I don’t really review supermarkets, but every so often I feel the need to pipe up about something that bothers me. And don’t be alarmed, I WILL say some good things too, but let me get to the bad shit first.
I don’t know if its’ some new fucking food waste trend, or if it’s just the shitty condition of Manhattan grocery stores in general, but the produce at these two supermarkets have royally sucked lately. Every time I go to the Columbus Circle, 9th Avenue and 57th Street locations of these joints, the greens, veggies and produce are half rotten. And Columbus Circle is supposed to be THE FLAGSHIP Whole Foods location, from what I understand.
I can’t even remember how many times I’ve picked up a head of broccoli only to have the stems bend like rubber under its own weight. I’ve purchased a head of lettuce for $3 or $4 and had to throw half of it out because it was turning fucking brown.
Yes, yes. None of us like to waste food. I know all about “ugly food” initiatives, and I support them. Why toss it if you can sell it, or give it to someone who is hungry?
But this garbage should be discounted if the condition is going to always be shitty. In Manhattan, this crap is double the price of the suburbs. We are getting raped here.
Part of the reason, I’m convinced, is because of those dumb fucking sprinkler systems that spray water on the produce every minute. Dumb. It just asks for rot to form on the food. The other reason, maybe more specific to Manhattan, is the heat in Summer, slow delivery times due to traffic, and poor refrigeration. Either way I’m not happy about it.
On the other hand, Whole foods has an awesome deli and fresh pre-prepared food area, along with a kick ass bakery, beer selection and olive bar. Morton Williams has a nice deli too. I picked up this sandwich the other day and really enjoyed it: smoked turkey, provolone cheese, roasted red peppers and pesto on a roll: $7.25.
Another item for the plus column: beef selection. While the items can get pricey at times, the quality is very good. Whole Foods offers dry aged beef, and both joints have some great sales if you watch out for them.
It’s 1:00 am. It’s bitter cold outside, early December. Phil Trowbridge is making his first of three rounds throughout the night to check on his animals. He’ll do the same at 3:00 am, and then at 5:00 am, before even starting the day. It’s harsh, but it always has to be done, every day, even on Christmas.
He hears and sees one of the cows struggling. She’s panicked. When he gets close he knows his long work day is going to be even longer. Her entire reproductive system has prolapsed, and if he doesn’t act quickly, she’ll die.
Phil’s son PJ is with him helping, as he’s done all his life. They live just a stones throw away now that a neighbor sold his house to PJ. They run the farm together.
They get the cow into the chute and place her prolapsed uterus onto a makeshift table that Phil created on the fly, using a stretched feed bag. They raise a bar up under her to keep her from shifting, moving, and making an already dire situation even worse.
The climate in the Hudson Valley can be wet and icy. Her front legs slip forward while her back legs remain propped up from the bar. She tips forward. Now things could get really bad.
But it’s a happy accident. She can’t move, and her body is angled in such a way that it’s perfect for getting her insides back in place. Phil ties her front legs and pulls them forward, keeping her at that angle, while PJ – hands and arms numb with cold in the frigid, dark December air – puts their cow back together again.
After spending a day with Phil and breaking bread with his family over dinner, I asked him and his son to tell me the most challenging and rewarding aspects of their profession. Phil told me that story, and it exemplifies both challenge and reward together in one grueling morning.
Phil has had to deal with maybe three prolapses in his decades of experience working with cattle, but he knows how to address the problem. In fact, he knows how to fix so much of what can go wrong on the farm, that if his veterinarians get a call, they’re truly worried.
I asked Phil and his son what the hardest part of their job is. Both he and PJ were modest: They told me it wasn’t a hard job, but I know I wouldn’t last a week doing what they do, day in and day out. Given the daily farm work on top of everything else they do, no one is ever idle.
While many things may come easy to Phil and PJ with their collective wealth of experience, there are still some things with which they have trouble.
Phil told me that losing an animal is hard. When that happens, it stays with him. His heart breaks. The roughly 400 animals in his care are like children to him. He checks on them all day, grows and mixes their food, feeds them, cleans them, monitors their health and keeps them healthy, delivers their babies… That’s respect. That’s love.
And from what I’ve seen it’s not just Phil; it’s all cattlemen who are worth a damn in this business. You don’t step into this lifestyle without respect and love for the animals. That’s something the average person doesn’t understand about our cattlemen.
Phil runs Trowbridge Farms – a patchwork of pastures, farms and barns that spans 1700 acres in Ghent, NY, about two hours North of Manhattan by train/car on the east side of the Hudson River.
Phil is originally from Buffalo, so this area may as well be Florida to him. When he first arrived here decades ago, he was surprised that cattle could even feed on pasture.
You may be thinking something like, “How the hell can someone run cattle in New York, where taxes and land costs are so high?” And that’s an excellent question.
The majority of land Phil works and uses is not his own. Rather, he rents and leases land from homeowners who are weekenders and summer vacationers from New York City. They own second homes, but allow Phil to raise feed crops and grasses there, and to graze his animals on the land, in exchange for rent or barter.
Because of this system, Phil can probably raise cattle cheaper than most places in the country. The relationships are mutually beneficial: Phil maintains the land, and the homeowners can sit back and earn additional income.
The soil here is everything. Across the Hudson, the earth is like clay, and therefore it’s harder to raise crops. Here, it’s more gravely and easier to work with. Phil couldn’t have this kind of productive operation if he didn’t understand the soil and how it affects plant makeup. In fact, there is pressure from dairy farms to get this better land for the alfalfa.
“Why?” For their feed.
Alfalfa is a high production, high nutrient legume plant that Phil uses in his cattle feed.
He takes three or four cuttings, and when I visited on July 2nd, he had already taken the first cutting. With his bromegrass and Timothy-grass farms, he only gets two cuttings. He also grows oats and corn as well, and makes his own hay and baleage.
Baleage, or silage, is a fermented feed that helps cattle in their digestion process. It also keeps longer without spoiling. That combination makes for an economically viable and nutritionally beneficial feed solution.
To make baleage Phil uses a vertical grinder and mixer first, to break up the feed crops. Then he covers it with tarp and weighs it down with specially cut tires that won’t collect water and draw mosquitoes. This allows the fermentation to occur and turn the crops into cattle feed.
While Phil grows and makes most of his own feed, he does buy some corn because it’s cheap. He also works with local distillers to get fermented corn mash byproduct, which is similar to baleage in its digestive benefits. It’s also a great way to reduce commercial waste and make good use of stuff that is otherwise discarded.
Cows love grain and alfalfa because they’re sweet. Alfalfa can be so rich, nutrient-wise, that at times Phil has to cut his feed with more fiber so that the cows don’t get too heavy.
“Why? Don’t we want big, heavy animals in the beef industry for price-per-weight values?”
It depends. In his sector of the business, Phil is primarily concerned with producing bulls and calves of good breeding stock and genetics, not to get them up to a high market weight for later eating, like what you often see at feed yards in the Midwest.
Phil ultimately wants comfortable females for breeding, and energetic, virile bulls for seeding. So, nutrient-wise, Phil takes different things into account because his end product is a much different animal, produced with a different purpose, than those produced in other sectors of the business: Phil’s animals are for breeding, while the others are for eating.
Speaking of Phil’s business, let me segue into more of what he does.
Trowbridge Farms is a seed stock operation, which means that Phil produces bulls that are eventually purchased by cow-calf farms. Since I know that you readers are at a remedial level when it comes to farm terminology, I’ll explain what this all means:
Bulls are intact males that can reproduce (steers are castrated, and can not reproduce). A cow-calf farm is a place where a permanent herd of cows gets pregnant and gives birth to calves, which are later sold.
Just prior to my visit, Phil had completed his annual bull sale. He averaged about $3,975 per head. That’s pretty fantastic, considering that his closest competition was bringing in half of that amount.
Phil hosts a yearly heifer sale (female cattle that have never been pregnant) and a calf sale as well. In addition he engages in many sales outside of his annual events.
Phil also sells frozen bull semen and embryos with the use of vapor shippers. Cows can give birth about 10-12 times, on average, in their lifetime, before pregnancy becomes stressful on their body. But with embryonic science in play at Phil’s lab, he can get hundreds of fertilized eggs from his cows, freeze them, and use or sell them later. Given this aspect of the business, some of his cows have produced 500-600 offspring.
Almost all of Phil’s cows are surrogate mothers that were transplanted with embryos.
Timing is important when it comes to the cows. He schedules things around their super ovulation. First, CIDR (controlled internal drug release) devices are vaginally implanted – they’re like giant IUDs. This makes the cows think they’re ovulating, which allows him to synchronize all of their reproductive systems.
They get a follicle stimulation hormone, which produces lots of eggs. He then artificially inseminates them to fertilize the eggs with his bull semen, thereby creating embryos. The embryos are then flushed out and used or sold.
The process is just as intensive as human in vitro science. Phil’s daughter is an in vitro nurse and actually knows more than most doctors she works with, because she’s been doing this with cows for about 30 years.
In Phil’s operation, the bulls never touch a cow’s cervix. He usually puts embryos into cows fresh, as opposed to thawed from frozen, to increase the conception rate (15%-20% higher).
He sells a lot of frozen product to Argentina; about 40,000 units. But he makes more money from his US sales. This one bull, named Powder River, is like a legend around the farm. He’s spoiled and lazy, but he generates tons of product even at an old age – almost quadruple what other bulls can produce.
The frozen semen and embryos are stored in tubes or straws, and placed into liquid nitrogen holding tanks. In the event that Phil identifies a genetic abnormality, he will separate and retain the samples because many universities have expressed interest in studying them.
Phil’s customers are buying bulls, bull semen and embryos because they want specific genes to be expressed in their herds, and they know that Phil’s bulls produce some of the most desirable characteristics and embody superior genetics.
Customers look at these purchases as investments, like buying stocks. When they come to Phil, they usually don’t leave without buying.
Most of Phil’s animals are Angus. He has a few Hereford and cross breeds in the mix, but people know him for his superior quality Angus. Hereford cattle are notorious for suffering from pink eye in the summer months, so Phil has endeavored to breed his Hereford to have different eye traits so that his are less prone to pink eye.
He has blood tests performed on every animal at a cost of about $50 a pop. Two drops of blood are taken and sent out to a lab.
These tests assess 50,000 different genomic markers that express traits related to things like parentage, marbling, tenderness, udder structure, temperament, body build and residual feed intake, among others. In addition to testing for these traits, the DNA samples are also used for parent verification.
“So what does the average day look like for Phil?”
Well, like most farms, Trowbridge is a family affair. Phil’s wife Annie does the books in the morning before heading to the hospital, where she’s a nurse on the surgical floor.
Phil’s son PJ is vital at the farm. He holds a degree in animal science from SUNY Cobleskill, and is the farm mechanic for all of the equipment.
Phil is usually up by 6:00 am, feeding and checking on the animals, and, thereafter, making hay in the Spring and Summer.
In Winter, he gets up an hour earlier to check on the cows. He recently installed video equipment in the barns so that he doesn’t always need to check on the cows several times overnight to see if they’re calving.
Calving is done twice a year: In early winter (January, February and March), and in the Fall. Calving in January means he can cut nine months of the process in working with bulls. Phil is focused on both human and animal safety, and bulls can fight each other and tear stuff up. He likes to sell them off before they turn two years old, because the older they get, the harder they are to manage.
Right now Phil is playing host to 4H kids for the Summer. They’re learning about cattle, hogs and lambs. The kids pick the animals themselves; they’re purchased on loan and then sold in September.
The kids learn how to take care of the animals, they keep track of feed and vaccinations with spreadsheets, and they show the animals at the county fair.
Many cattlemen work second jobs and perform odd tasks like this in their community. In addition to hosting 4H kids, Phil was the president of the NY Beef Council (which sponsored my tour here), he helped develop the new Veterinary Feed Directive laws that just went into effect, he runs a college internship program, and he goes on speaking tours for the industry. His son PJ has a tow truck gig at night, and he does some construction work for a friend in Albany when needed.
As if all of that isn’t enough, the Trowbridges also have to be vigilant of trespassing. A few months back, someone broke into the donor cow and calf barn behind the lab, took a bunch of video, and posted it online. Fortunately the guerrilla “coverage” was very positive in nature, but someone could have gotten hurt. And now sheriffs have been coming around, warning Phil that kids are stealing some of the ice packs used in shipping to make meth. Crazy.
Needless to say, no one is ever bored at Trowbridge Farms. But no one is resting on their laurels either. Phil wants to pass the farm on to his children, and beyond to his grandchildren.
He purchased his first barn there 25 years ago when it was a brush pile. He built it up and installed all the fencing little by little at night after spending his day working at a nearby farm. Since then his operation has become scientifically cutting edge and well respected in the community. Articles have been written in trade magazines attesting to Trowbridge’s advances in the field.
Not only is Phil’s farm economically productive and a benefit to both the industry and the community, but Phil is ecologically responsible and an excellent steward of the land.
Phil builds lasting relationships with everyone he encounters on a regular basis. I had the pleasure of hearing a message that someone left on Phil’s voicemail, thanking him for all he does in the area. The people of Ghent respect what he does, and he respects the people of Ghent. He even throws a hot dog and hamburger cookout for the locals each year that draws hundreds.
When Phil was driving me around the community, he pointed out some of the other business that came and went. Old chicken farms, welding shops, mechanic shops, well drillers, orchards, artist warehouse studios, craft breweries… And even some newcomers like grass finished, no antibiotics beef producers.
Some of these folks will allow their animals to die because they refuse to treat their cattle with antibiotics. Phil understands and respects the “no antibiotics” niche markets that have developed, but he’s also a big believer in medicine and cares for the animals too much to let one die when an illness is perfectly treatable.
His words: “If that doesn’t bother you, then there’s something not right.” In my opinion, this kind of attitude is absolutely necessary in order to work with animals to any measure of lasting success. Phil is by no means one of a kind within the beef industry when it comes to this outlook on animals, but that’s no slight to him. His work is demonstrative of how great the practitioners of this business are at its core. He’s exemplary, and exemplary is common in this business. That’s a good thing.
But Phil’s love for the animals he works with is instantly revealed to all the moment he encounters them. They’re calm in his presence, and very trusting of him and other people – even strangers like me. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The Trowbridge family name is celebrating 60 years in the cattle business this year. I’m very happy to have met Phil and his family, and I’m honored to put a spotlight on them for my readers.
I built this cool hibachi grill using some clay pots that I picked up at Home Depot.
As you can see, the first thing I cooked on it was some thick cut bacon. That’s lamb bacon, by the way. Really nice.
I lit the coal brick with a blowtorch.
This baby made my apartment really smokey because the fat drippings were hitting the hot coal. Otherwise, if there was no fat dripping, the hibachi was relatively smokeless. The cooking itself was more like a slow roast. I think, since I only used one brick, that made the process take longer. Next time I’ll try with two or three.
The Great Steak Debate is an awesome celebration thrown each year by Inside Hook, pitting eight different steak purveyors against one another in a blind taste test of strip loin for the “Golden Brand” awards: one for critics’ choice, and one for people’s choice.
I sat at a table with my good friends from New York Prime Beef. I’m very proud of them for winning the people’s choice award, and I’m very vindicated that they were my pick for favorite.
FYI: they were their own pick as well. All three people representing their brand picked their own steak as their favorite, even though they didn’t know it was theirs! How is that for inspiring confidence in your brand?
Critics’ choice went to the delicious Kansas City Steaks cut, but in reality all of the purveyors were winners. Every steak was good. Like “The Great Steak Debate” name suggests, this was just a debate about greatness.
What a night!
Thank you Chef Capon for hosting, and for the great things you said about your tour of farms, ranches and processing plants in the Kansas City area! None of this would be possible without their hard work, and I’m sure they would love to hear what you had to say. As such, I may hit you up for an interview. It sounds like a similar experience to my trip to Nebraska.
Thank you Timex for an awesome “JP” engraved watch! Like Rocky Balboa says: “Do you like having a good time? Then you need a good watch.” Like your watches, Balboa always took a licking and kept on ticking.
And thank you Inside Hook for putting together such an awesome and inspiring evening, year after year. I can’t wait until the next Great Steak Debate!
It’s been a year since I started getting more deeply involved with beef industry professionals and writing posts that advocate on their behalf. One thing I’ve noticed is that lots of people don’t realize how many different professions are involved in the beef industry.
It’s not just farmers, butchers and chefs. It starts, of course, with the animals themselves, the cattlemen that raise them, and the farmers that grow their food.
Like humans, cows have a nine month gestation period. For the first few months, a calf is raised on its mother’s milk (colostum – for key nutrients and immunity). After maybe six or eight months, a calf is weaned off of mother’s milk and put out to pasture. At that time decisions are typically made about whether the animal will be sold off or kept for breeding.
The feed yard is typically the next location for the animal (when the animal is about a year old). This is where they get fattened up for market.
Grain finished animals stay in a feed yard for about 120-180 days. The grain mixture they eat is typically representative of local agriculture. For example, in California there may be almond hulls mixed in with the standard corn or wheat. In New York, there are sunflower seeds mixed in. In Idaho, there is some potato mash.
Grass finished animals stay on pasture or hay for seven or eight months longer, on average, than grain finished animals. They do not eat grain. It generally takes longer for them to get to market weight.
After that, it’s off to the slaughter they go, where we have people who work at processing plants for slaughter and packing. The Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, updated in 1978 and 2002, governs how all of this is done.
At the packing plant, the beef product is broken down into primal and sub-primal cuts:
Primal: chuck, rib, round, loin.
Sub-Primal: bottom round, top round, eye round, round tip.
Then, the meat is shipped off to grocers, butchers, restaurants and other end-user locations, ultimately ending with diners like you and me gobbling up all of that delicious meat.
Veterinarians, animal care specialists, scientists and government inspectors are present at each step during this process, from farm, to feed yard, to slaughterhouse, to distributers, to grocers, restaurants and butcher shops. And, of course, law makers and beef industry professionals have helped put together all of the guidelines and regulations that govern and run the industry.
It’s a very complex and well-monitored process, so don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that beef is somehow unsafe. The industry also provides for countless jobs, and that stimulates the economy. Last, and most importantly, they all help to put steak on our dinner plates.
Something exciting is on the way: I’m going to start selling steak!
That’s right: I’ll be launching my own brand of high end steaks, which I will personally hand-select each week. There’ll be a broad range of goodies like large format cuts, prime porterhouses, dry aged rib eyes, American Wagyu, and real-deal Japanese Kobe selections, just to name a few.
Drop your email in the link HERE to be notified when the store goes live later this week. I’ve also added a “STORE” link to the top of my website menu for easy finding.
My wife and I were invited on a really cool burger crawl hosted by one of NYC’s most influential restaurant public relations firms, Bullfrog & Baum. The crawl was to celebrate National Burger Day.
On the crawl, we visited five of the joints they represent and tried nine different burgers over the course of eight hours. We were with a group of about ten people, so we were able to split and share the burgers at each place (nine burgers is a bit much for one person, even if you stretch it over eight hours).
Stop 1: Porter House Bar & Grill
We tried three different burgers here, starting off like champs.
Burger 1: I had eaten the Bar Burger before, and it still holds up as one of the greats. In fact I liked it the best of all nine from the crawl. It’s a simple double patty with American cheese on a potato bun, with jalapenos. The best way.
Burger 2: They just debuted this Pat LaFrieda truffle burger blend and threw it onto a bun with braised short rib, red onion jam, melted Fontina cheese and even more shaved black truffles. Amazing, and probably in my top three for the day.
Burger 3: The Dry Aged burger is a beef lover’s dream. You really get that earthy, dry-aged beef flavor in every bite.
Stop 2: The Vine
The American Burger at The Vine is a great tribute to an old fashioned diner burger, but elevated in quality and flavor. I really enjoyed this one. Maybe one more slice of cheese would take it into top three favorites status.
Stop 3: Boucherie
I’ve had this baby before and reviewed it, so no need rehash too much. Great LaFrieda dry-aged blend. A wallop of intense flavor.
Stop 4: Black Tap SoHo
We tried two here. Only the strong survive!
Burger 1: Black Tap’s American Burger was excellent. So simple and delicious, perfectly cooked. American cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayo (on top in photo below).
Burger 2: The Greg Norman had already impressed me in the past. It was just as wonderful again. You’d think the wagyu beef would be overpowered by the blue cheese, but it just intensified the savory crust on the patty. Lovely. It’s on the bottom in the photo above.
Stop 5: Blue Ribbon Federal Grill
At our final stop, we tried two different burgers. And both were spectacularly crafted.
Burger 1: The Fed is a nice crisp patty topped with stilton cheese, thick cut bacon and pickles. The bun is an onion poppy roll that really works to enhance the flavors. What a great burger!
Burger 2: The Bar Burger here has no cheese, but it’s got an amazing crispy sear on the patty. It’s topped with a creamy whipped herb butter and pickles, and sits on an English muffin. Really simple and incredibly delicious. This one took me by surprise!
Such a crazy day! Not one bad burger in the bunch. In fact, all were pretty damn great. It was tough to choose favorites.
PORTER HOUSE BAR & GRILL
10 Columbus Cir
New York, NY 10019
851 6th Ave
New York, NY 10001
99 7th Ave S
New York, NY 10014
BLACK TAP SOHO
529 Broome St
New York, NY 10013
BLUE RIBBON FEDERAL GRILL
84 William St
New York, NY 10038
We basically broke the rib down into spinalis and eye filets.
For the butt, we broke that down into roasts and filets, as well as top sirloin cap filets. I left the fat on, and plan to grill it like picanha.
After trimming and cleaning up, we had lunch and discussed some information about the beef industry, the beef lifecycle, and beef nutrition. Then we cooked up some of what we just cut.
I made garlic and thyme rib eye filet steaks with portobello mushrooms and a blue cheese sun dried tomato sauce.
I have to say, it looked and tasted pretty amazing.
The other people at the retreat cooked up some awesome recipes as well, and all the recipes are available HERE.
The best part: we got to bring home everything we butchered!
I highly recommend getting involved with New York Beef Council activities if you’re like me and have a passion for beef. Even if you just have questions about beef safety, raising cattle, farming, or packing/slaughter. These guys and gals really know their stuff, and they’re awesome people.
I just got home from Nebraska, where I went on a beef tour that explored the entire life cycle of cattle from calving, to grazing, to the feedyard, to the packing plant.
Why Nebraska? I’ll tell you.
Nebraska’s economy is driven by corn crops, feed yards and cattle ranching. There are nearly two million people in Nebraska but nearly eight million cattle. It’s the number one red meat production state in the country.
Half of the beef produced in Nebraska goes overseas as export, to the tune of one billion dollars worth per year. The US is the third or fourth biggest exporter of beef in the world, but we also happen to be the number one importer (why we import is a topic for another day). India, believe it or not, is the number one exporter, likely soon to be bested by Brazil.
But enough of that. Let me get down to the nitty gritty of this incredible tour.
We made four stops: three in the first day, and one on the second day.
Stop 1: Knobbe Feedyards
While this was the first stop on the tour, it’s really the last phase of the animals life cycle before being sent off to the packing plant for harvesting/slaughter.
A feedyard is a place where cattle are fattened up to market weight over the course of four to six months.
Harry Knobbe (pronounced like Obiwan’s last name) and his family get yearling cattle (roughly a year old), weighing around 750lbs. The animals are generally there for 130-180 days, until they hit 1400-1500lbs, which is a good market weight. Doing the math, that means they generally reach this weight at 15 to 18 months of age, and the animals gain just under 4lbs a day. Each animal eats about 25lbs of food and 100lbs of water each day. Fatties!
The feed given to the animals changes as their time there passes. In fact there are six stages of feed with decreasing roughage/grass content and increasing corn content as time goes by (with stage one containing the most roughage content of the six). The animals are coming off of a mostly grazing/grass diet, and need to be acclimated to the corn-rich diet over time.
Just what’s in that diet? Aside from the roughage and grasses that are always mixed in to some percentage, the feed consists of mainly two byproducts or waste products from the corn industry.
The first byproduct comes from the sweetener and corn syrup industry, and is referred to as “cow candy,” because they love it so much and it smells sweet like candy.
The second corn byproduct in the feed comes from the ethanol fuel industry. Ethanol plants would otherwise discard this substance, which is similar to the mash left from spirits alcohol distillers.
As a general number, the feed gets about 20% of each in the stage one feed, with the rest being roughage.
This particular feedyard has a capacity of 5000 head. That’s about average in terms of size. Their large, semi-shaded pens have ample water and space for the cattle, at 250-350sq ft per animal.
Oddly enough, the living conditions for cattle don’t change much as feed yards scale up to 10k, 50k or 100k heads; they just sprawl out more.
Kbobbe loses seven tenths of one pecent to death, which is a very good statistic. The animals come from all over the place, from different climates and states. Some locations have a higher incidence of parasites, like the wetter climate of Mississippi, for example. As such, the animals are dewormed and vaccinated when they get to Knobbe as a precaution. After all, sick animals tend not to grade as high as healthy animals.
Fun fact that I learned here: it’s cheaper to bring cattle to corn as opposed to bringing corn to cattle. Based on the numbers I quoted here, it would require ridiculous amounts of corn truckloads to be moved to cattle ranches for finishing. Thats why animals come from all over the country to finish in Nebraska; all the corn is right there. It also makes sense why Nebraska is such an important place for the beef industry.
As for the output of Knobbe, they see about 2-5% of their animals grade at prime, 75-80% choice, and the rest select.
Stop 2: Peregrine Ranch
This second stop was really the first step in the life of the animal. Don Peregrine runs a third generation calving ranch near Fullerton. This area of Nebraska is near what is known as the Sand Hills region, which generally separates what’s considered eastern Nebraska from western Nebraska.
The east is characterized by rich, lush soil that’s perfect for growing corn. The west, on the other hand, or the Sand Hills, consists of a topography that’s not good for growing corn (think 50 bushels per acre as opposed to 250).
The Sand Hills quite literally is a region of hilly topography that’s like sand dunes beneath the grass. While this is not ideal for growing corn (or much of anything, for that matter), it IS ideal for grazing cattle.
Don Peregrine’s land butts up right against the beginning of the Sand Hills region, so he consider himself a grass farmer as much as a cattle rancher.
He’s also got some river bed land, which poses a unique set of challenges in addition to those already faced in the Sand Hills. River bed land can cause hoof rot if the animals hoofs are too wet for too long.
Aside from his expertise with the land, Don has developed a unique and hands-on hybrid breeding method, with animals that have been selected by him for 40 years. One particular cow we met was 14 years old and had already given birth to 14 calves.
He employs herd management techniques like ear tagging (done early), topical dehorning (dries the horn and prevents it from growing without having to grind, saw or burn the horn down), and fence barrier weaning. These all exemplify humane, low stress practices.
In addition to grass, Don supplements the animals’ diet with minerals, “cow candy” from ethanol and sugar production, and other additives like E.P.T. for development.
Stop 3: Ryan & June Loseke, DVM
This family not only raises corn, soybeans and alfalfa, but they also run a 3500-head feed yard and a veterinary practice. Amazing!
The corn and soy beans make up 1700 acres of their land, with 40 acres of alfalfa nestled near the family home.
Technology makes it more efficient for them to run and manage their farm. Sprayers and planters are guided by GPS, which allows them to maximize the use of their land and to plant straight rows. It even tells them when less water or spray is needed in certain areas, based on topography and water tables.
I was here during corn planting season. In fact Ryan was racing to get corn planted before some forecasted rains. Sure enough it rained a lot later that night and into the morning. Good thing he got that corn planted otherwise he would’ve lost time waiting for the ground to be right for planting again.
They’re also vets for large and small animals, including pets as well. This is great, since they’re also running a feed yard and can apply their knowledge of veterinary science to their own animals.
They promote Certified Angus Beef cattle in their feed yard. They sell to Cargill, Greater Omaha and Creekstone packing plants (among others).
They even host local kindergarten students from the area schools to teach them about agriculture.
Stop 4: Cargill Meat Solutions
This was probably my favorite part of the tour, since it’s where the animals are harvested into delicious and nutritious beef!
Unfortunately cameras are not allowed inside the facility for business proprietary and employee privacy reasons, so that’s the only shot I have.
Cargill has been in business for 150 yeas, with this facility being open since 1968. They have facilities in multiple states.
They employ about 2200 people at the plant, who hail from 28 different nations but all live in the region. They boast a 40-45% female work force, many of whom are on the fabrication floor engaged in employment that was historically only thought of as men’s work.
They’re obsessed with safety and regulatory compliance. They’ve got two labs on site to take samples of air and drainage. There’s also a third party lab engaged for pathogen testing.
There are cameras everywhere, with a video room to watch the cattle knocker and the various floors. Quality Assurance personnel watches 100% of the time to monitor both the employees and the beef. They can focus in on people to make sure they’re following various requirements, dressing the beef properly, handling knives and sterilizers the right way, etc. If they see something, they can radio a supervisor that can address the situation immediately. There’s also a red button to stop the production line if all else fails.
Not only is safety a priority for the Cargill meat supply, given all the USDA and inspectors/auditing folks there all the time, but they’re also always looking out for their employees. They have nursing staff on hand for heat, icing, massage and soreness treatments. They even have hydraulic floor lifts that raise and lower cutters to be at the appropriate and safe work height for butchery.
There are two 8-hour processing shifts of work, and one cleaning shift of work each day. The plant processes 5300 head of cattle a day, which is the largest operation in the area.
To give you an idea of scale, this comes down to 6.1 million 8oz servings of beef per day, and 3 million pounds of ground beef per week. Impressive.
I was told that 64% is a good yield for an animal carcass for edible beef protein. But nothing really goes to waste. Hides, offal, etc. are all utilized in some way, whether it’s rendering or bone gelatin. There truly is no waste. Well, everything is used except for the tail switch (bristle hairs at the end of the tail) and the “moo” (snout).
Cargill is still growing, but it’s also modernizing. They’re one of two major packers who use a camera system for grading. A special camera captures an image of the rib eye, then a computer runs an algorithm to generate a scoring number that assigns the a grade to the side of beef. This system makes meat grading less arbitrary and more consistent across their plants.
Speaking of grading, Cargill sees about 3-6% prime grade, with most of the rest being choice and select.
Cargill is also excelling on the environmental and sustainability side of things. They employ state of the art methane recovery and water conservation and purification techniques. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 30%.
They’re also involved with the Sands County Foundation, which recognizes excellent rancher environmental practices with the “Leopold Conservation Award.”
Being such a massive employment force in the area, they also like to reinvest in the local community. Cargill Cares, United Way and various school programs all exemplify ways in which Cargill gives back to and helps enrich the community.
So what are the details of what actually happens at a slaughterhouse or packing plant? Here’s a breakdown of the carcass’ movement through the Cargill facility:
Step 1: This is the unloading of animals from the trailer onto lots. This typically takes place at like 9pm or 10pm the night before the beef is harvested. Once checked, the animals will stay there for 4-6 hours.
Step 2: The animals are walked through “the serpentine,” which is a specially designed passageway from the lots into the harvesting floor that minimizes stress. Once the animal is “knocked” it is rendered desensitized. It can no longer feel anything and is unconscious. The first knock happens just after 6am, I believe.
Then the animal is cut to bleed out, its hide is removed, it’s eviscerated (offal removed), the head is removed, and then it’s split into two sides. After all that, it is given a ticket with info for the next parts of the process. This step takes 32 minutes.
In certain stages of this phase, there are high pressure carcass washes to get mud and hair off, and to trim off any visible stuff that needs to be removed.
Steam vacuums are used for bugs and stuff that you can’t see. A 180 degree carcass wash is used to kill E. coli. An organic acid cabinet is used post-evisceration to further these precautions. There is a neck wash, and spinal material is removed with a special bladed vacuum according to directives relating to Mad Cow Disease. There’s also a steam pasteurization cabinet that exposes the carcass to 201 degree steam for nine seconds. This is also done to kill bacteria or parasites.
After some of these hot washes, the carcass is immediately chilled again. Remember this is all within 32 minutes!
Step 3: The carcass is chilled with water to bring down the temperature. This takes 28-32 hours.
Step 4: The bodies move to the sales cooler, where graders look at the rib eye. The special camera that I mentioned above is used here, and a marbling grade is determined. It’s stamped with the grade and then sorted. This takes 12 to 48 hours.
Step 5: Once the carcass hits the fabrication floor it takes just 22 minutes to put the final cuts into a box. It’s here that cutters will butcher the various parts into all the commercial cuts, according to whatever is on the order sheets from Cargill customers.
Step 6: The Cargill distribution and shipping center is almost 100% automated. The beef can be here for anywhere from 2-36 hours before it goes onto trucks for delivery. Cargill has capacity for 70,000 boxes, all individually shelved without stacking on top of one another.
The total time that the animal and end product beef is at Cargill is about 4-6 days.
I hope this gave you some insight into how beef is produced; where it comes from, what it eats, how it’s raised, and how it’s broken down for consumption. I really learned and experienced a lot on this tour, and I hope to go on another one soon to learn more about butchery and cuts. Texas A&M’s “Beef 101” course is on my hit list.