Pennsylvania to South Dakota

About a week ago I drove about 23 hours to get to Rock Hills Ranch from State College, Pennsylvania. Hello my name is Ben Patterson and I am a 2019 Summer/Fall Intern at Rock Hills Ranch. I just graduated in the May of 2019 from Penn State with an Animal Science major and an Agribusiness Management minor. My family, my parents and my older brother, are from York, Pennsylvania. My dad is an elementary school principal, my mom works in human resources at a Wellspan Hospital, and my brother teaches 7th grade social studies. As a family we spend most of our time together in the woods hunting.

I do not come from an agricultural background. My grandfather always had a few pigs and a cow here and there. My great uncle had a whitetail, red stag, and dairy farm in Northern PA that I spend some time at during the summers. But overall, I have gotten the majority of my experiences in agricultural over the last three years. During my summer after my freshman and sophomore year I worked at Cedar Hill Pork, a farm that has a 700 sow farrow-feeder hog barn and about 70 registered Angus cow-calf pairs. Last summer I worked at Penn State’s Haller Farm, a rotational grazing research facility that has about 70 cow-calf pairs of commercial cattle.

After those experiences, I wanted to find an opportunity to see a different part of the cattle industry. My friend from college, Matt Kelley, was the summer intern last year and told me how great his experience was here at Rock Hills Ranch, so I decided to apply. After just a week I realized that the internship is even better than I expected. Luke is a great teacher and mentor. Since the first day he has allowed me to jump right in and start experiencing and learning new things. The first week was very busy and we put in a lot of long days but I enjoyed every moment of it. The Perman’s are so gracious and kind; they have really treated me like I was part of their family. I am excited to be able to be at Rock Hills Ranch for the next few months.

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:

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.