Monday, June 18, 2007

Great Article for Guidance on Grass Genetics in Cattle and Producing superior Grassfed Beef

Jolley: Five Minutes With Ridge Shinn

Q. Thousands of cattlemen read Cattlenetwork.com. What would you like to say to them?

A. I’d like to encourage those folks that love their land, their family, their lifestyle and their cattle to dig in and learn about 100% grass-fed cattle. The opportunity for profitability and health is enormous and as always the early bird gets the worm.


Ridge Shinn is a one man conglomerate - Hardwick Beef, Bakewell Reproductive Center, even a home building company. It must be that old, New England, Calvinistic work ethic that’s been buried deep within his bones. You might say he’s as genetically predisposed to hard work as his cattle are to giving up gourmet cuts of beef.

He’s a grass farmer, an avid advocate of sustainable agriculture and one of the leading experts on getting gourmet beef from grass-fed cattle. What he’s managed to do is take a product that has been uneven in quality and elevate it to a status that makes foodies drool and gourmet magazines seek him out. How many ranchers do you know that are quoted in Wine Spectator and Food & Wine magazines? And whose products are described with the same effervescent terms used for hundred dollar a bottle wines?

Have we gone from Clara Peller searching for “the beef” at Wendy’s to finding it in the most upscale of institutions? Has beef attained the status of a Joseph Phelps 2000 Insignia Cabernet Sauvignon which Wine Advocate describes this way: "The 2000 Insignia reveals a smoky, rich, cassis characteristic, medium to full body, and an open-knit, lush, generous style . . . Expansive, fleshy and seductive, it should drink well for 15–16 years."

Can we really talk about a t-bone steak that way? Let’s talk with Ridge Shinn and find out.


Q. How did you get into the cattle business?

A. I started milking cows in the 1970’s as a herdsman on a typical New England dairy (100 cows). Spent 20 years in the building business and returned to cattle when I started the New England Livestock Alliance (NELA) in 2001. NELA’s core business was figuring out how to finish and sell 100% grass-fed beef.

Q. You’re involved in Hardwick Beef, the Bakewell Reproductive Center and a home-building company called Hardwick Post and Beam. It makes for a busy daily schedule. When you do get a little free time, what do you do?

A. When I do have spare time I generally spend it on my farm. I have a home farm and lease a 150 acre farm in Hardwick and have a herd of Devon cattle there. It takes any spare time I can find.

Q. The Bakewell Reproductive Center is a cooperative venture with Gearld Fry that aims to build a “grass-based bovine gene pool that produces gourmet beef.” You’ve been quoted in Wine Spectator and Food & Wine magazines, two publications aimed squarely at the gourmet crowd, so you must be making some progress. Can you define gourmet beef for me and tell me what you’ve done to build a gene pool that meets your standards?

A. Gourmet beef is beef that is tender and tasty. All beef should be gourmet. Over the years in its quest for volume, the cattle industry lost sight of quality. The industry rewards pounds of beef and size of frame. The result is lower quality (read leaner or less marbled) and tougher beef. The continental breeds that were imported to increase size and volume brought with them lack of marling and slightly tougher beef. In a quest for gourmet beef, one always returns to the “British Breeds”. Historically they had the best fat and tenderness.


Wine Spectator and many others say our beef has a “more robust flavor”. What most people find remarkable is that we can produce beef that is well marbled and tender on a grass-only diet. Visit our web site (http://brcruminations.blogspot.com/2006_10_01_archive.html) to see the results of testing done on our meat at Clemson University‘s meat lab. In the first sample, the meat was 87% choice or better and the tenderness values measured by the Warner-Bratzler shear test were better than restaurant quality (average of 3.2 KG of force versus 4.1KG of force for restaurant quality). Remember this is a grass only diet and the cattle tested were steers produced by our Rotokawa® Devon bulls bred to commercial Angus mother cows.

Bakewell Repro imported 12 females from the Rotokawa® Devon herd in NZ and semen from Rotokawa® Devon bulls. Bakewell has harvested embryos and started new herds of Devon cattle in Wyoming, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and a number of herds in the Northeast. Using semen from these bulls on commercial cattle is the quickest way to move toward a set of cattle that thrive on grass. Every cattleman and woman has some cattle in their herd that will work on a grass-only diet-the challenge is to evaluate the herd and then concentrate on the breeding of these cows.

Q. At a time when ‘Angus’ has been marketed as the best source of top quality beef, you’re raising Devons, an old English breed. What advantages do you see in Devon cattle?

A. Angus was a premier breed for top quality beef. I use the past tense because today the “Angus” breed has been polluted by many other breeds. Because black covers all sins, any cattle bred to Angus come out black-indeed the Rotokawa® Devon cross Angus steers are black unless the mother cow has a red Angus gene. Even the Certified Angus Beef programs will admit that quality has gone down hill since it’s hey day. Recently, CAB announced they would not accept any carcasses over 1000 pounds. I am positive that none of the “good old Angus premium beef” came in a 1000 pound Hot Carcass. The success of the CAB marketing and the quality of the beef created tremendous demand and the breed made the mistake of accepting cross bred black cattle into the registry which diluted the original quality. It’s a sad story of a breed’s popularity being its undoing.


The North Devon or Red Devon breed fell out of favor in the ramp up of all other breeds to become “feedlot friendly” cattle. The Devon breeds only crime is that it is too easy-fleshing-they get fat too fast. The feed lot does not want this trait and it won’t work on the feedlot-the Devon will go to yield grade five or six in ninety days on full feed. But if your production method is grass-only you want an easy feeder that is easy fleshing that will get fat on grass. The breed also was never bred for frame size so most of the Red Devon cattle are still moderate in height (48” to 50”) a trait that correlates to early maturity and function on grass.

The Devon historically was known as the butcher’s breed and has always had an excellent meat to bone ratio because of its fine dense bone. When it was popular in the 1960’s and 70’s it won a great share of the carcass competitions they were placed in. Fortunately the breed changed little in the feedlot years and therefore the breed is ready to put back in production on a grass-only diet and return to prominence as the Butcher’s Breed.


Q. Raising grass fed cattle requires a very different management technique to be successful, something that’s foreign to most cattlemen today. Can you walk me through the process?

A. To succeed in raising quality grass-fed cattle one must choose the right kind of cattle. By quality, I mean cattle that will fatten and be tender on a grass-only diet. They need to be moderately tall and wide and deep (some folks say they need short legs but they need a deep body). Look at photos of the cattle from the 1960’s and those are the kind of cattle you need. You can choose a subset of the right kind of cattle from any of the British Breeds but will struggle with the continentals on grass---most cattle in Europe are not harvested until 36 months of age.

The major keys to success in raising grass-fed cattle are to get your breeding season in synch with nature. You want to calve when the wild ruminants have their young---May or June in most parts of the country. You want to have the calf nurse on the mother cow for at least ten months and then be weaned (with virtually no stress) onto green grass. With the right kind of easy fleshing mother cows you will develop reproductive problems if you do not make them work through the winter. Today, the industry typically weans at 6 months so our tall, hard-doing, late-maturing mother cows can build back some condition to make it through the winter. We find that the calves that stay on the mother for 10 months will gain about 15% more than the calf weaned in the fall. With this head start, and being weaned onto green grass, the steers can finish in 18 months on a grass-only diet.


Grass feeding requires grass management. There is no better feed for a ruminant than green grass. The key to success is learning how to keep the grass vegetative throughout the growing season and then figuring out how to extend the grazing season. Every ounce of stored feed fed is extremely expensive. Any time the bovine can walk out and harvest its own feed is like money in the bank. So...one has to give up on a lot of paradigms and be open to learning some new ways of grazing-MIG or management intensive grazing emphasizes the management because that is the intensive part-it is different on every farm or ranch and it is different every season of every year. Electric fence and plastic water pipe to deliver water to paddocks are two of the tools that are critical to our success. Obviously many areas of the country have different challenges, but the key is to let the cattle graze in great density and then move them to let the grass rest and re grow-the circuit around the ranch might be as long as once a year or as quick as every 23 days depending on rainfall, sunshine, etc. The model is the buffalo that moved in herds of incredible density but then they moved on. We need to replicate this with our cattle.


Another level of management of our grass is to measure the Brix of the grass with a refractometer to gauge the nutrient density and sugar content of the grass. The rumen is a remarkable compost facility that needs the proper carbon nitrogen ratio as well as the right amount of protein, energy and minerals to function optimally. It is our job as a grass farmer to optimize the inputs to the rumen in terms of quality, if our expectation is to get quality in the meat that we harvest.


Although this all sounds complicated it is not unplowed ground. New Zealand has spent years farming this way principally because, as well as being the healthiest for the rumen; it is the lowest cost of production. They have to produce efficiently if they are going to access markets that are oceans away.


Q. “Grass-fed” has become a fast-growing niche in the beef business. Some foodies even use terminology similar to that used to describe fine wines when they talk about it. Are those kinds of glowing description justified? And can “grass-fed” escape the niche business?

A. Grass-fed is the current clamor of the market. Many folks do not know what it means. My feeling is that it is critically important that people understand the terms and what they mean. I like to compare 100% grass-fed beef to pregnancy-either you are or you are not. All beef producers want the “grass-fed” claim since all cattle do eat grass for a substantial part of their lives.


The real changes to the tissue and the health benefits of the beef occur when the cattle begin to eat grain. When cattle eat just grass they cannot get Mad Cow (the consumer doesn’t want this); they have almost immeasurable levels of E. coli because acidosis does not occur in the gut. Read about the Cornell research at http://brcruminations.blogspot.com/2006_10_01_archive.html. There are no nutrient loading problems since manures are spread evenly daily and incorporated into the soil. Once you remove grain from the cattle raising equation, you eliminate plowing, petroleum based fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, soil compaction, fossil fuels for tillage, harvest and transport.

The real compelling part of the story is that the fats in 100% grass-fed beef are much healthier for the human. The ratio of Omega 3 Omega 6 is very different in the grass versus grain fed and nearly a perfect 1:1 ratio.

The “story” of 100% grass-fed and finished beef is a compelling story and most people will buy it. The only way that “grass-fed” can escape the “niche” status it has today, is if producers learn to produce gourmet beef on grass and then they put a great piece of beef in the hand of each consumer that buys the “story”.

The challenge today is that many consumers have heard pieces of the story and they find it compelling once they do-the challenge is how we produce enough quality beef to satisfy the demand. As I said to a restaurant crowd in NYC a while back, it took me 2 ½ years to grow the piece of meat you are eating tonight-from a gleam in my eye, to breeding the cow takes 2 ½ years to the plate-so it is hard to ramp up a product like this.

Today with fuel prices, many cattle men and woman are beginning to be open to other options. The feedlots are feeling the pinch and the time of opportunity is upon us. It is a rare time in history when the producer is demanding quality, clean (no antibiotics or hormones), healthy food and they are willing to pay for it-It is a time of opportunity for the cattle industry.

Q. Thousands of cattlemen read Cattlenetwork.com. What would you like to say to them?

A. I’d like to encourage those folks that love their land, their family, their lifestyle and their cattle to dig in and learn about 100% grass-fed cattle. The opportunity for profitability and health is enormous and as always the early bird gets the worm.

Copyright 2007 Integrated Management Information, Inc.

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