When thinking about meat quality, we should ask oursleves a simple question: do I enjoy eating it? Does it taste amazing with nothing more than salt and fire?
ANIMAL GENETICS AND BREED
This is where it all begins. Experts say that 65% of meat quality is based on genetic factors. Each breed of animal has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. For example, some breeds are known for being hardy and naturally resistant to pests, while others are favored for their vigorous rate of growth or generally good meat quality. Within each breed, there are also specific genetic variants which will influence traits such as inherent tenderness, fat marbling, animal demeanor, frame size, coat color, mothering abilities, and feeding efficiency. There are entire industries built around genetics and how they are employed. At Augustus Ranch, our intended purpose is to produce an exceptional quality eating experience, so we are mostly concerned about what the animal looks like on the inside versus the outside.
Our focus with beef is to create a low stress, natural environment from which the animals can thrive. Part of this process involves building a herd which works well within the context of our land and climate. South Central Texas can get really hot during the Summer months. The Brahman cattle breed (originally from India) is quite popular in Texas for this reason, but we're very careful on how we introduce those genetics into our herd because the meat quality of Brahman cattle tends to be sub optimal (lean and tough). The primary breeds we utilize are Angus (Red & Black) and Hereford, but with some degree of Brahman influence, we create a well rounded herd that produces quality meat, encourages good mothering capabilities, and provides heat tolerant animals. When cross breeding cattle, we can identify different expressions of breed through physical characteristics and name them accordingly. For example, an Angus crossed with a Brahman is called a Brangus. A Hereford crossed with a Brahman is called an F1 Hybrid, sometimes known as a tiger stripe due to the color variation on the outside coat. Another example would be a Hereford crossed with an Angus, known as a Black Baldy (black coat with white face).
Angus is the most popular breed of beef cattle in the United States. Originally from Scotland, these animals made their way over in the late 1800's and were crossed with more typical cattle breeds of that time. Angus are usually black, but we also have pure red Angus genetics in our herd.
Hereford cattle descend from an English breed. They are easy to spot with their red body and white face. Their general hardiness, good mothering abilities, and strong rate of growth made them popular, particularly in the American Southwest. They are a great all around breed.
Brahman is a breed of Zebu cattle. It was first introduced and bred in the United States through animals brought over from India. They've become a popular worldwide breed due to a generally high tolerance to intense heat. Their thick skin also makes them naturally resistant to insects and flies.
Over the years, we've built our herd with intentional cross breeding. You can see examples of this in the following weaned calves from Fall 2019.
This stout young calf is primarily Angus with a solid black coat but has subtle Brahman influence seen mostly in the shape of the neck area.
These calves are a cross between Angus and Hereford. Note the black coat with the white face, also known as a Black Baldy.
An Angus calf with a more noticeable degree of Brahman influence. Note the subtle stripe color variation along with a slightly thinner hair coat.
Our focus with pork is to produce incredible tasting fat and rosy colored, succulent meat. Similar to cattle, pigs express variations of breed through physical traits, behaviors, and meat quality. We've used many breeds of pigs including Berkshire, Hereford, Old Spot, Duroc, Large Black, Red Waddle, Landrace, and Yorkshire. A pig with at least three different breed influences creates what we call hybrid vigor. This results in a good balance between meat and fat ratios while encouraging natural pig behaviors (outdoor living and tolerance to the elements). Some characteristics of these crosses include darker hair color, which helps them deal with direct sun (though it is still very important that the pigs have access to shade and some degree of muddy/wet conditions to help cool them down).
Most store bought pork is devoid of fat and flavor, resulting in a very lean, tasteless product. These pigs are raised conventionally, which means a lack of genetic diversity while being reared on concrete slabs in small pens (no access to the outdoors). They grow quickly and are therefore very profitable, but have no ability to engage in their normal pig behaviors. Our pigs may take longer to grow and finish, but the result is a better quality of life for the animal and a superior end result.
Finishing refers to the last stage of an animal's life. The goal is to ensure the animal has an adequate amount of fat. This stage contributes significantly to the overall flavor and culinary profile of the meat. Factors such as genetics, age, time of year, and very importantly, feed/forage quality all play a role in the outcome. It's a pivotal part of creating exceptional quality meat that will taste amazing.
As a side note, this is typically the stage where most cattle in the conventional meat system end up in feedlots (ie: standing around on dirt paddocks without access to fresh forage, eating a diet of cheap corn and other industrial by-products). At Augustus Ranch, our animals are never deprived access to fresh pasture and forage, even in the finishing stage.
PROPRIETARY CUSTOM RATION
Our primary goal is to create a chef quality product without compromising nutritional integrity of the meat. The way we accomplish this, in addition to our unique genetic program, is to provide a proprietary custom ration that we've spent years developing. This ration contains no corn or soy and consists mostly of non-GMO barley and flax. We lovingly refer to this ration as "rainfall in a sack". It provides a consistent source of energy for the animals, ensuring that we have a quality finish on a year round basis. In addition to this ration, the animals leisurely graze on fresh forage and grass throughout the day, which also allows them to continue behaving the way nature intended.
Barley is a member of the grass family. It's an ancient cultivated plant which produces a nutritious cereal grain that, in addition to animal fodder, is also heavily utilized for beer production. It's a real treat for the cattle, providing an energy source which helps ensure a favorable consistency in the beef.
Flax is another ancient plant utilized for fiber, food, and oil (known as linseed oil). It naturally contains high levels of the essential omega-3 fatty acid known as ALA (alpha-linolenic-acid). It does add significant cost as a feed supplement, but it's a great way to help maintain a healthy fatty acid profile in the meat.
The quality and diversity of fresh forage is dependent on many factors including climate, soil, and time of the year. Some of the perennial grass species which grow in our pastures include coastal and bermuda. We also plant annual grass species such as rye and oats at certain times of the year.
FINISHING DIET: CATTLE
Our cattle are finished in a 100% pasture based setting for a minimum of 60 days on the custom ration we described above. This gives the cattle a proper amount of time to ensure a consistent result. The animals that enter into the finishing phase are also of a mature age, having spent at least two years grazing in our pastures with the rest of the herd. Without consistent finishing, the culinary quality of our products would fluctuate based on several variables. This ration constitutes around 3 - 5% of their total diet and does not affect the overall nutrient profile in an unfavorable way.
FINISHING DIET: PIGS
Pigs are primarily omnivores, meaning they seek and tolerate a much wider variety of food. Their stomach and digestion operates differently than a grazing herbivore (such as a cow or sheep). Therefore their diet is more consistently supplemented with a feed source in addition to the plants, nuts, and roots they will forage on their own. Our supplemental pork ration is similar to the finishing ration of the cattle, containing a mix of barley and flax. Barley is a fantastic feed for a pig and develops great culinary qualities in the finished product. Specifically in the consistency of fat, which is easier to work with when making ground products like sausage. The flax contributes to a robust, more balanced omega-3 fatty acid profile which is often lacking in most conventionally raised pork.
FAT IS FLAVOR
There are different classifications of fat on a carcass. Some of these fat types more directly affect the eating experience. Subcutaneous fat is the outer layer which rests on top of the muscle, just underneath the hide. This is also known as fat cover and relates to the term conformation, which refers to the thickness of muscle and fat in relation to the skeletal structure. Conformation can be evaluated by a trained eye when looking at the live animal. This type of fat is important for properly aging a carcass. It helps insulate the meat and slows the process of dehydration which happens naturally in a cold environment with plenty of airflow.
Intramuscular fat is the accumulation of "marbling" within the muscles which helps contribute to a juicier end product. Both of these fat types (subcutaneous and intramuscular) are important for culinary purposes, but the intramuscular fat is what most chefs prefer due to the fact that it boosts flavor and helps prevent the meat from drying out during the cooking process. Imagine small pockets of fat evenly distributed throughout a piece of meat as it cooks. This is essentially a self basting mechanism. The degree to which the meat will marble is mostly dependent on genetic factors, and will be expressed in time with adequate age and feed. There are also certain cuts of meat which marble in much higher concentrations, such as a ribeye steak versus a top sirloin steak.
Past nutritional trends have demonized fat in favor of a leaner product. We believe this has been a mistake and that fat plays an important role in both flavor and nutrition. Without fat, many of the vitmains in the meat are less bio-available (hence the term fat solubale vitamins A, D, K, and E). While fat is calorically dense (high in calories), it still has an important role to play. Let's not demonize the fat for what the sugar and empty processed carbohydrates have done (think soda and white bun). For more information about the nutritional qualities of meat and fat, you can read our blog post "Is Beef Bad For You? The Truth Behind Popular Meat Myths".
Processing, which includes the slaughter, butchery, and packaging of the meat, is a very important part of producing safe, high quality products. This stage requires careful attention to detail and will contribute heavily to what ends up on your dinner plate. Our animals are processed in small, local USDA certified facilities which ensure humane handling and minimal stress. Keeping it local also means less travel time and therefore less stress for the animals.
FROM LIFE TO FOOD
Our animals are delivered directly to the processor and handled in a way which is designed to prevent undue stress. They are kept in clean conditions with fresh water, and once the animal enters the final staging area, it is immediately rendered unconscious with a captive bolt before the real works begins.
Once the animals hide and organs are removed, the carcass is split down the middle and hung in a controlled, cold environment. The temperature and airflow promote the conditions in which moisture will evaporate and the natural enzymes begin to break down muscle fibers and connective tissue. This process takes 7-14 days for beef.
Whole animal utilization means putting every part of the available carcass to use in the best possible way. Bones, organs, fat, and less commonly used parts such as tongue, tail, and cheek are all amazingly delicious and valuable in their own right. It's our job to help educate folks on the best use for these items.
For more information on how the process of butchery works, check out our information page on how bulk beef shares work.