Taste test winners tout drug-free method
In American Royal contest, steaks from cattle that weren’t fed growth promoters came out on top.
The winners of the first-ever American Royal steak contest this year don’t raise the kind of beef most of us are used to eating.
The winning ranchers just say no to drugs. And they use expensive breeds and longer growing periods.
There were 31 entries, 19 from grain-fed cattle and 12 from grass-fed animals.
All entries had to be rib eyes and were cooked unsalted, electrically grilled, then sliced into 1-inch cubes and served to judges in a blind tasting. Points were assigned for flavor, juiciness and texture.
Beefalo Meats of Ellensburg, Wash., was named the grass-fed grand champion for its rib eye from a cross between bison and beef cattle.
“It’s just like cattle,” said Mark Merrill, who runs the company along with his wife, “but with a lower percentage of fat, calories and cholesterol; it’s much healthier for you.”
While grain-fed cattle can be finished for slaughter in about 14 to 18 months, it takes Merrill about 20 months to grow his grass-fed animals to slaughter weight.
One reason, Merrill said, is that he does not use growth promoters or antibiotics.
“With corn-fed cattle, you inject slow-release hormones through ear tags on the animals, which makes them grow faster. We also don’t mix antibiotics with their feed,” he explained.
Merrill said he doesn’t need antibiotics because few of his cattle get sick, because of something called “highbrid vigor,” or “heterosis.” When breeders cross two animals that are not alike — such as cattle and bison — they create offspring that are healthier than either of their parents.
Thompson River Ranch in Marion, Mont., won the grain-finished competition.
“We do Wagyu cattle (a high quality Japanese breed) and let them slow grow for 30 months — twice as long as a typical cow,” said ranch owner Clydene Bultman. They feed them grass and some grain and dry-age them for 21 days, and don’t use growth promoters or antibiotics.
While Big Beef packers typically slaughter cattle half that age, Bultman said, “they are still babies then. It takes at least 28 months for an animal to mature sufficiently to deposit fat in the muscle (marbling).”
Bultman said feedlots must use antibiotics because when cattle are crowded together they pass around diseases. And because those cattle are fattened “as quickly and cheaply as possible, they have more back fat and fewer than 2 percent of them grade out as USDA prime.”
Bultman said more than 90 percent of her Wagyu cattle grade prime.
An 8-ounce filet mignon tenderloin from Thompson River ranch runs $16.50. Beefalo Meats will send you half a beefalo (300 to 400 pounds) for $3.39 per pound.
Mark Schatzker, a Canadian food critic and one of the contest judges, said the taste of the entries ranged from mediocre to “in a few cases rather dreadful.”
But he said four steaks rose to the level of “breathtaking. Among them, a grain-fed entry that was meltingly buttery, and a resoundingly beefy grass-fed entry with enough juice to put out a two-alarm fire.”
“Sometimes I really appreciate the flavor of corn-fed beef,” said Schatzker, author of “Steak: One Man’s Search the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef.” “Corn-fed Wagyu beef, for example, is the apotheosis of corn-fed beef. But some grass fed beef has an amazing flavor, too.”
Former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves, who came up with the idea for the contest along with Jeanne Patterson, wife of Cerner CEO Neal Patterson, said the contest helps keep beef relevant for Kansas Citians.
“We should become the Paris of steak,” Graves said. “We are the steak capital of the world…the Napa Valley of steak, and we should celebrate that.”