Cattle, Chattel & Capital

Circa 10,500 years ago humans began envisioning certain animal wealth running wild and so decided to begin domesticating carefully selected species.  Domesticating livestock did away with most hazards of the hunt, saved wasted hunting time and the hard work of packing home dead weight animal parts.  Like sheep and goats of the day, kept cattle also supplied dairy food products.  Other tangible assets of ruminant agriculture included draft work, fiber, sausage casings, natural water bladders, paddle (shoulder blade) bones etc. and crop fertilizer.  All these assets were created by providing domesticated cattle, sheep and goats access to semi-complex carbohydrates; which have always been of little to no nutritional value to monastics such as humans, hogs and chickens.  Quasi-symbiotically, the tool & decision making abilities of our ancestors that kept their livestock fed & watered must certainly have enhanced the quality of life for that chattel.

While almost everyone has heard the story of livestock domestication many times, few people realize that cattle could well be considered to be in the running for the 8th wonder of the world.  Pretty much all of human history has been dictated by economic considerations.  The enormous – longstanding economic contributions of cattle have been acknowledged in the closely related English words to it: Chattel (property other than real estate) and Capital (wealth).  Unappreciatively,  few people today even use the word cattle at all and instead the majority will refer to all domesticated bovines as cows.  For a related short story about cows and other cattle (Click Here).

As the post domestication centuries pasted, cattle were increasing bred toward more specialized uses: draft, dairy, beef.  As nature had it, some of the best early maturing – high eating quality beef animals in the world were indigenous to the British Isles.  Slower maturing, best draft and dairy breeds were derived from cattle indigenous to Continental Europe.

When the Spaniards traveled to the New World early on they brought good foraging longhorns along with them.  That act gave longhorns a couple century head start on British breeds in the Americas.  Indigenous American bison were here in great numbers, but were/are heavy hided, big headed, have a low genetic propensity to marble, are built backwards to yield a high volume of desired cuts and bison have never been widely domesticated.  Most veterinarians won’t even work in bison unless they have been tranquilized or in very sturdy working chutes.  As the demand for higher quality beef increased in America, mainly British breeds were cross-breed with established rangeland longhorns.

With the dawn of mechanization the continued usage of animal draft power rapidly fell from favor; creating more emphasis on dairy and beef cattle production.  In general, the better a breed produces milk, the better it tends to marble.  But, there was no single perfect beef & dairy breed because the best milkers are comparatively slow maturing, produce angular (as opposed to plump) rib-eyes and dairy cattle lean tends to be slightly darker colored (fresh beef consumer eye-appeal issue).  There is still a demand for dairy-beef and veal, but there’s a much stronger market for straight-bred beef market cattle.  Whenever dairy farmers are not in need of replacement heifers, cows can be breed to beef bulls to produce straight market offspring that have better beef conformation etc.

As mechanized grain crop production became widespread it facilitated the scientific perfection of high eating quality beef cattle production.  That perfection entailed a combination of early maturing, moderated animal size (think portion control cutting) and cattle that possessed a good genetic propensity to marble at a young & tender age.  Since the U.S. has large amounts of row-crop land the practice of grain-finishing cattle took hold strongly here.  Admittedly, it has always been expensive to put adequate white fat on young cattle and too much fat can lead to too much of beef carcass weight going to waste.  One best practice to utilize excess grain-finished fat trimmings is to import frozen blocks of boneless grass-finished beef from high marginal land countries.  Fat and lean components are  ground and blended together into further processed beef products.

Along with cattle feeding operations and harvest plant consolidating staring in the 1960’s, the accompanying high volume of cattle trim fat (think pre “pink slime,” AKA low temperature rendered beef, AKA Lean Finely Textured Beef) sparked a strong economic interest in utilizing still existing Continental European draft/beef cattle breeds.  Also, breeding British breeds down to ideal retail market weights had the unintended consequence of causing calf dwarfism to occasionally pop up.  Continental/exotic beef breeds offered a fresh infusion of bigger cattle genes.  Other meat industry advantages of such a cattle production paradigm shift included higher calf birth weights, an increased  average carcass weight per animal unit, more efficient feed conversion to meat and less trim fat.  I talked with one old meat man; that was actively working during beef industry consolidation, he recalled beef producer associations and large meat packers actively courting the AMA via research funding to badmouth animal fat consumption.  And, so it was that the “fat is bad.” mantra came into being in the U.S.  The degree of marbling required to qualify for the USDA Choice Quality grade was even lessened in 1987.  One seldom raised fact about the Continental beef breed revolution in America is that a lot of British breed cows and especially heifers died from dystocia (calving difficulties) after being crossbred to the larger draft breeds.  In time maximum acceptable slaughter weights were dictated by the large packers, but even today slaughter weights tend to creep up, especially when cattle prices are high.  During that bigger is better time period there was little need to try and start “fat is bad” campaigns in most other countries of the world because lean meat was all most of those peoples had ever had, so they were well accustomed to it.  The cottage industry of “show cattle,” is used for financial gain while  miss-educating farm youth that are doing club Fair projects.  Show cattle breeders still focus on extremely heavy muscling; while most packer only buy Fair cattle at a heavy discount.  Fairly big money can be made by a few winning youth when local businesses buy their Fair projects for promotional reasons.  If you would like to know more about “Fluffy Cows” (Click Here).  Still today, beef industry attempts are made to “educate” chefs to the “fact” that all they need to do with large diameter steaks (in order to keep them at desired portion size and while still fabricating steaks thick enough to cook properly) is to lop large steaks in half.  Those efforts have been somewhat successful at some restaurants, but retail fresh steak buyers often can’t afford large diameter steaks; that have been cut to proper high-heat cooking thickness.  And, the eye-appeal/buy appeal of lopped in half steaks is low to many cosumers.

Unfortunately for the “fat is bad” special interest groups, mainstream Americas had already become well accustomed to the enjoyable flavor, tenderness & juiciness palatability characteristics of  young grain-finished beef.  Some other benefits of British beef breeds include docility and early maturing animals with moderate frame scores (portion control steak cuts).  In 1978 the Hereford British breed was the number one beef breed being raised worldwide.  But, it was the Hereford’s British breed primary contender, Angus that seized the moment by establishing the G-1 carcass specification that year; in order to continue offering Americans “perfected” fresh beef.  Closely related Red Angus and “grey Angus” (Murray Grey breed) cattle were hide color discriminated against in the G-1 specification and their carcasses were thereby made ineligible for Certified Angus Beef (CAB) certification.  Seemingly nonsensically and based solely on hair color, black -white face (Hereford X Black Angus crosses) and many other beef breeds or commercial crosses can phenotypically qualify to be offered for final CAB carcass certification solely because such live animals displayed a > 50% black hair color.

“Bigger is better” became all the rage and after 1978 per U.S. capita beef consumption declined for 25 straight years before that trend finally became widely discredited.  The backlash against that low-fat campaign has led some all the way into ultra expensive Wagyu territory.  If you care to read a short Wagyu -vs- Optimal blog post (Ckick Here).  Around that time (2005) CAB’s back to basics long-term success was apparently seen by some beef producers to be nothing more than successfully marketing branded beef.  And so the quasi scientific niche marketing of many different brands and types of beef popped up.  Or, perhaps niche beef was just another attempt to finally market cheaper to produce beef at a high price by-way-of guilt-tripping, holy than thou, niche gospel preaching ploys.  Unfortunately for niche marketers, many repeat customers continued to buy beef brands that delivered enjoyable eating experiences at competitive prices.  For whatever reasons, a strong grass-fed market has been created today.  The most financially prudent way to fill that grass-fed market created need may be by way of supplying customers with grain-finished young – tender beef; that truly was grass-fed for over half of its lifetime.  Billing such beef as grass-fed instead of grass-finished supplies an acceptable product; that hopefully enough consumers are willing to repeatedly pay a higher than mainstream grain-finished prices for.  If you care to read a  further opinion on grass-fed cattle (Click Here).

After all cattle have done for mankind throughout the centuries, and the current promise of increased renewable energy generated from manure methane, why are some people so focused on ending domesticated cattle production?  I’m guessing that such persons are predominately anti-capitalists that subscribe to never worked anywhere Marxist theory and/or are opportunistic politicians that can be relied on to grasp upon every semi-believable excuse available to try and increase taxes.  Back our capitalistic bovines.

Written by George Wolfer

George Wolfer

Been associated with the meat industry pretty much since starting at a Vocational High school Meat Processing program in 1974. Like to learn and teach interesting and worthwhile livestock production, meat processing and marketing practices.

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