Fire up the barbecue. Make the marinade. Beef, it’s what’s for dinner. To tell us more about Oregon beef and what’s happening in the industry, we spoke with Tim DelCurto, the head of OSU’s agricultural research center in Union, and Chad Mueller, a research scientist at the center.
Q: What changes are we seeing in the beef industry?
DelCurto: The beef industry has been trying to market cattle not in a commodity sense but more on a value sense. By that, I mean trying to sell something that is natural or raised locally. So it’s not just a steak. It’s an Oregon-raised steak, and it’s natural.
Q: What do you mean by natural?
Mueller: The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines natural as being minimally processed and containing no artificial ingredients or added color.
Q: What’s the difference between beef that’s organic, or grain-finished, or grass-fed?
DelCurto: Organic means that all the food that the animal eats as well as the animal husbandry practices have to be organic. Grain-finished means that the calf was fed grain for usually the last 150 days before being harvested. Grass-fed means that the animal from birth to slaughter has been solely on a grass- or forage-based diet, with the exception of milk prior to weaning.
Under USDA standards, the grass-fed animal must also have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. In the United States, the conventional practice is to keep calves with their mothers for the first six or seven months, then transition them over time to be grain-finished for generally the last five months, when they gain three to four pounds per day.
Currently, we’re trying to find out if a cow’s ability to put on weight is related to whether its paternal ancestors were raised on grass or grain. People say that because our bulls in the United States are raised on grain, their offspring, which typically are raised on forage, don’t put on weight efficiently because their genetics aren’t geared for forage. We don’t know if that’s true. So last year and this year we bred cows to a New Zealand bull that was raised on forage and comes from a line of grass-fed bulls. To compare, we also bred cows to a U.S. bull raised on grain and from a line of grain-raised sires. We’ll breed their female offspring to different grain-raised bulls for the next 12 or so years. Eventually, we’ll see how expensive the female breeding stock is to maintain by evaluating which lineage requires more feed to put on weight.
Q: What other research are you working on that consumers will be able to taste at their tables?
Mueller: We’re looking at how genetics influence the marbled fat that gives meat its flavor. In 2005 and 2006 we bred some cows to a bull that throws calves with high marbling and we bred other cows to a bull that instead produces calves that weigh more. Over the course of about a dozen years we’ll continue breeding and we’ll see which offspring have the most marbling and put on the most weight. And we’ll see how this affects costs, because cattle that put on more marbling tend to be more expensive to feed.
Q: What’s going on with rangeland management practices in Oregon these days?
DelCurto: Most Oregon cattle producers are striving to improve the land, particularly
with improved riparian management. Years ago, cattle had access to a stretch
of stream for a significant amount of time. Now, ranchers move their cattle
more often, grazing near streams only during a time of the year when the cattle
will eat just the grasses and not the woody material, and then rotating them
to another pasture. I’ve been studying the impact of cattle grazing on riparian
areas since 1993. In a nutshell, we’ve found that grazing can be done in a
way that is compatible
with protecting the environment, wildlife, aesthetics,
and recreational interests.
Q: What is the cattle industry doing to produce safe, high-quality beef?
Mueller: The industry is trying to reduce the stress on the cattle so they produce better beef. Stress can change the metabolic processes of the body. If the calves are stressed before they go to slaughter, their meat will look darker and drier and may be tougher. That’s not good for the consumer or the animal. So we’re seeing improvements in how animals are housed, handled, and transported to reduce as much stress as possible.
Q: Any final thoughts?
DelCurto: This is an industry that has very strong traditions and values. It is a way of life. I always tell my students in the beef production class I teach, ‘You better love it because it’s not a great way to get rich.’ It’s a lifestyle choice, but it’s very rewarding.
Ranchers love to watch their cattle. They’re proud of them. There’s nothing like having a good crop of calves in the spring and knowing you made the right decisions in breeding, nutrition, and care; knowing that you did a good job.
Cranberries, the tart companion to savory meats, are harvested from flooded beds near Bandon in southern Oregon. The Oregon cranberry industry is valued at more than $29 million a year. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.