What makes US beef special?

Last week I received an email from the head chef at Keen’s, an award-winning NYC steakhouse, with the following question:  What makes US beef special?  He is going to Japan in May to speak at a New York foods festival and will be speaking on this topic, and wondered how I would answer.  Below is my reply:

Bill,
I’ve thought about your question the past few days, and while I didn’t have any grand epiphanies over the weekend, I’ll share what came to mind.
For me the first thing that comes to my mind, because it is our passion, is the integral part of cattle on the landscape.  North America is home to some of the world’s largest intact grasslands, which play key roles in air & water quality, plant and animal species diversity, and climate change mitigation.  The prairie was developed with bison and elk as a keystone species, and now cattle perform the function of the large ruminant herbivore.  The US beef industry’s foundation is these grasslands.  We have the ability to raise cattle, not in spite of, but in cooperation with a very important ecosystem.  Grazing lands are not a single-use resource, only providing food for humans via beef.  It provides a whole host of ecosystem services, something even a vegan can appreciate.  Even better, this is a regenerative system.  Cattle grazing, done properly, takes nothing away from the resource.  There are very few industries that can make that claim.
US farmers and ranchers have been ahead of the curve in adopting technology to improve the entire production cycle.  From genetic selection, to feed efficiency, to environmental impact, to food safety, we have the most advanced systems in place of any nation in the world.  This makes our beef more predictable, more safe, better quality (with all due respect to Kobe), and more economical than many competitors.  The processors and distribution networks also have very high standards and employ technology to ensure food safety all the way to the consumer.
There are some structural advantages we have as well.  With diverse climate and geography, the US can grow a lot of different things.  Our transportation network means we can move things (cattle and feed) to the appropriate places.  The cattle industry is integrated with other food and fuel systems, utilizing byproducts from the ethanol, soybean, potato, and sugar beet industries, among others.  The US farmers’ incredible ability to grow corn means we can finish as many cattle as we want on a very consistent and predictable feedstuff.  This lends itself to managing cattle flow out of feed yards, providing the processors and then consumers with a steady supply.  It also provides a more predictable finished product than using forage alone.  That said, we have the forage resources to finish cattle to fit grass-fed markets as well.  No matter the consumer preference, the US beef industry has the resource base to provide the eating experience desired.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the people who care for the cattle.  I guess I can’t speak to the traditions and values of cattlemen and women elsewhere in the world, but the for the American farmer and rancher it is a labor of love for certain.  The hours are long and the business climate is filled with uncertainty in markets and weather.  The skill set most farmers and ranchers have would make a lot of CEO’s blush.  Marketing, finance, HR, R&D, strategic planning, operations, succession planning, investing, biology, physics, zoology…these people are the original multi-disciplinarians.  Problem-solving ability develops out of necessity.  “Design thinking” has been a recent trend in Silicon Valley.  It’s been a way of life for generations for farmers and ranchers.
In a nutshell, I think American beef is special not just because of what it tastes like, looks like, or smells like on your plate – it’s the entire process leading up to that eating experience that makes it special.  It’s how cattle-raising in the US is not a zero-sum game, playing key roles in grassland ecosystems and upcycling resources thrown away by other industries.  It’s the way technology is leveraged to create efficiencies and safety mechanisms to provide highly dense nutrition at an affordable price.  It’s the passion that folks have in raising those cattle and caring for those resources.  I think these are what make American beef special.
But I also think Japanese beef is pretty special, which is why we using Wagyu and Akaushi genetics on our Angus cows.  They have a great history.
What would have you said?

Clean Meat vs. The Real Thing: It’s not really a fair fight

I’ve been following the buzz around “clean meat” for a few months.  If you’re unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, “clean meat” refers to meat grown in a lab from actual muscle cells taken from a cow (or chicken or pig or wallaby or whatever).  I’ll refer to it as cellular agriculture (or cell ag for short) hereafter, because I don’t believe the meat we produce is dirty in the first place.  After hearing where cell ag is at now, and thinking through the possibilities of what could be, I truly believe it has the potential to cause major disruptions in the ag sector – beginning with those of us in the livestock business, but also impacting crop growers as well.

Ten years ago, the iPhone had been out for less than a year.  Most of us thought they sounded cool, but we’d never need one.  They were expensive, at least compared to my flip phone, and (at that time) didn’t have nearly as many useful functions as now.  Siri wasn’t a thing.  Ten years later, we can’t do without them.  They have allowed third-world nations to leapfrog over more primitive forms of technology.  They are cheap (well, maybe not iPhones, but smartphones in general), easy to use, are everywhere and connect to everything.  In less than 10 years.

I mention this only to remind you of how quickly technology improves and becomes indispensable and cheap.

I think cell ag has three huge advantages over natural meat production: consistency, modularity, and a short generation turnover.

Consistency.  With cell ag, they have infinitely more control over the environment those cells grow in than I do on the ranch.  I’m dealing with a diverse ecosystem, complete with interactions from a variety of plants, other animals, and the always-unpredictable South Dakota weather.  They have a lab.  Additionally, cell ag can basically replicate the same cells over and over again.  They have control on the cellular level, being able to pick the specific genes they want to propagate.  I, on the other hand, have to deal with an entire animal.  Whose genes might not match up with its’ mate the same way every time.  Even if my cattle are extremely inbred (which is not economically or biologically feasible) they would still have more variation than lab-grown meat.

Modularity.  I have to grow an entire 1400 lb critter to make a steak.  That means there’s probably 1350 lbs of “not steak” as well.  Cell ag could potentially make exactly the amount of steak, or roasts, or tongues, or whatever, that the market is asking for.  There’s no having to “get rid” of certain unusable or unwanted parts of the animal.  Also, since a single product is being created with cell ag, there is no multi-trait selection to mess with.  When I’m selecting genetics, I need to consider far more than just the eating experience; I’m needing maternal traits, docility, good mobility, proper skeletal structure, hair coat, the list goes on.  The more traits selected for, the slower progress becomes in any one category.   Cell ag doesn’t have that burden.

Along with this, with cell ag they can potentially create the exact quality in demand as well.  All it takes is one cell to start with, and they could crank out 100% USDA Prime beef every time.  Or, if lean beef is in demand, they could do that next time.  Want to add a certain flavor?  That could be baked in as well.  The possibilities are only limited by the consumers’ imagination.

Short generation turnover.   The 1400 lb finished steer we got those steaks from a couple paragraphs earlier didn’t happen overnight.  He was conceived almost 25 months ago.   The data points I collect from him and his siblings will inform breeding decisions for next year, but those progeny won’t be harvested until at least 30 months from now.  It’s a terribly long process.  I don’t know exactly how long it takes to grow these cells in a lab, but I am quite sure it is not measured in years.  If something needs changing, they can adapt so much faster than I can with live animals.

 

I’ve got more thoughts on this topic, but I’ll save them for another post.  So much is unknown at this point, but when “clean meat” hits the market (supposedly in late 2018) we’ll likely know more about how the consumer reacts.  I believe they will accept it, especially as it improves in quality, choices, and value.

If you’d like to hear an actual intelligent conversation about cellular agriculture from some guys who are involved in the cattle business, check out the Working Cows Podcast Episode 42.

It’s not a level playing field.  But that’s the nature of disruptive technology.  We best start preparing for that very possible outcome.

 

 

Moving From City to Farm

I sit on a covered porch at 8pm on Wednesday evening, watching the sun decline and listening to the cooing Mourning Doves; it’s a peaceful time of day – the time when work is done and I can catch a breath.  My body relaxes. The dog next to me begins to pant heavily and hides, my warning that a thunderstorm is coming; the crickets are chirping, the breeze is talking. This might be the daily solitude of my backyard in Philadelphia, but today I’m writing this from South Dakota.  The dog is not my own but belongs to the Ranch and he’s filling in pretty-well for the one I left at home. I can watch the same nationally-televised newscast or scan the same standardized Dairy Queen menu, but these people are not the people of my melting-pot American experience.  I haven’t traveled overseas, but I might as well have because I’ve stepped into a foreign culture.

Around the dinner table, we don’t talk about the hassle of detouring around the current street closures, the latest movies or Phillies stats.  These Dakotans use words that I know when digested individually, but when used in combination, stretch my mind in new ways. Words like, “regenerative agriculture,” “soil health,” or “carbon sequestration.”  How about a conversation on “Riparian-area recovery?” “High-density stocking?” Or a “right-side-up prairie?” In my head, I transfer knowledge to try and create a twinkling of meaning; inevitably, I need help understanding.

There are a few holistic ideas that I’ve learned in my first weeks here at Rock Hills Ranch that start to help others fold into place.  One thing I learn is that the Great Plains is as endangered a landscape as the Rainforest. Another thing I learn is that agricultural and livestock farming practices don’t need to work in opposition to the health of these softly, rolling landscapes that were shaped millions of years ago by the glaciers.  

One more big idea at Rock Hills Ranch is “legacy.”  Legacy has a multitude of meanings, like a tree with many limbs.  Stewardship of land is a legacy – using it while also restoring the natural prairie, working in rhythm with the landscape, keeping in mind all the wildlife of the region and not just the beef.  Creating happiness within the family through all the hard work is also part of the vision around legacy. Stabilizing a financial future is also part of it. Garnet said to me, “When someone here gets married, they just don’t marry the man, instead they marry the land.”  The Permans are 4th generation farmers and the future two generations are here right now.  So, “The Land” is a full-partner in every aspect of life; as if it has an endowed faculty chair in the fanciest Boardroom in the best college.  

I am the 6th Ranch-Life intern at RHR – a high school teacher from the metropolis.  I read somewhere that South Dakota has 0.2 people occupying an acre; I believe that Philly probably has a thousand.  I am not young, but I am trying to digest and understand a way of life that I’ve never encountered before beyond the latest cowboy movie.  As I feel more confident in my understanding on the nexus of beef-farming practices and prairie sustainability, I will write more about it.  I’ll also write more about the animals of the farm and the feeling that permeates the Ranch of being a modern-day pioneer. But for now, this is a way-of-life that can only be understood by walking through it.

– Felicia Rosen