costs that come with conventional beef production, Rowntree says. The Lake City research center has itself demonstrated this in the two years since it transitioned to more organic and pasture-based production of beef.
Research center staff will soon be out in the fields with the May Farm and 19 others participating in the project, helping them get their pastures into shape and cattle finished for market. To address challenges on the buyer side, they’ll also partner with meat processors, food distributors and chefs in the region to work out snags in their systems, too. The project will generate real-life data by putting 200 head of cattle from participating farms into northwestern Michigan markets.
“Ultimately we have to put pastured beef through the entire system—from production methodology all the way to culinary preparation—to see the areas that become bottlenecks in terms of logistics and costs,” Rowntree says.
Beyond farm production issues, one of the biggest challenges is what Rowntree calls “carcass utilization,” or the many ways to cut up and serve a beef so that as little as possible goes to waste. Maximizing the yield—and farmer income—per animal is important because pastured beef takes longer to reach market weight than cattle supplemented with grain. The longer it takes to get to market size, the smaller the percentage of the herd ready for sale each year.
Finding ways to use more of each animal for high-value cuts and less for ground beef is the trick, says Evan Smith, general manager of
Cherry Capital Foods, a Traverse City–based, locally focused distributor that will participate in the project. Cherry Capital Foods has already been at the carcass utilization job while working with Oryana Natural Foods in Traverse City and other food co-ops in Michigan. They’ve partnered on a project to source and use organic pastured beef from a farm in Rosebush that has both the production and processing capacity needed.
“We did a demo over at Oryana and showed people how to utilize different cuts they might not be familiar with, like the flatiron steak, which in traditional slaughter quite often ends up in ground beef,” Smith says. “The point is: If you can get another cut out of a beef that’s worth, say, $6 a pound versus $1.55 as hamburger, it becomes a much more attractive proposition for everyone.”
That includes local meat-processing businesses that are needed for the regional beef supply chain to function. Tom Ebels is the meat-processing manager for Ebels General Store in Lake City, a multi-generation family business just a few miles from the MSU research center. Ebels’ meat-processing department will slaughter and process cattle involved in the pastured beef project.
Ebels is eager to work with the project to figure out the best approach to carcass utilization because he believes it will translate into more business for the region’s livestock sector.
“The more cattle they run through, the whole supply chain will benefit,” he says. “We could see more jobs and more businesses expanding to move product in the future.”
On the cooking side of things, the Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City will be involved. Director Fred Laughlin is standing ready to conduct workshops, trainings and other events to spread knowledge of how to work with the new cuts and pastured beef in general.
Pastured meats generally require slow cooking techniques, he says. “But most beef comes into a restaurant in packs; you just grill the steak and send it out. Good grilling is a real skill, but to do the slow cooking process right is almost an art.”
The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy hopes to be part of the project also, with a 100-acre farm and herd of hardy Belted Galloway cattle. A benefactor recently donated the farm as part of a larger tract with the express request that the conservancy use it for farming education and research.
“When the MSU project came up, it seemed like the perfect fit for us to develop the farm as an asset for the region’s agricultural community,” says Vic Lane, the conservancy’s easement and forestry manager.
Paul and wife Sharron May are eager to get started. They see not only more worms in their future but also a community of other beef producers and related businesses working collaboratively to get the whole supply chain moving.
“We’ll improve what we’re doing, for sure,” Paul May said.
Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) LNC12-345, A Local Pasture-Based Beef Production System for Northwest Michigan.