October on the Farm

October so Winter’s Coming

I love October. I love fall. I love the colors, the harvest, getting firewood in, making apple cider, cooler nights and the dry breezy days. These were the kind of days when work wasn’t pressing, I’d be walking about moving portable electric fence or whatever, and I’d flop down in the grass and just lay there for a long while. I watched the geese and ducks, a buffeted hawk circling, the clouds marching by, and listened to the wind. The air had a crisp feel to it, nights were getting long so I rarely missed a dawn. The mosquitoes and flies had thinned out, the lakes and ponds had cleared up, the grass and weeds slowed down, the morning doves, crickets, frogs, and other critters were making their calming drone, and I spend more time petting the dog. Those were the days that my kind of farming really paid.

Getting ready for winter, the family groups of geese were taking shake down cruises from the lake to the fields and back. We were also getting ready, and looking to can tomatoes, store squash, potatoes, and onions. The sense to stash away some meat in the freezer also kicked in for many of my customers.

In the fall I always had a little beef to sell from cattle that matured and finished a little slower then the rest, 2-5 months after the target of two years old. However, I pushed my customers over the years to buy the cattle when they reached two years old in late spring and early summer, with the argument that most of my beef were finished and at the peak of their vitality at this point. Selling right at the point of being finished, early in the growing season limited what costs I had to pass onto the customer. For every big appetite two year plus in the pasture, I would be losing enough grass to almost feed two yearlings. I needed those yearling to pay the bills and meet the demand the next year. In trying to move people away from the traditional fall freezer fill up, I’d add my theory that beef coming off of springs high energy, high chlorophyll and carotene forages would likely have a little more Omega 3 and CLA, although I didn’t know of any affordable way I could have verified that.

Eventually I did get a lot of my repeat customers to work with me and buy 1/4’s and 1/2’s around early Summer, which also worked out great with the butcher/ locker there in Elkton, South Dakota, that I used. I brought them slaughter and meat cutting work spring and summer when their business was slow. These beef of mine avoided the chaotic fall rush at the locker when grainfed beef mixed with deer all came in.

These small lockers are becoming a threatened enterprise like the local hardware store, or locally owned anything. The big slaughter packing plants can sell blood, guts, bone, head and hooves, each by the semi load and recapture at least a couple hundred dollars per head, and by operating 24 hours a day with cheap labor they can process meat for less. People buying 1/4’s and 1/2’s help keep these small lockers operating.

It was also nice to find a locker that knew quiet cattle were easier to work with, and I didn’t need to tell them to lose the electric prods, hollering, and slamming gates. The cattle were penned in stalls and given water. I got the cattle to Elkton at least an hour early so they could get used to the place before going into the kill box. The kill box is in a room separate from the holding pens, and they are handled by talented people using the proper equipment, inside a clean, well designed facility. I occasionally stuck around to watch and to make sure.

At Elkton, after the beef was slaughtered, it was split in half, washed down, and checked over to be given the USDA inspected stamp. It was sprayed with a citric acid mix to kill any surface bacteria, and put into a chiller room. After chilling down it was moved to an aging room big enough to dry age all the beef they slaughter for at least 14 days. In the big aging room the temperature is carefully monitored and kept slightly above freezing. During the aging process, the natural bacteria and enzymes did most of the tenderizing work at the start. With time the airborne microbes increasingly became responsible for the gradual break down of muscle fibers.

There is considerable evaporation from both the lean and fat, which right after slaughter the carcass meat and tissue cells are naturally around 70 percent water. The amount of evaporation will depend on relative humidity, amount of air flow and temperature of the aging cooler. During chilling of the hot carcass immediately after slaughter, the meat cells will lose about 2 to 3 percent of its weight due to moisture loss. The additional aging will result in additional moisture loss of 1 or so percent per day for the first seven days, falling off the second week.

Many lockers only have small aging rooms leading to a different aging process. Often the whole carcass is only aged for 3-7 days with the loin portion containing the high end steaks cut out and aged, usually in a plastic bag for another week. Although that beats the industrial packing plant that the only aging comes from time on the shrink wrapped styrofoam tray, I liked the idea that at Elkton, all of my beef aged for 14 days. It breathed the whole time and the muscle fibers got acted upon by microbes other than those of the muscle itself. Those other microbes are mostly the long, threadlike mycelia of various airborne fungi. I believe that the aging besides tenderizing, accentuates the mature beef flavor of my 24-month or older beef. By having the full half carcass age, the ground beef and roast flavor benefits, as do the customers that aren’t paying for the extra water. Ten percent or so less water when compared to conventional industries boxed beef.

There are some people that like to age beef for well over two weeks, as it follows that it just gets more tender with time. I was okay with that, but if they asked, I told them that after two weeks the bacteria and fungi becomes the primary means of muscle fiber breakdown, and in my mind, the beef has more of a chance for developing off-flavors.

When this country went to monster packing plants and boxed beef, butchering and meat cuts also changed. Old cookbooks talk of cuts that you never hear about anymore. Most of the time the older steak and roast cuts had some bone in them. A sirloin steak might have been a flat bone, pin bone, or wedge bone sirloin. People wanted to chew off the tasty tidbits close to the bone and felt the bone helped the flavor. On pot roasts, it was either a blade (chuck) or arm roast, with the arm roast being slightly less tender but often sought out because it had a marrow bone. In cooking a marrow bone-in arm roast, cooks might scoop out the marrow when the roast was mostly done and mix it with the other juices. Today, where industrial beef typically ships over a thousand miles, and grocery store shoppers worry about buying bone by the pound, beef has become largely boned out. With my beef, the bones weren’t being hauled very far, didn’t cost any extra, and the customer might as well take them along unless they are short freezer space. I encouraged my 1/4 and 1/2 customers to tell the processor that they want bone-in roasts, t-bones, porterhouses, bone-in rib steaks or standing rib roasts, soup bones, short ribs, and …. even dog bones to cook down for broth or feed to the dog. One issue with bone-in, especially t-bones and rib steaks is that in sawing through bones, it leaves them with sharp edges, where if carelessly tossed and banged together the vacuum sealed plastic packages would get tiny holes allowing air in, ruining the vacuum seal. Not so much of a problem with paper wrapped meat.

My grassfed beef and the associated butchering was more expensive, but was sought after in part due to health concerns of beef with steroid implants. I too, started out with intuitive reservations about steroids, but it was from listening to researchers at the local universities Meat Lab, that I gained more educated reservations. I attended the universities winter workshops several times over the years, where they had a high percentage of feedlot type students so they always gave a morning or afternoon long session on steroids.

In early workshops the steroid sessions were basically about how if your neighbor used a three-dollar implant and got 20-40 more lbs of beef per head, how could you in a competitive market afford not to do the same. Over time as more research was done, steroid instructions became a lot more complex. Today there isn’t just one type of steroid that can be implanted into the animal a few times throughout its life, but a whole array of chemical compounds, steroid types, and concentrations. People implanting these in cattle need to be very careful to avoid big problems that can potentially kill or lessen an animals value, and therefore hurt the owner financially. We learned that some of these growth promoters aren’t steroids at all, but compounds such as beta blockers (agonists, banned in parts of Europe), but like steroids have a pronounced effect on forcing unnatural muscle growth. I don’t claim to understand it all, but here are some of the problems (“refinements”) the professor that gave the last meat lab pointed out: (I will just use the layman’s term of “steroids” below).

First refinement: Don’t give sick calves steroids. A sick calf needs all its energy to get well. If you screw up its body’s signals with steroids, the calf then uses most of its energy to grow, grow, grow, which might lead to it ending up dead, dead, dead.

Other refinements are needed to decrease associated problems leading to tough meat and poor marbling. It appears if the animal’s system is stressed too much by the resultant unnatural growth, there is an associated tendency for tough meat. Also, researchers have learned that the marbling of intramuscular fat occurs throughout a calf’s life and you can’t just make it all up toward the end by using a lot of high energy corn and the resultant antibiotics. If during the first part of the calf’s life you make it put too much energy into accelerated growth of muscle, no marbling happens. Then, when you do give them the super high energy feed late in life, often you end up with mediocre marbling and excess external fat.

The main public health concern about steroids has been with the estrogen in the typical old style beef implant steroid which contains both male and female hormones. The male hormones (which hasn’t become a big public issue YET) produces the unnaturally fast muscle growth. Estrogen is added only in order to keep the animals from becoming aggressive.

Healthy fat is another issue that we need to weed through. We have been subject to ad campaigns for decades, pushing us to buy industrial produced foods and give up the basic foods that our distant ancestors thrived on. The history of how the food industry convinced much of the public into replacing animal fats with manufactured vegetable oils was one of those that interested me, especially that of Crisco. Crisco was originally intended to be a replacement for tallow in candles by candle maker William Proctor and his brother-in-law, soap-maker James Gamble. In 1907 German chemist E. C. Kayser helped Proctor and Gamble use the new process of hydrogenation when the demand for lard and tallow needed to make candles and soap surpassed supply. By adding hydrogen atoms to the fatty acid chain, they could take cheap liquid cottonseed oil and turn it into a semi-solid lard (soap/ candle)-like substance.

But, a few years after all this work, along came home electrification, making candles more and more obsolete. So they fell on the idea of selling the hydrogenated cottonseed oil resembling lard as food. The new product was called Crisco, which can be derived from CRYStalized Cottonseed Oil.

Crisco was introduced to the public in 1911. The challenge for P & G was to convince the housewife about the merits of this imitation food. Crisco’s very effective ad campaign championed the all-vegetable shortening as “a healthier alternative to cooking with animal fats… and more economical than butter.” P&G’s next step was even more effective, they published and gave away a cookbook. This cookbook looked like most other cookbooks except all of its 615 recipes contained Crisco. There have been some changes over time but it is still hydrogenated vegetable oil. The ironic part is that more and more medical findings are showing the imitation hydrogenated fats as being a serious negative to our health. The idea that things like Crisco don’t rot, but last on the shelf at room temperature should have given most people a clue. They are NOT a natural food, but ingrained ideas from successful old ad campaigns die hard.