All about eggs (from the farm) part 1

[This post by my son Luke Vargas resumes the series where he left off writing about grass-fed beef at a farm in Wyoming]

What could be better in the morning than eggs? No matter how you like them, eggs are an inexpensive and tasty way to load up on healthy cholesterol and fatty acids. Eggs also contain Vitamin B12 , a crucial fuel vegans and non-ovo vegetarians give up (and can only supplement with Vitamin B12 analogues).

Here on the farm we collect eggs every evening before supper, and with 110 laying hens, we take in around 70 eggs daily. Caring for hens and reaping the rewards is a simple process, but there’s more to it than you may realize.

While nothing is inherently wrong with a perfectly-shaped and unblemished white egg like those you see in the cheapest of Walmart egg cartons (pictured below), there are lots of things to be aware of when buying eggs off the shelf. Let’s look a few of them.

The Egg Supply Chain

In 2010 over five-hundred million eggs were recalled by factory producers due to salmonella contamination. These eggs found their way to the shelves at Walmart, Costco, and grocers across fourteen states. One brand I feature below — Sparboe — was among those recalled

For any television viewers out there, an advertising blitz by “Real California Dairy” asserts that 96% of California’s dairies are “family-owned.” This term has been touted recently by food producers under fire from food activists concerned with the commercialization of the food chain, as it gives the impression of a small, family-operated of local operation. Don’t be fooled by advertising; Sparboe Farms promotes itself as “family-owned since 1954” right on the packaging, yet their food empire (according to their website) encompasses “ seven processing plants supported by 33 accompanying layer and pullet production sites” across three states. Does that sound like your average mom and pop family farm?

Can we be comfortable with the egg supply chain when contamination at a small number of egg factories cause such a staggeringly large recall? As is the case with locally-produced milk, and locally-raised vegetables, were any health problems to pop up from our ranch's eggs, we could easily test our hens, individually contact our customers, and the small-scale of our operation would prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.

If our nation's food supply remained local, as it was until this past century, we could move beyond the kind of mega-outbreaks that are such a prominent feature of modern agribusiness.

So what’s the solution? (Read more about the violations levied against Wright County Eggs here.)

Pricing and the Egg Distribution Model

There are a number of pasture eggs available at farmers markets or small shops, but grocery stores nationwide have begun to offer products touting themselves as similar. While it is possible to “scale-up” a true pasture egg operation, it is reasonable to become skeptical of those brands with nationwide presence that purport to have such a product. Besides, organic farms that ship products to high-end grocers across much of continental US are really working against the local food movement by sending their products so far out of the community.

As far as quality goes, it is not smooth sailing once you start spending more. Let’s look at Horizon Organic’s $5.29 product, effectively the top of the line.

Since “free-range” is a government-regulated food labeling word, and Horizon does not meet this standard, they’ve created their own phrase — “Free-Roaming”— to trick consumers into buying a product they believe to be much better than it is in reality. Don’t get me wrong, the “organic” and “cage free” standards that Horizon meets are a step in the right direction, but their product is hardly worth the steep price. But in many ways, a free-range egg operation is not suited for a nationwide distribution model. There are breeds of hens suited for all climates, and there is no reason the eggs your family eats should come from more than fifty miles away.

The folks at United Poultry Concerns share my concern about large commercial “free-range” operations:

Birds raised for meat may be sold as “free-range” if they have government certified access to the outdoors. The door may be open for only five minutes and the farm still qualifies as “free-range.” Apart from the “open door,” no other criteria such as environmental quality, number of birds, or space per bird, are included in the term “free-range.” A government official said: “Places I’ve visited may have just a gravel yard with no alfalfa or other vegetation.”

Grass fed

Since chickens are omnivores, our hens eat whatever strikes their fancy as they wander around the ranch. Often this includes grubs and insects, healthy greens, and the occasional milk or slop we leave out for them. When they so desire, they snatch up the oat/wheat grain supplement we sprinkle along the driveway each morning.

Regardless of whether Walmart’s eggs are indeed “cage-free,” they are certainly not roaming around a grassy countryside like ours. Thus, they are most certainly not grass-fed or pasture-fed.

Then there is the issue of the “100% Vegetarian Fed” promise on labels of late. It is impossible to state definitively what a freely roaming animal will eat. The only environment in which such a claim could be made is in a closed environment, precisely what we don’t want for animals.

Seeing the barrage of advertisements promising such “healthy” practices make me want to cry out: “Why in God’s name are your chickens eating corn and soy of all things?!?” Could it be because these staples are among the most heavily subsidized foods in America, and because “soy” and “vegetarian” have such positive connotations within the food community?

Like I said, chickens are omnivores. They’ll eat bugs and grubs, seeds, breads and raw grains, fruits and vegetables; they’ll drink milk, and as a warning to anybody interested in raising chickens, they’ll eat eggs, too, so make sure they don’t get their appetites excited and realize your eggs are an ever present food source!

Coloring

One question I was asked a number of times at the Gillette farmer’s market was why our cartons of eggs featured a variety of colors. One woman asked: “are these duck eggs?” As I mentioned above, white eggs aren’t necessarily bad, as certain hens produce only white eggs.

Pearly white eggs from Walmart!

Just as some customers appreciate the spectrum of egg colors of pasture-fed chickens, others think a green or off-white eggshell is a sign of something wrong. Because of this, certain chicken factories take steps to make sure all their eggs are the same color. To achieve this, bleach and other whiteners are used to erase any natural blemishes and to ensure an consistent looking product appears on the shelves.

The egg spectrum, from caged to pastured. (The egg brands featured are named further down the page)

Additionally, there is nothing wrong with a flock of chickens of a single breed that produce the same color eggs. However, on  the ranch here you will find breeds such as theAmeraucana,  Araucana, Rhode Island Red, Orpington, and others. The result is a selection of eggs we joke about as having an “Easter Egg” appearance, from red to green to blue and white.

Internal Characteristics

One thing you’ll notice immediately when you make the switch from cheap eggs to our pasture eggs, or equivalent, is the size and shape of the yolk.

Before I arrived here, I believed the yolk would eventually turn into a baby chick if I kept it in a warm spot, or didn’t eat the eggs I’d purchased soon enough. There is no chance that could happen without keeping them warm enough and long enough to duplicate under-the hen conditions. If you have a fertilized egg, the baby chick will first appear as a black speck no larger than a poppy seed on the edge of the yolk.

Foolishly, many people avoid yolks citing their high levels of fat and cholesterol, when in fact the vitamins A, D, E and various other nutrients make them considerably more valuable nutritionally than the whites. This should make sense; since the embryo will grow from the yolk, it holds a sizeable quantity of all the things needed to develop into a healthy chick. By comparison, the egg white is merely a watery layer of protection for the yolk.

Below I’ve compared the inside of four different eggs: 1) from Sparboe Farms (purchased at Walmart for $1.64/dozen, 2) from Walmart's Great Value brand (purchased at Walmart for $2.24/dozen), 3) Land O Lakes brand (purchased at Walmart for $2.48/dozen), and 4) a pasture-fed egg collected here at the EZ Rocking Ranch. 

The disappointing internal appearance and surprising acrobatic abilities of low-quality Walmart eggs

The results were substantial. The Sparboe and Great Value eggs immediately slid to the rim of the skillet after being cracked in the middle, and they smelled strongly of "egg," a scent that even I as an egg advocate find a tad nauseating. Notice how the white of the Sparboe egg is watery and separates from the yolk, while the Great Value egg raises its arm and surrenders to its higher quality competitors.

Meanwhile, the Land O Lakes (left) and pasture eggs (right) from the ranch performed much better. Both stayed in their spots on the skillet, had firmer, more richly developed yolks, and creamy whites.  

Just like feedlot cattle, laying hens from America’s cheapest producers are treated as slave animals. If you really think you should be able to buy eggs for $1.64 a dozen, you’ll get what you pay for, and with your purchase, you are telling agribusiness that their exploitative model is tolerated by consumers. It shouldn’t be.

Quick tip:

If you think you may have a fertilized egg, place it in a glass of water next to a store-bought egg. If the egg begins to lift off the bottom of the glass, stands on end or floats, toss the egg, as this is a sign of an old or almost-spoiled egg. 

A stray egg found behind the wheelbarrow — a good candidate for the floating test!

Get Going:

You’ve probably heard pitches by politicians of late encouraging Americans to start vegetable gardens in their yards. If even 25% of American families did this, the food cycle would start to change—those individuals with certain skills such as plumbing or wiring could perform small jobs in exchange for produce. Expanding this model, owners of milk cows could trade their milk for eggs (as we do at the ranch), those with meat chickens could trade for fresh veggies and fruit, and soon everyone could be involved in the local food model, consuming quality goods, and getting to know their neighbors a little better.

A good first step for anyone with a few hundred square feet of backyard space is to raise your own laying hens. The website, Backyard Chickens provides comprehensive information and community tools to help get your chicken-raising project up and running. With just two or three chickens, a family can be provided upwards of a dozen eggs weekly. Hens also mow your lawn, fertilize the soil better than any chemical, and though they may not lick your leg coming back from work each evening, they are a delight for children and adults alike as a quasi-“pet” with unique personalities and habits. 

In Wyoming, The Journey of Grass Fed Beef From Pasture to Table

Posted by Luke Vargas

The following is a photo-essay documenting the slaughter of cattle and the process of meat preparation from pasture to the table. CAVEAT: If you object to the killing of animals for consumption, you may wish to skip this post, but I encourage you to read on and follow me through it step-by-step. It is not for the faint of heart. For those curious about my personal take on the whole experience, I've included some commentary at the end of the story.      —

Luke

Slaughter days begin at sunrise. At this hour the animals we have moved out of the pasture the previous day are comfortable in their new location, have not spent the day feeding, and most importantly, the flies and other creatures that would normally love to feast on fresh meat or our arms and legs aren't expecting a meal.

It is a beautiful morning.

Since the animals here are free range in the true sense, it often takes a great amount of energy to move the cattle from their pasture into our corrals. In order to move the six steer for slaughter, we were forced to bring their grazing friends along to make the process a little easier. In this case, we were working with a troupe of around thirty male and female cows (including some spectacular longhorns). 

Once all the animals are in the same corral, we identify which of the pack look to be at their prime. Carefully, we peel one or two animals at a time off from the pack and send them down a narrow alley. Using a gate at the end of the alley, the cattle are either released back to the pasture or diverted into another corral where they'll spend the night.

The animals are killed with a rifle shot about 2 inches above the space between the eyes. A perfect shot will bring down a thousand pound animal instantly, with the animal's legs buckling upon the bullet's impact. Just as a chicken's muscles twitch after the head has been severed (giving the world a great expression), so too a large cow will appear to kick or attempt to roll onto its back for a minute or two. 

Once a shot has taken down the animal, the jugular vein in the neck is severed with a knife, allowing a great amount of blood to drain from the body. Skipping this step will make the cutting process messier, but is primarily an issue of meat quality issue. If you've ever cut into a piece of meat only to have a clot of cooked blood drain out, you're dealing with an animal that was not fully emptied of blood during slaughter.

Lest you think the animal is still alive and writhing in pain during the period of spasm, you need look no further than its placid eyes, calm facial muscles, and the absence of breathing to know it is merely pent-up energy in the muscles causing this phenomena. To my great amazement, forty five minutes after the slaughter, the muscles on a skinned and gutted cow's stomach and flank were still twitching. 

The next step is to move the dead animal from the kill site to a location for cutting. Since our butchers have an excellent rig, we moved the animals by tractor to a shady hill where the animal can be hung from a winch and the cutting can begin.

The first action performed on the carcass is the removal of the head with a bonesaw. Many longhorns you see on the walls of steakhouses or log cabins were purchased from ranches like this one, where we have no use for additional heads.

After this step, the skin is peeled, and the meat is revealed. This step is surprisingly quick once an initial cut is made at the groin. Where necessary, additional cuts will help detach the skin, but it's rare that the skin will ever tear, and almost every time the entire hide should come off in one piece. These hides are ubiquitous, and just last week the ranch received a phone call from a new restaurant opening in Montana that wanted to buy sixty of them! Since we don't want to kill every animal on the property, this offer was respectfully declined.

The gutting of the animal is also a relatively speedy process. With gravity's assistance, even the cow's massive quantity of organs can be easily removed by pulling the organ system down by "scraping" along the spine using your hands. To make it easier to dispose of the stomachs and other organs, we performed the gutting over the shovel of the tractor. 

After driving a few hundred yards away, the guts are dumped. While the resulting pile stinks for a few days, I checked back a week later to find the vultures and coyotes had taken away everything. The logic: giving them this feast will make them less likely to pick off our baby chickens or turkeys in a fit of hunger! 

Since meat must be chilled before being cut into the steaks and roasts we're familiar with at the grocery store, the final step taken on the property this day is to separate the animal into halves using the bone saw. The halves are then attached to the rigging of the truck, lined up, and driven off to be refrigerated. Meanwhile, those on hand at the ranch start working with the salvaged organs, tails, and tongues right away. 

Only a few hours after the slaughtering finished, we enjoyed a soup of the hearts and tails, but many of these  cuts remain wrapped in our freezers for any customers seeking out these parts which are typically so difficult to acquire.

Two weeks later, processing begins at a nearby custom game operation. Because each of the cows killed on the ranch already has a buyer with individual cutting instructions for their quarter, halve, or whole beef, we supply the butcher with a list of desired cuts, and work begins.

The sides of beef are stored in a large meat fridge on the same hooks placed on them weeks before at the ranch. As time passes, the older sides at the facility are gradually moved along a ceiling track, and on cutting day they are pulled through a door to the cutting room on the other side.

First, unusable portions of exterior muscles that have dried considerably in the freezer are removed and chucked into the 'offal' bin. (As a side note, this was one of the first vocab words I learned in high school, and now is the first time I've had the chance to use it!) Alongside this trash bin is another for 'burger parts' that is added to throughout the cutting process, and is eventually ground up.

According to the film "Food, Inc.," 80% of hamburger meat sold in the United States has been treated with ammonia, and there are stories of floor sweepings being collected and treated with chemicals to add to the weight of the burger mixture. At this custom butcher, no glands or bones are added to the burger bin, and the meat goes directly to the grinder and straight into packages. Since this process is the easiest one in the cutting room, I proudly hopped in and wrapped about 400lb on ground beef myself.

Whether it's ground beef going into small plastic packages, or roasts, sirloins, and miscellaneous cuts wrapped in paper and individually weighed and labelled, all the meat is placed onto trays and placed in a walk-in freezer (seen behind me in the above picture). These trays are labelled for the customer they are destined for, and either picked up or delivered in the coming days.

Since our customers on this order of six steers are part-owners of the cows and we are not selling directly to the customer in a retail setting, the operation is not USDA-certified. For that distinction (which I will discuss more in a later post) our meat would need to be cut in Sturgis, South Dakota, and we would be forced to travel over 650 miles (two round trips) merely to be able to sell meat at the farmers market just a few miles away. Not only would this cost upwards of $150 to travel in our GMC pickup, but wastes precious time that a cattle rancher should be spending caring for his animals and improving his operation. 

It's time to start considering whether the government inspection model really helps small farmers and ranchers, or works to the advantage of large factory operations who can afford to have USDA inspectors on-site.

Although it's mere speculation, I suspect our local butcher (who I've gotten to know quite well) would be more likely to inform us of a problem with one of our cattle than the average USDA inspector in a far-away town whose face we don't see, and who charges a much higher price per head of cattle than somebody in town.

Why Grass-Fed?

So why is buying grass-fed so important, and what kind of life has the average feedlot cow experienced?

Most cows, including both ours and the average feedlot animal, begin life in a pleasant and pastoral setting, spending the time between birth and nine months in the field, grazing and enjoying a grass diet. At nine months, however, the significant differences begin. Here at the ranch, we ween the calves, separating them from their mothers permanently by releasing them into a second pasture on the other side of the property where they’ll spend their adult life continuing to graze the land. Although this may seem unusually cruel, mother cows will normally ween their calves between age nine months and one year in order to allow nutrients (and eventually milk) to be diverted to the next calf. Our cows are ready for slaughter at between two and three years old, and it is their lifelong grazing that qualifies them as “grass-fed.”

What happens to a feedlot animal at nine months? The same weening occurs, but instead the young cow is transported to a feedlot along with thousands of other animals. This marks the beginning of three months of intensive grain feeding, a diet for which a cow’s marvelously complex stomach is entirely unsuited. This grain diet (as well as the use of bovine growth hormones) accelerates the animal’s growth and reduces costs, producing a cow ready to slaughter at the tender age of one. The major problem here is that this grain diet contributes to high acidity within the cow’s stomach, conditions that lead to high amounts of harmful bacteria.

To stave off the strengthening bacteria, doses of antibiotics are administered routinely directly into the cow’s feed. While this step may stem the tide temporarily, with time it fuels the cultivation of even more vicious strains increasingly resistant to drugs.

If you think there’s no possible way anyone can think this system of accelerated feeding is healthy or ethical, look no further than the USDA’s “CAFO” acronym for its endorsement. This stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, and is sold as an efficient way for large quantities of animals to be feed. If you imagine thousands of animals sharing a fenced lot for ninety days, with manure piling up and pesticides routinely used to stave off flies and other insects, you’ve got a good idea of how almost all supermarket meat spends the three months previous to your consumption. Hungry?

The only way you can be certain your beef is NOT prepared this way, is to purchase a grass-fed product.

One final note, the ‘marbling’ of beef that so many buyers look for as a sign of a good steak is a questionable measure of meat quality that feedlot producers have pushed on consumers. Marbling is the alternation of fat with muscle visible on a cut of beef. In contrast to our grass-fed cows—that achieve a low and even amount of marbling from the fats they encounter eating grass and the occasional naturally—occurring seed or grain—feedlot animals with their high fat diets of grain are naturally much heavier and fattier. 

Quick Tips for Preparing Grass-Fed Beef

The most common mistake grass-fed beef customers make is to prepare their meat just as they would a store-bought product. Besides spending the money to invest in a meat thermometer and following a different set of cooking temperature guidelines than you may be used to, my ranching mentor and host in Wyoming, Frank Wallis, says the following:

If you try to treat a grass-fed beef steak as if you were cooking grocery store beef, you will be sorry you did, and you will look down at your plate and say, "Damn, I spent that much money on this?" Don't do that. Think about quick-sear cooking techniques for things like rare tuna and foie gras.
Open flames or preheated cast iron and grass fed beef are friends. A quick sear of thin pieces in a very hot flame works wonders, and if you are lucky enough to have a thick steak, you want it absolutely seared and crispy on the outside and rare on the inside, even if you do not normally eat your steak this way. If you like your meat more done, then let it rest a while before cutting.                 
You can use an intensely preheated cast iron pan or grill to achieve this effect, but you cannot allow the steak to remain in contact with heat for long enough to melt all the fat and cause it to drip out of the internal structures of the meat, or you will end up with boringly tough, dry, expensive meat.

As for cooking temperatures, Shannon Hayes's guidelines from her book The Grass Fed Grourmet have been adopted as the gold standard for grass-fed meat. Here they are:

Rare — 120 F
Medium Rare — 125 F
Medium — 130 F
Medium Well — 135F

Making Your Own Jerky

Making your own jerky is simple and delicious. You'll notice that store-bought jerky is often reformed, and has a texture similar to ground beef (or in the case of Slim Jim, "mechanically separated chicken") that's been pushed into a 'jerky mold,' if you will. These products are also loaded with preservatives and other unpleasant ingredients. 

If you've got a few cuts of beef sitting around, or a hankering for something salty, jerky is a fun option. Since the football season is just around the corner, homemade jerky is sure to win over any sports fanatic who will happily forego the crummy nachos and Tostitos products for a more filling and mouth-watering snack.

The first step in our jerky production involves choosing cuts of meat. Although ground beef can be used, we've picked out a rump roast that will slice easily when semi-frozen.

Second,  choose how thick you want your jerky strips. Using our deli slicer, we aimed for about the thickness of canadian bacon (around 1/4 inch), which shrank down to an easily-chewable size by the end of the process. Slicing across the grain will yield a more durable piece of jerky less liable to break apart. 

After closely arranging the cuts side by side on wax paper or a baking sheet, it's time to think about the spices you enjoy most. Our spice cure included salt, Quebec Beef Spice (various peppers, garlic, and coriander), and a few dashes of sugar, but I've seen recipes that call for ginger and soy sauce for a teriyaki taste, or even dried fruits like cranberries, oranges, and brown sugar for a "Thanksgiving" flavor. 

With just a spice collection and some time dehydrating standing between you and jerky, you can be assured the chemicals that make their way into commercial jerky won't end up in your body. Even the homemade jerky produced by our butcher friends in Gillette, Wyoming includes a number of ingredients such as nitrates, hydrolyzed soy protein (read: MSG/taste-enhancer), and dextrose. Slim Jim brand is worse still, and not only is their meat of lower quality than our homemade, grass-fed product, but the processing the meat undergoes before reaching the package qualify it as merely a "meat stick" when all is said and done. If you can't locate a visible grain in what you're chewing, than someone has been pressing various cuts of meat into jerky shape, instead of giving you the real thing.

(Read more about the "Hidden Sources of MSG" here.)

As you can see above, we placed our meat on a food dehydrator to extract moisture, but this isn't the only option. Native Americans let their meat sit outside in the sun as it cured, and a modern bug-free adaptation can be had by placing a screen box over your cuts. Although the dehydration process effectively toughens up your meat and everyone loves the flavor of hams and jerky, this was not the intended purpose of this method. Because removing moisture and air from meat was the top priority in the days before supermarket meats, the sausages and hams of old were drier, saltier, and smokier to ensure greater shelf life. 

We kept our jerky in the dehydrator for around 30 hours, and it was nice and crispy by then. The 90 degree weather and lack of humidity here could have contributed to that short time, however. Since it's easy to check on the status of your meat while it's in the dehydrator, I recommend sampling the texture every few hours after twelve hours have passed.

For a detailed explanation of the various meat curing methods commonly used, the Polish meat masters have you covered.

A Slaughtering Post-Script

I spent some time deciding whether or not to show pictures of the entire slaughter, and I've heard from friends and colleagues who stated definitively that it would be better to merely describe the process of killing and preparing meat instead of presenting a graphic depiction that would make many readers queasy. I don't agree.

In many ways, you should be lucky to have meat on your table that has been prepared in the way I've depicted above. Throughout the entire slaughter process, the animals here remained in their natural habitat (ie. have not been led one by one into a killing factory), and only after death are their carcasses transported to an indoor space. At no point in the life of the steers above have they suffered inhumane treatment, and watching their behavior in the slaughter, a steer shows no visible concern when it sees a killed animal lying on the ground next to him. 

Speaking with ranchers and meat cutters here in Wyoming who routinely perform slaughters like the one shown above, many have admitted to me that even they wouldn't like to witness a slaughter carried out in a factory farm. The gutting process occurring in factory farms, for instance, is performed by a machine that is considerably less careful about spilling intestinal fluids over the carcass than our human hands are. So too, whatever blood or other fluids drain out of the cow in the factory are not absorbed by the grass or hauled off immediately to a dumping site, as in our process. Instead, these unusable parts accumulate on slaughterhouse floors, making for a considerably more unsightly, let alone unsanitary, experience. 

Careful killing and gutting also allow valuable parts of the animal such as the tongue, tail, kidneys, hearts, and livers to be preserved. Although these animal parts hardly figure in the modern American diet, their nutritional benefits are unparalleled, and anybody fortunate enough to be able to acquire them should make use of the opportunity. But back to the slaughter...

I found an interesting discussion on the Backyard Chickens forum in which adults were discussing their children's involvement (or lack of) in the slaughter process. I found a quote from "Katydid2011" that I thought summed up my feelings about the issue as it pertains to all meat eaters, not just children:

I think that people who eat meat should understand where their food comes from and show respect for the lives that were taken for their sustenance, and that means having an awareness of the fact of killing. I'm sure that most children in modern society have no idea that hamburger, for instance, is cut from the flesh of a cow that goes "moo."

After reading other comments by adults who recall the distress of being forced to observe slaughters as children, I find it troubling to advocate forcing anyone to watch the process. I do, however, agree with Katydid2011's general point that children should not be raised with the notion that meat miraculously appears on the table (or out of the drive-through window) without an animal's life being taken.

For adults or those old enough to understand this and make the conscious decision to continue to eat meat, I believe witnessing the process to be almost a necessity, akin to a right of passage for anyone who will spend their adult life eating meat and animal by-products.