The Quality of Your Steak Begins on the Ranch

The Quality of Your Steak Begins on the Ranch

In order to understand how quality matters in the beef industry, we must first understand how our beef production system works. When I talk about beef production, I am referring to cattle that are raised specifically for the meat industry, these cattle are called beef cattle. Let’s start with some numbers…

Did you know that more than 97% of beef cattle ranches are classified as family farms? And of those family farms nearly 79% of them have less than 50 head of cattle. Since it takes a lot of work to meet the demand of meat in this country but also worldwide (with that nearly 79% of ranchers raising around 50 head of cattle), there are over 1 million beef producers in the U.S. who manage nearly 94 million head of cattle. That’s a whole lot of people across the nation raising cattle, but nearly 1/3 of them are located in the great Plains area. 

Cow/Calf Operation

As with any industry, there isn’t a simple explanation for how the beef cattle industry works. But I will try to break it down as easily as I can. First, we’ve got the place where all cattle start. These farmers and ranchers are what is known as a cow/calf operation. All beef cattle, no matter where they end up, start on grass, and spend the majority of their life on grass. What a cow/calf operation does is exactly what it sounds like. You own cows that then have calves which you then sell. And the cycle repeats. Cow/Calf operations are the backbone of the beef cattle industry and this sector is mostly made up of those 79% of people who own somewhere around 50 head of cattle. A cow is first bred, has a nine-month gestation period and then gives birth. These calves will remain with their mothers until about eight months of age when they will be weaned and sold. And the cycle repeats. 

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Most cow-calf operations in the U.S. have calves born in the spring. This is because throughout the country, the majority of the grass grows in the summer thanks to summer rain. When running a cow/calf operation, ideally, you want your cow to be nursing that calf when the grass is at its greenest and best. Spring calving season is anywhere from March to May and sometimes even later as you travel further north. Spring born calves typically are weaned and sold by October or December.

At some ranches, like in California, it works best for cows to have their calves in the fall. This is due to the fact that it doesn’t rain in the summer in California and some places in the Southern part of the country. In a fall calving operation, the cows give birth somewhere from September to the end of November and the calves are weaned in July or August of the next year. There are several reasons why, if able, ranchers prefer fall calving, the Pioneer Woman does a great job of summarizing why their ranch enjoys Fall Calving versus Spring Calving

Calves are either sold via video auction sale (Megan at the Beef Jar has some great video of this) or they actually sold at a live auction. The calves sold typically go into a feed yard and that’s where we will go next. 

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Calves only stay on a cow/calf operation for one reason and that is if the rancher needs what is called replacements. A heifer calf is a female calf that has not yet had a baby. Heifer calves can be kept on the ranch to go into the breeding cycle if the rancher so desires. Otherwise heifer calves can also be sold, as when breeding it really is about a 50/50 chance you get a female or you get a male. Male calves are born bulls, but are castrated. These castrated males are what’s called steers. This process happens for several reasons, first remember that these calves stay with their mommas for eight months, you don’t want these bull calves trying to breed cows or calves during this period. Also, bulls can tend to have tougher meat than steers so beef producers worry about quality right from the beginning. 

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There is much more planning and strategy that goes into a cow/calf operation than mentioned here, but for the most part, that’s the operation in a nutshell. 

Feed Yards

The next step of a beef cattle’s life cycle is in a feed yard. I don’t want to delve too much into this, as many others out there have done a wonderful job of breaking down this highly misunderstood sector of beef cattle production. 

In the simplest of terms, feed yards (also known as feedlots or CAFOs – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are the final stage prior to slaughter for beef cattle. Feed yards focus on efficiency in growth and weight gain of these weaned calves. These calves will spend their last 90 to 120 days of their lives in these yards. Typically calves enter the feedlots around 700-800 pounds or larger (around 7-8 months old) and they will leave once they are “finished”. What this means is that these calves have met the desired carcass composition to meet meat quality goals, such as those set by the Certified Angus Beef Brand. 

It takes roughly 3-4 months for cattle to finish. They will leave the feed yard and go to the slaughterhouse around a year of age (or slightly older) and weighing 1,200 or above. During their time at the feed yard, cattle are given their vaccinations, ear-tagged for identification purposes, and started on a nutrition program made up of high forage diet. Their diets eventually transition to 75-85% what is known as concentrates (things like grains, spent brewer’s grains, etc.) essentially high-energy, low fiber feeds. 

Ryan Goodman over at Agriculture Proud does a wonderful job of writing about feed yards. He writes about what specifically cattle are eating, who is working in these feed yards, how cattle are taken care of during their time here, etc. 

Seed Stockers

The final part that makes this whole cycle work is the seed stockers. Seed stockers are responsible for selecting the quality of genetics so that the steak that ends up on your plate is delicious. Seed stockers are a specialized cow/calf operation that produces purebred or registered cattle. The goal of their production method is to constantly improve genetics that benefit the entire beef cattle industry. 

Thanks to Certified Angus Beef Brand, I had the opportunity to fly out to California and tour a seed stocker operation. Five Star Land and Livestock (Abbie Nelson and family) is out of Wilton, California. They are a family owned and operated ranch who specializes in seed stock production. In fact, Abbie’s great-grandfather was a cattle buyer who homesteaded in Iowa and was one of the first to import Angus cattle from Scotland in the 1800s. They eventually settled in California and began working on improving genetics in Angus cattle. A seed stock producer, simply stated, does this in two ways: first of all they breed and sell bulls (or semen for artificial insemination) and they also sell replacement heifers we talked about above. 

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People like the Nelson’s of Five Star Land & Livestock make it their highest priority to select the best genetics they can to produce high quality bulls. Here’s where that translates to your steak. Did you know that these animals are genetically tested (through a hair sample DNA test) as well ultrasound to receive information? Information like average rib eye area, backfat, marbling, etc. can all be identified through this process. 

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When you look through a bull sale catalog, these numbers below all mean something. I’m not going to go over what each and every abbreviation means, but here are a few. Beef cattle producers are worried about things like weight at which the calves wean, disposition of bulls or cows, things like I mentioned above: marbling, rib eye area, etc. They are also looking at things like feed conversions, or basically how well an animal eats. 

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How does this help the cow/calf producers? If they purchase a bull that they know has good genetics, that bull will pass on his genetics to his calf. Each and every one of those abbreviations above are just ONE characteristics beef producers take into considerations when breeding, buying, or selling cattle that end up on our plates. And these decisions made by those cow/calf operations are not made light-heartedly. 

It may seem like once a cow/calf operation sells their calves their interest in them is over, but that is far from the truth. Cow/calf operations wait to see how their calves did at places like the feed yard as well as even at the slaughterhouse. When I said in the title that the quality of your steak starts on the ranch, it really does.

The reason why we can enjoy an awesome steak is because of people like Five Star Land & Livestock as well as the million cow/calf operators across the nation. 

Certified Angus Beef Brand

Certified Angus Beef Brand takes quality one step further. What is the Certified Angus Beef Brand? 

The Certified Angus Beef Program was formed in 1978 to provide assurances of beef quality and flavor to consumers, who during the 1970s were largely dissatisfied with beef quality. It was a venture that strengthened relationships between the American Angus Association, the world’s largest beef cattle registry, and beef producers, packers and distributors.

Today, Certified Angus Beef LLC (CAB) functions as a not-for-profit division of the American Angus Association. The Association is comprised of tens of thousands of rancher members dedicated to producing high quality beef that’s superior in taste and tenderness. The Certified Angus Beef ® brand is the industry’s oldest and most successful brand.

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Certified Angus Beef Brand works hard to ensure that the beef they are marketing under their brand is the best quality. But they are also helping to educate consumers on the beef they are eating by employing people like professional chefs who give demonstrations on how to successfully cook beef products and develop new recipes as well as meat scientists who answer questions about where specific cuts of meat come from and how they end up on our plate. They also have a whole team of people who are doing things like rancher interviews or even field trips to ranches, feedlots, and slaughterhouses so people who are far disconnected from agriculture have a chance to get an up close and personal experience with the people who work hard daily to produce that high quality beef we all love. 

What Makes Beef Certified Angus Brand? 

You may have seen the Certified Angus Beef Brand label in the store. But what exactly does that mean? 

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In order for beef to wear that label, it must meet 10 quality specifications. These specifications are determined in the slaughterhouse during what is called quality grading. 

All beef bought and sold in a retail outlet or served in a restaurant in the United States HAS been inspected by the USDA and besides inspecting beef for its wholesomeness, it is also graded. Grading is a voluntary process that categorizes carcasses, predicting its quality which in turn helps the industry and consumers determine its value.

More than half the beef in the United States is graded which is paid for by the processor, but in a retail market, it is something that is necessary. Grading is done by looking at the carcass between the 12th and 13th rib (basically the last cut of the ribeye) Certified Angus Beef is one step above that, their grading is also done by USDA, but they set the bar just a little bit higher with 10 quality specifications. 

First and foremost, in order for the cattle to be labeled Angus, they have to indeed be Angus breed. Certified Angus Brand Beef does this by evaluating the hide. Typically angus breeds will have a black hide and requires all beef with their label to have 51% or greater solid black hide.

But how do you know once their hide comes off? Animals that meet the qualification of this are stamped with an A in the slaughterhouse. Once they make it to the grader, the grader knows whether or not to evaluate these animals for the 10 Certified Angus Beef Qualifications

So what are the 10 specifications? 

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1. Marbling – Modest or higher marbling required. Marbling, is the tiny white flecks of fat scattered throughout the lean red meat. Marbling is what gives beef its good taste and well as keeps it tender and juicy while cooking.

2. Marbling Texture – Medium to fine marbling texture required. A medium to fine marbling texture means that those tiny white flecks of fat scattered throughout the muscle aren’t highly concentrated or heavily grouped up. They are even and consistent throughout. 

3. “A” Maturity – Since the slaughterhouse has no way of knowing exactly how old this animal is, they rely on the physiological maturity of a carcass to tell them the age. Indicators used are bone, ossification of cartilage, and texture of that ribeye between the 12th and 13th rib. In order to tell how old an animal is, we look at the vertebrae of the backbone and the cartilage in between these vertebrae. Much like when we age, as we get older, the amount of cartilage gets less and less. Same thing happens in cattle. An A maturity carcass will still have a sufficient amount of cartilage in between the bones. 

4. 10 to 16 square inch ribeye area – So for this qualification, Certified Angus Beef is ensuring that rib eye size is consistent. This is also something that can be determined through genetics like we talked about earlier. Ensuring that one day you go to the store to buy a ribeye it isn’t huge and the next time you go to the store, it isn’t small. Consistency is key. 

5. Less than 1,000 pound carcass weight – This qualification is also about consistency. Carcasses are weighed on the slaughterhouse floor and that weight is called a hot carcass weight. This is the weight they are using to determine if it meets this qualification. Cattle that have larger carcass weights will yield larger cuts of meat like rib eyes and new yorks. 

6. Less than 1 inch of backfat (or eternal fat) – This qualification is sort of like Goldilocks. We certainly want enough back fat in order to allow the carcass to age and tenderize, but we also don’t want too much back fat because that will become waste in the end. We want just the perfect amount. 

7. Superior Muscling (Eliminates Dairy Influence) – During this qualification, they are looking for a nice round ribeye. Typically in dairy cattle, ribeyes will be more long and narrow. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, it is simply has to do with genetics. But in order to meet the Certified Angus Beef Brand quality, they are looking for a consistent rib eye or muscle structure. 

8. Practically Free of Capillary Rupture – This can happen if any animal wasn’t stunned right or bled right at the slaughterhouse, it can blood spot. Nobody wants a steak that has blood spot on it. Even outside of Certified Angus Beef Brand, nobody wants this, slaughterhouses take extreme care to ensure things like this don’t happen. 

9. No Dark Cutters – When animals are excited or stressed out before slaughter, their meat can turn a purplish color due to an elevated pH in the meat. This is what is called dark cutters, I’ve written all about the science behind it over at Chico Locker. Much like capillary rupture, nobody in the industry wants this. Slaughterhouses take extreme care to ensure animals are calm during slaughter. 

10. No neck hump exceeding two inches – This is basically to eliminate any Brahman cattle. This is purely a Certified Angus Beef requirement and it has to do, again, with genetics. Brahman influence beef can sometimes not meet the tenderness standards set by CAB. Certified Angus Beef is a premium product so they want to ensure you are getting your money’s worth out of their product. 

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There are many other branded programs out there with varying requirements. Certified Angus Beef Brand is one of the most strict and premium there is and they take pride (as they should) in the products that end up with their label. But whether it is Certified Angus Beef or not, quality is something that is in the back of ever cattle producer, feed yard manager, and even slaughterhouse operator’s mind. 

Every step of the way, beef cattle quality is taken in consideration, starting with genetics and breed, and then feeding of the animal, and finally ensuring the animal is graded and branded correctly.

The quality of your steak doesn’t just start in the slaughterhouse, it begins once that animal is bred at the ranch. 

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I want to give a HUGE thanks to the wonderful people at Certified Angus Beef Brand for giving us a wonderful opportunity at learning more about not only Certified Angus Beef Brand, but also how much care and responsibility is put on the shoulders of our cattle men and women across the nation. I spent a wonderful 24 hours with people from across the nation and from all walks of life talking about beef and cattle and it warms my heart to know that these people walked away with a greater appreciation for our beef cattle industry. 

Huge thanks to Abbie and Ryan Nelson of Five Star Land & Livestock for letting us come out to your ranch and your home. Your hospitality is much appreciated as well as the work you do for the beef cattle industry. Your family is beautiful and I am so glad to see, even in the face of drought in California, you’ve taken steps to ensure the next generation of cattle producers will have a future on your ranch. 

Certified Angus Brand Beef not only brought us out to learn about beef, they paired it with an afternoon at Bogle Vineyards! Stay tuned for my post all about their family history and how Bogle has become what it is today!

p.s. if you’ve never tried any of Bogle wine, do it! Cheers to wine and beef! 

5 Comments

  1. October 28, 2014 / 10:35 am

    All I want for my birthday, Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Labor Day, Fourth of July, Halloween, and Thanksgiving is that USDA *PRIME* steak, cooked medium rare of course, pictured above. Please and thank you.

    Mmmmmm, I love me a good, quality ribeye steak. If I was allergic to red meat (beef, in particular) I think I would drown in my own tears. Great post, as always, thanks for sharing your trip to California and the Five Star Ranch. What an opportunity you had, not to mention that tasty bite of steak. I’m pea-green with envy. But I love you. 🙂
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    • October 30, 2014 / 4:37 pm

      You are the sweetest! And you can’t tell me things like this otherwise you JUST MAY END UP with some awesome steaks at your doorstep!!! Love you my friend!

  2. K
    October 30, 2014 / 7:01 am

    I had to stop reading after the part about how old they are when you wean and how many days they spend in a feedlot. At that point one of two things was clear. 1) you don’t know much about the cattle biz or 2) you simply can’t do math. To wean a 8 weight at 8 months of age you’d need a 3.3 weight per day of age. It can be done but its gonna take a lot of feed to get him there. Then to spend 90 to 120 days in a feedlot if entering at 800# means the critter would have to gain more than 5 pounds per day. Pretty hard to do all the way through the finishing phase. It was clear you got this part wrong so I wondered how much else you had wrong and stopped reading

    • October 30, 2014 / 7:27 am

      Hi K,
      Appreciate your criticisms of my post. I apologize I didn’t encompass the entire cattle industry or correctly simplify the entire cattle industry in my post. It’s a challenge to break down a very complex business into terms the every day person and consumers understand. If you want to write up a post about how it works, be my guess. I would love to feature it! My email is [email protected]! I will be waiting! Thanks!

    • Iain
      October 30, 2014 / 8:22 am

      K, Jenny is doing a 30,000 foot overview of the industry for non-ag people and I think she did an excellent job. Calf weights going into feedlots can vary wildly, but that doesn’t mean her numbers are wrong. We routinely wean 750-850 lb calves in the fall off our purebred Angus and commercial Angus X Simmental. If you aren’t getting those weights (without lots of feed as you say) you need to look at your genetics and management and change things up.