The sound of the rifle shot was still ringing in the gray morning as I pulled into the farmyard. The car fishtailed a bit on the glare ice. It had been snowing lightly since daybreak.
I made my way to the back of my friend Norm’s large dairy barn where a half a dozen steers stood, pulling hay from a round bale. Clouds of steam floated up around their wet noses. New flakes clung white on black lashes. They seemed oblivious to their fallen comrade just a couple of yards away.
Quentin Whitmer, the slaughterer, assessed the fallen animal from a number of angles. He and his assistant, Doug, quickly agreed to next steps. They’d done this dance before.
|Forks in the Road is an occasional column by Sylvia Burgos, a public relations professional who lives in Wisconsin farm country, and commutes into St. Paul.|
She podcasts and blogs about politics and food at Artisan Bread, Cheese and Wine.
My nose was dripping. I stamped my feet every few seconds: it didn’t help. My toes ached, and the little ones were going numb. Boy, they were going to hurt when I got back home. I pushed that thought to the back of my mind as the men picked up the pace.
Whitmer was wiry inside insulated coveralls that were that dun brownish-yellow color found in the racks of any farm supply store. His cap was pulled down tight, the brim embroidered with his business logo; work he’s been doing since 1965. Knee-high boots held him above the frozen mud, elbow-high rubber gloves helped in handling the steaming carcass. He held a long, thin boning knife loosely in one hand and used the other to manipulate the dials and levers of his specially outfitted truck. With a whirling of gears and sliding cable, he positioned a hoist above the stilled animal.
My husband Dave and I had purchased the 1,100-pound steer months earlier because we had had enough – enough with thinking three times before biting into a hamburger and knowing it was raised with hormones and antibiotics. We wanted grass-fed: an animal fattened on acres of open pasture, without the help of herbicides and pesticides.
Because we live in Amery, Wisconsin, a farm community just 60 miles northeast of St. Paul, finding the steer was relatively easy. Dave, who was born and reared in this small city of under 3,000, contacted an old friend, Norm Hawkins, and sealed the deal. Norm has farmed all his life, and until a few months ago had run a dairy operation. He sold off the equipment and milking cows at the end of last summer and now raises steers (males castrated when calves) to meet the growing demand for grass-fed beef.
For another story of steak-on-the-hoof, read From prairie farm to St. Paul plate: The tale of Lowline Angus #713 by Mark Neuzil in MinnPost.
I visited his pastures all last summer and fall and watched my black and white Holstein steer graze in the warm sunshine and loll in the shade. It had lived two-and-a-half years eating what its four-chambered stomach was best suited to digest – grass. It roamed in the company of other cattle, and was free to exhibit normal bovine behaviors.
But now it was winter – the time of harvest. It was a humane process, quick and without apprehension. Unlike virtually all conventionally raised beef, my steer was spared the stress of being crammed onto a truck for a trip of hundreds of miles to a feedlot where it would spend its last several months eating corn.
The boning knives flashed in the cold air. Every once in while, Whitmer would step back and quickly pass the blade over the knife steel that hung from his belt. The metallic sound echoed off the barn wall.
Twenty minutes into the process, Whitmer used his truck to hoist the carcass several feet into the air to facilitate the gutting and quartering.
We’d been out in the icy barnyard for nearly an hour: the job was done. Whitmer would take quartered carcass to a locker (state-certified butcher) just 20 miles down the road. In two weeks, I’d pick up my half-share – 320 pounds of steaks, ground beef, sausage, roasts, and soup bones: a treasure. Because this meat was produced on grass and hay, it is reportedly leaner, has more Omega-3 fatty acids, and more vitamin E (see the resource list in the sidebar). It also hadn’t traveled the 1,500 miles often experienced in the production and processing of confinement-lot animals.
And its cost? Dave and I were able to keep the price per pound near conventional levels because of the work we contributed to the process: locating the farmer, arranging for slaughter and butchering, and picking up the meat from the locker.
Most shoppers should expect to pay more per pound for grass-fed for two reasons: demand outstrips supply, and it takes longer for grass-fed beef to reach harvest size: up to 30 months for grass-fed vs. 16-18 months for confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs). That said, what you pay can vary considerably depending on where you buy.
In the Twin Cities, options include the natural food coops as well as some of the high-end grocers. Some of the food co-ops might also share the names of their farmers and ranchers. Then there is your local butcher shop, if you’re lucky enough to have one in your neighborhood. Interestingly enough, at least one of the metro cooking schools has also begun offering contracts for locally grown meats. You may want to check out the big-box grocers as well.
Will I purchase conventionally grown beef again? Not if I can help it because I know I can trust what I’ve got in my freezer – no chemicals, grass fed, humanely raised. In fact, Dave and I just contracted for 100 pounds of pasture-raised pork. We’ll pick it up in the fall.