High Stress Steaks

My whole life I have been very fortunate to have home-raised beef in my freezer.  It is not often that I have had to buy meat in the store, however, I do enjoy perusing the meat counter whenever I go grocery shopping to see what is available and how much it costs.  Recently, I was shopping with a fellow meat science grad student when something in the meat counter caught our eye. 

The picture on the left shows product that would be considered a
“dark cutter.”

This picture shows two very different appearing steaks.  The package on the right appears normal, being the typical bright cherry red color that we would expect to see.  The package on the left, however, is a much darker color.  

The condition of this product is known in the industry as being a “dark cutter.”  As the name implies, it produces a very dark, unappealing product.  It is caused by long term stress of the animal that can be influenced by genetics, environment, or management.

The simple explanation:  Stress causes muscles to tense.  When this happens all the energy in the muscles is used.  When the animal is harvested, there is no energy left in the system to produce lactic acid and cause the meat to have a drop in pH.  This leads to product that is darker in color, firm in texture due to holding water, and dry on the surface since all the moisture is held within the cut.  For a more scientific explanation, read on.  If this is enough, skip to the final paragraph.

To get scientific: muscle tissue stores energy in the form of glycogen.  When we use our muscles, that glycogen is converted to lactic acid. (Think about when you try a new workout and are often sore the next day.  This is due to a buildup of lactic acid in your muscles since you used the muscle’s energy.)  When an animal is stressed for a long period of time, it uses up the glycogen within the system and depletes the lactic acid. (Think about when you’re stressed.  Do you tense up? Do you clench your fists and your jaw?  Your muscles are working.  The same thing happens to livestock.) 

When an animal is harvested, a lot of things happen as muscle is converted to meat.  One of these things is a drop in pH.  Living muscle tissue is very neutral, with a pH of approximately 7.0; whereas beef has a pH of approximated 5.6 (making it more acidic than living muscle). The drop in pH is caused by all of the glycogen that is left in the system at harvest being converted to lactic acid.  If an animal has been stressed for a long period of time, there is no glycogen available in the system, and there won’t be any lactic acid to drop the pH.  This causes the meat to have a very dark color and bind water tightly, creating a dry, tacky surface.  This produces a product that is dark, firm and dry.

It is important to note, that this product is still safe to consume, but due to its high level of moisture, is often used in further processed products.  Dark cutting beef is only found in approximately 1-2% of harvested cattle, often following severe changes in harsh weather.  Producers do all they can to limit this occurrence by controlling the animal’s environment and stress level.  Housing animals indoors, providing shade in the summer if housed outdoors, consistent feeding times, treating sickness, these are just a few practices that producers use to help mitigate stress of the animal.  Animal care is a priority to producers and ensuring a safe, high quality product for consumers is their mission.


Hormone Havoc

A few months ago, I met a woman on an airplane who was on her way to a yoga retreat.  After visiting for a while, I told her I was studying meat science.  She proceeded to ask lots of questions (as many people do, and I very warmly welcome).  We got on the topic of hormone usage in livestock.  She told me that she was worried that excess hormones in meat were causing her grandson to develop womanly features.

Hormone usage in livestock production is a common source of curiosity and insecurity of consumers that are not tied to the industry.  It is totally understandable.  If I didn’t grow up involved in the industry, I would question it as well.

Hormone implants are used in growing livestock (specifically, cattle) to help them be more efficient in converting feed to muscle.  Hormones are also known as repartitioning agents.  Meaning, they take the energy from the feed and rather than the animal accumulating excess fat, they use that energy to build muscle.  That muscle is what turns to meat after the animal has been harvested.

Implants are very small and administered in the form of a small pellet under the skin in the back of the calves’ ear.  This allows for slow release of the hormone, and since the ears are discarded, ensures that the pellet does not end up in human food production.  The FDA (Food and Drug Administration), is active in ensuring that meat from animals implanted with hormones is safe to eat.  If it was a concern for human health, the practice would not be used and the meat would not be allowed on the market.

Now, some people ask, “do hormones used end up in the meat.”  It is important to note that every food has naturally occurring hormones.  Including beef.  My favorite example to compare this is beef vs. cabbage.

One, 3 oz. serving of implanted beef has approximately 1.9 nanograms of estrogen, (compared to 1.3 ng of non-implanted beef).

One serving of cabbage contains 2,000 nanograms of estrogen.

It would take 1,052 servings of beef to get the same amount of estrogen as 1 serving of cabbage.  That is 197 pounds.  The average American consumes approximately 57 pounds of beef per year.  Following those numbers, it would take 3.5 years to get the same amount of estrogen from beef as one serving of cabbage.

Image from a previous post written for South Dakota Farm Families, Farmer’s Daughter Segment.

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t eat cabbage.  One nanogram is equal to one billionth of a gram.  One billionth.  That is trace amounts. I am a huge supporter of having a well-balanced diet, including beef and cabbage.  Yes, there are other hormones besides just estrogen used in beef production; however, similar examples as this can be found to demonstrate the trace amounts passed to food for human consumption.

There is so much regulation done to ensure safe, high quality food is making it into the hands of the consumer.  Whether that be beef, cabbage, or any other item you choose to purchase at the store. If hormone implants caused a food safety risk, let me assure you, it would not be a practice utilized by any producer.




One Bad Apple

I recently took a day-trip to Couer d’Alene, ID (an absolutely beautiful area, I highly recommend a visit). Anyway, while I was there, I came across a big street fair with vendors from all over the area.  Clothing, jewelry, food galore, and mixed in the crowd was a PETA demonstration. 

Participants were dressed in black clothing and white masks, and were holding screens that played videos showing animal abuse.  The ag community continually struggles sharing our story with consumers, while this group can confidently degrade everything we are working towards.  Now, I know many people don’t fully trust PETA’s representation of the industry, but often think, “they had to get the video from somewhere.”   

The easiest way for me to think about and describe the work PETA is doing, is with the following scenario:

Imagine that you were at a farmer’s market.  A beautiful day with booths full of fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables all grown locally.  You stop at a stand, Annie’s Apples, to buy fruit for the week.  While looking at the big, shiny, red apples, you come across one that is small, disformed, bruised and just mushy.  Rotten. 

Seeing this rotten apple, you decide that if she had one bad apple, the rest of them at her stand must not be worth buying.  Annie doesn’t raise her apples properly.  If this one is bad, how can the rest be good?  She can’t be trusted. 

You then tell your friend’s not to buy apples from Annie.  This develops as you and your friends share on social media a picture of the gross little apple.  Now, all your connections not only think that Annie’s apples are bad, but every farmer must produce those bad apples.  They’re not only skeptical of buying apples from Annie, but from any apple producer.  No apples from farmer Annie, Adam, Alex, etc., etc.  Since their apples can’t be trusted, that means they can’t be trusted.  They’re abusing the apples just to make a quick buck.  They don’t actually care about the apples or the people eating the apples.

This scenario seems a little crazy, right?  Who would purposely abuse an apple?  And if one person thought that was a good idea, does it make sense that every apple farmer would purposely sell rotten fruit?  No. If an apple is bruised it isn’t going to taste good, and will cost the farmer money by trying to sell a poor-quality product.

Well, the same thing is true of animal agriculture.  Most farmers care deeply about their livestock.  Stress causes the animals to lose weight, makes it more difficult to care for their young, lowers their milk producing ability, causes meat quality problems.  Basically, stressed animals go against every goal that a farmer has for his livestock.  Those videos come from bad apples; often in the form of undercover, ‘animal rights activists’ working on farms.

Yes, there are a few bad apples out there.  There always has been, and there always will be.  But next time you see something posted, or maybe an in-person PETA protest, I hope that you don’t let one bad apple destroy your opinion on the whole bunch.

Branding and Green Grass

This time of year is busy for farmers.  Most have finished up calving and are ready to get the cows to pasture.  For the past few months, many producers have had their cows kept close to home to make things easier for calving time.  Now, it is time to take the ladies to greener pastures for the summer.

Before cows go to pasture, a few tasks must be completed.  Calves are typically vaccinated to help keep them healthy and many are branded.  Some producers brand their calves the first year they go to the pasture with their mothers, while others wait until they are a little older. 

There are different types of branding that serve different purposes.  My family uses both hot branding and freeze branding on our operation.  

We use freeze branding to number our animals.  It is done using a branding iron that is frozen using dry ice and liquid nitrogen or alcohol.  Once the irons are cold, they are pressed onto the desired location for 30-60 seconds.  This type of branding kills the color follicle of the hair.  Although the hair will grow back, it will not have any pigment and will be white in appearance.  This method of identification is ideal because it allows for easy ID of the animal during any season and from a distance.  Our cattle also have ear tags that match their brand number; however, tags can be difficult to read.  If an animal is sick or has any reason to be noted, a freeze brand makes identification much easier!

This is a picture that my brother took of one of our bulls. The number brand that you see on his side was done using freeze branding. This practice helps us easily identify the animal.

Hot branding on the other hand, is used to put the farm’s brand on the animal.  Brands are unique to the producer and can help distinguish one farmer’s cattle from another’s.  This is ideal for cattle that will be moved to pasture for a season with little oversight by the farmer.  If a fence is broken and the cows get out, they can easily be identified to who they belong to.  Brands must be registered to the state and approved to be used.

Branding is a quick method to help easily identify and place ownership of an animal.  It is an effective tool for producers to use and can be very beneficial in running their operation.   Once this job is complete, the cows are ready to enjoy their summer on green grass!

A Picture of Life on the Farm

Recently my Facebook timeline has been full of people doing a “10-day farming and ranching challenge.”  A picture each day for 10 days showing what life on the farm looks like but without any explanations.  Just a picture, no words. 

Now, I know that a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a little context is a good thing.  This week, I am going to take a little detour from our meat safety and quality conversations and share a little insight into what being involved in agriculture has looked like for me. 

This time of year is so exciting on the farm because babies are being born!  I have so many great memories going out late at night with my dad to see if any lambs or calves were born. Right now, my family is in the midst of both lambing and calving.  There have been some extremely cold temps and snowy days the past few months in South Dakota; however, it doesn’t matter what the temperature is outside, farmers and ranchers don’t get a snow day.  They go to work, day and night, to ensure that their livestock is cared for.

Blue sky, green grass, black cattle, one of my favorite views!  Every summer, we bring our cattle to the pasture for a few months.  After long, dreary winters, it is so encouraging to see new life, both in the vegetation and in the baby calves! 

Putting up hay.  Not exactly the most fun job on the farm (or photogenic), but it’s work that needs to be done.  Typically, it’s the hottest days of the summer when the hay is ready to be put into the barn.  It’s a hot, dusty, job.  Storing hay during the summer gives us an ample supply to use during the winter during lambing and calving.  Square bales (like what is in the picture), can be used for bedding or as feed, depending on what the bale is made of.  It may be a lot of work in the summer, but when winter comes along we are sure thankful that the job got done!

I know that this isn’t a farm picture, but I had to include it.  It is still crazy to me to think that someday I am going to be a meat scientist.  How crazy is that?!  The agricultural industry offers so many opportunities for careers outside of farming and ranching; meat science, nutrition, genetics, and so much more.  I am so excited to see where this path leads me and what opportunities lie ahead!

You simply can’t beat South Dakota sunsets!  I grew up looking at this view every day.  I am so thankful to have grown up on a farm and for all the values that it instilled in me.  I learned the value of hard work and how to work as a team.  No matter where I end up in the future this will always be one of my favorite views.

Most importantly, on a farm  you don’t go to an 8-5 job where you become acquaintances with your co-workers.  Farms run on families.  Did you know that 98% of farms are family owned and operated?  Farming isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle; one that everyone must commit to.  Whether it be working with livestock, harvesting crops, putting up bales, or making meals for the people in the field; everyone is involved.  I’m so thankful for this bunch and couldn’t have asked for a better crew to call my family.

These are just a few photos are just a snapshot of what life on the farm looks like. I am so thankful to be involved in this industry and I hope this detour gave you a look into the ag world!