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.

WWOOFing in Wyoming: the view from the farm

The charming young man in the photo here is no stranger to this blog. I have often referred to him as College Boy (Formerly Known As Picky Eater.) As a child, he gave me a run for my money in the menu department, so I am pleased, no, thrilled that now he is taking an interest in food and cooking. Luke has always had a fascination with the West, so when he found a farm on the WWOOF website (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) it seemed like a perfect match. So here I present the first guest post, written by my son, Luke Vargas. All the photographs, opinions, and words are his. I hope you will ask him questions and enjoy the trip to the farm. Take it away, Luke!     —

Sally

With such a talented chef for a mom, I’ve never been a stranger to good cooking, but I’m a latecomer to learning the craft myself. I can’t wait forever to take up the challenge, since I’m moving into my first apartment and first full kitchen this September. I want to make sure I am well-informed about the food I’ll be preparing for the rest of my adult life.

Living and studying in New York City doesn’t engender an awareness of food and its journey to the table. We have some of the nation’s best restaurants and luxury grocers, but I’ve never felt further away from the food supply. Meat, produce, and dairy products arrive in New York as if by magic, and only a small percentage of it is grown within the surrounding 100 miles. [Check out this great story on “This American Life” about the Bronx’s Hunts Point Market, where produce changes hands en route to New York customers]

It struck me there is no better way to learn about that mysterious food chain than to spend a summer working the land the old-fashioned way; to see how we farmed, ate, and lived before factory farms, soy-fed animals, and Chilean-grown produce dominated our food supply. I searched farm listings on the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms website for a state I’d never been to but had heard a lot about — Wyoming — and chose to commit myself for five weeks to the only farm without a photo. A few days later I ended up at a ranch about an hour outside of Gillette, Wyoming.

The 1500 acre ranch here is home to meat cattle, dairy cows, draft horses, pigs, turkeys, honeybees, a few hundred chickens, an extensive vegetable garden, and a charming cast of dogs. Not only have I gotten my hands dirty (literally) working with animals both dead and alive, but I’ve begun to learn why eating a traditional diet rich in wholesome and unprocessed meats and dairy products is so healthy and has lent vitality to countless generations of those living close to the land. It is easy to forget that we humans have made it this far without Purell and soy-based meat alternatives!

After a few weeks of eating foods from the farm and maintaining a traditional diet, I began to observe more closely what other people, especially children, were eating when we left the farm and visited other parts of the state. Even among a food-conscious community where raw milk fills the glasses at the tables, some customers of the farm's products mention buying McDonalds' burgers for their child's daily ride back from school. I see boys and girls saddle up to the breakfast table with Danimals “Children’s Yogurt” or watch them down strawberry milk as they go about their days, this consumption typically followed by a rush of excitement and a fit of irritation soon after.

Sugar in these forms is bad enough, but the long term effects of their consumption persist, even after most younguns move beyond sweetened milk and tubed yogurt. In addition, some parents, in an attempt to limit fat, serve their kids skim milk and lean cuts of meat, while ignoring hidden sugars in processed foods. Humans need fat to stay healthy, but if you avoid fat at all costs in dairy and meat, where will you get your share?

Do we want babies with small heads and big guts? That’s what we’re creating, not round faces and full bodies. I find it funny that we delight in photos of young Inuit babies with their “pudgy” complexions, yet despise the consumption of whale blubber and other high-fat foods that in the past supplied them with a remarkably healthy traditional diet.

There are ways to pique a child’s tastebuds and see just how much they want the foods their bodies need. After a young farm visitor finished his Danimals yogurt and asked for more, we poured him a glass of homemade kefir with raspberries from the garden stirred in. Surprise, he couldn’t resist. But how can you blame kids when the commercials between cartoons promote the false message that chocolate milk is as healthy as real milk, and depict animated children surfing down rivers of artificially-colored, high fructose yogurt?

Over the next few weeks I’ll be contributing short photo essays featuring the things I’ve learned on the ranch in Wyoming, organized by individual foods. Each story will be accompanied by a recipe from my mom, and information about how to take control of the food you buy, eat, and serve.

Look forward to features on eggs, milk, beef, and chicken. Of course, feel free to request a topic to be covered or ask a question in the comment section of this post!