Biting into the beef market

Take a conscientious ranching family, add some grassfed beef-finishing know-how, season it well with business and marketing savvy, then garnish with a twist of slow-food philosophy and you have the perfect recipe for a new branded beef line — Bite Beef’s slowgrown grass-fed beef.

The Bite Beef Company was started by managing partners Nicole Lamb (finance, logistics) and Carli Baum (marketing, sales). Completing the core team are Lamb’s parents, John and Kim Lamb, who manage the day-to-day ranching operations from the home ranch near Balzac, Alta.

After a year of preparation, Bite Beef officially opened for business online in October, 2011 with product also sold through Community Natural Foods’ two Calgary locations. Within a year, Bite Beef was available from the Bear’s Paw Farmers Market in Calgary, six Calgary restaurants, the Old Country Sausage Shop of Raymond, which sells its processed line through several retail chains in Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge, and most recently in retail portions from The Butcher Shoppe in Airdrie.

The idea behind slow-grown grassfed beef is to let the animals grow and mature to optimum marbling at their own pace on forage diets without the addition of grain, Lamb explains at the Western Canadian Grazing Conference in Red Deer.

Traditional grass-fed beef production systems typically target average daily gains of 1.5 to two pounds per day from birth through finishing with the goal of marketing the beef from cattle 18 to 20 months of age.

Bite Beef’s slow-grown system aims to maintain a minimum rate of gain of one pound a day to promote muscle growth and give the animals time to naturally develop the capacity to marble while maintaining a moderate overall frame size. Rates of gain less than one pound a day or weight loss during any stage of development will have a negative effect on beef quality.

In the Canadian Prairie environment, limiting the rate of gain is necessary to align the finishing stage with access to high-quality fresh forage so that the finished animals can be delivered to the abattoir directly off pasture from August through October, by which time they average 29 months of age.

Both the additional age on the animals and harvesting off fresh pasture are key to the unique taste Bite Beef is offering. Lamb describes the flavour of slowgrown grass-finished beef as robust and beefy. It has a more grassy, earthy or fresh flavour than grain-finished beef, yet is mellower without the gamey tones that consumers sometimes associate with traditional grass-fed beef.

The inspiration for this new product line, which very well could be the first in Canada to be branded and marketed as such, came from the book, Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, by Toronto writer Mark Schatzker. His three-year globe-trotting quest to find and understand the perfect steak ended in Idaho on a grass-fed beef ranch. After reading the book, Lamb convinced her parents that their operation was perfectly positioned to fill the gap for this type of beef in the local market.

“It didn’t take much convincing,” says Lamb, who is the third generation on the family ranch. “My parents have always maintained the frame of mind that there is lots of opportunity for the next generation on the family farm, but to be able to support all of us, the farm needs to grow and diversify. That’s where Bite Beef and I fit in.”

Their 1,000-head cow herd and idyllic 22,000-acre land base in Alberta and Saskatchewan, with its rolling pastures, ample natural shelter and abundant natural water sources (the Saskatchewan ranch is also home to North America’s largest duck-breeding site) provided a solid foundation on which to build the new company.

To learn the best techniques for raising and finishing grass-fed beef, they turned to Dr. Allen Williams, a former professor and animal scientist with universities in Louisiana and Mississippi, who has been involved with several private initiatives related to grass-fed beef production and marketing. He was chief executive officer of Tallgrass Beef, which proved the modern-day, slowgrown grass-fed production system in the U.S. His doctorate and continuing interest in animal breeding and genetics led him to become a founding partner of The Jacob Alliance to pioneer the use of Beef Image Analysis (BIA), an ultrasound imaging and interpretation software program developed by Designer Genes Technologies of Harrison, Arkansas, that evaluates meat quality characteristics, including tenderness and stress, in live animals.

Williams is also a founding partner and president of Livestock Management Consultants, which assists clients with building natural-branded food programs and values-based value chain management.

Aside from identifying the need to change their production system to facilitate harvesting the animals directly off pasture, they learned the importance of managing pasture rotations to provide the proper ratio of nutrients at each stage of production.

During the last 100 days on feed, the cattle are moved to fresh pasture every three to seven days when plant photosynthesis activity is the greatest and sugar content in the leaves is at its peak, which is generally around midday. This has eliminated bloat issues associated with alfalfa.

It’s really all about trying to manage protein intake because too much protein during finishing can result in a gamey, “off” taste, Lamb explains. They try to let the feeders graze the top 40 per cent of the plants, then come back in the fall with the pairs to clean up.

Experience has already shown that with their type of animals and production system, it’s easier to get a consistent and timely finish on the heifers than on the steers. They always start the finishing period with a large group and narrow it down to the best of the bunch based on temperament and fleshing ability. The first year, they marketed 100 grass-finished steers and heifers though their slow-grown beef system and this past year, ended up with 189 heifers in the program.

Based on carcass quality of the finished stock and production data they collect on the cows and bulls, their herd has been gravitating from predominantly Simmental cattle toward an Angus base since they started exploring grass-fed beef production, through Lamb says it will remain a crossbred herd because of the greater yield potential in comparison with a straight-bred Angus herd.

The feeders are ultrasound tested, ideally when they are 10 to 18 months of age, by certified ultrasound technician, Clay Nash of Arkansas, who is the former manager of breeding and ultrasound programs at Tallgrass Beef. Nash uses the BIA ultrasound software program to measure backfat thickness, rib-eye area and shape, marbling, tenderness and stress. The scanning results presented in a spreadsheet format provide valuable information that helps the Lambs gain a better understanding of the type of animals that do best in a grass-fed system and how to adjust their breeding program accordingly.

Many grass-fed beef programs like Bite Beef also follow some form of natural beef protocol, which guides other aspects of production and generally calls for avoiding the use of hormones, antibiotics and feed additives that include animal byproducts and other types of growth-enhancing products.

Animal well-being is one of Bite Beef’s top priorities, so animals in need of medication aren’t left to suffer. Any cattle that do require treatment with an antibiotic are sold through other avenues. Salt and mineral supplements are provided and the herd is vaccinated according to their veterinarian’s recommendations.

Other practices, such as low-stress handling methods, managing pastures to provide the most nutritious forage possible, and giving animals lots of space, go hand in hand to keep the incidence of disease in check.

Getting a foot in the door

“It’s really important to identify your markets and know your consumers,” Lamb says. Bite Beef identified the Calgary area as its prime market with the goal of reaching conscientious consumers who want to eat local, get to know farmers and are willing to pay a premium to cover the additional costs of bringing such a product to the marketplace.

Bite Beef retails for up to double the price of commodity beef from the retail chain stores.

In preparation for launching their brand, Lamb and Baum visited Montreal’s vibrant farmers’ market to gather ideas for marketing and promoting their new brand of beef.

Already they have received inquiries from people in the neighbouring provinces who would like to purchase their beef; however, regulations prohibit cross-border sales of meat from provincially inspected plants.
For more information call 403-613-0380 or visit www.bitebeef.com.

— Debbie Furber is a field editor for Canadian Cattlemen at Tisdale, Sask. This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Cattlemen on pages 22-26.

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Beef image analysis

Beef Image Analysis (BIA), developed by Designer Genes Technologies of Harrison, Arkansas, is an automated, chuteside software system that captures ultrasound images from live animals and calculates rib-eye area, rib-eye area per hundredweight, rib-eye shape score, backfat thickness, per cent intramuscular fat, tenderness and stress.

The ability to predict tenderness and evaluate stress in live cattle from ultrasound scans is relatively new technology. Research to evaluate its feasibility star ted at the University of Mississippi in the late 1990s and advanced through private interests during the early 2000s to make sure the scores were accurate, repeatable and fully validated, explains Dr. Allen Williams of Livestock Management Services, Starkville, Mississippi.

The BIA system generates the tenderness score from ultrasound images of the longissimus dorsi muscle. The current correlation coefficient between the ultrasound score for tenderness in live animals and the actual Warner-Bratzler shear force test results on the resulting rib-eye steak at the 12th rib averages 0.85 to 0.87.

BIA tenderness scores are designated as 10 (very tender), 20 (tender), 30 (slightly tender), 40 (slightly tough) and 50 (tough). The ideal score is 25 or less, with 28 or less being acceptable for yearling bulls.

Stress scores range from 10 (no stress) through to 50 (severe stress) with the increments defined as 20 (slight stress), 30 (slightly moderate stress) and 40 (moderate stress). The ideal score is 20 or less.

Clay Nash, ultrasound technician and consultant to Bite Beef, explains how the scan detects stress and that it can actually be seen in the pattern of the marbling fat, which shows up as fine white flecks throughout the loin muscle.

Basically, the last fat on is the first fat off when an animal is stressed, he says. Animals that have been under significant stress, due to environmental conditions or illness for example, will have less marbling fat and it tends to be dispersed unevenly throughout the loin muscle because bits and pieces of fat have been drawn off to supply energy during the stressful event. A dark line void of fat is usually quite evident across the marbling pattern down the full length of the loin all along the back, and fat deposition will be null as he scans deeper into the loin. In most animals, that stress line never disappears.

If the stress and tenderness scores of animals in a group being scanned are consistently in the ideal range with nice even marbling fat distribution, but a few animals have higher scores or irregular marbling fat, the producer can then go back into the production records to determine whether those animals had undergone stressful events that affected them individually. If nothing seems apparent and all of the animals in the group were exposed to the same stresses without showing negative effects, then the producer may conclude that the genetics
of those particular animals is the underlying reason for their low tolerance to stress. When all animals score poorly, then there’s more digging to do to determine what’s at the root of the problem.

For more information, contact Nash at 870-897-3167 or Williams at 622-312-6826.

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