“God sends meat and the devil sends chefs”
Ever wondered where cows came from? Modern Cattle or cows are thought to be the direct descendents of a group of as little as 80 animals domesticated in the southeast of what is now Turkey around 10,500 years ago. Today, it is estimated the number of cattle worldwide is over 1.3 billion. Cattle have been raised as livestock in the UK for over 6000 years originally to provide both beef and milk they were also used as draught animals commonly referred to as Ox(en). However today farmers now specialise in one or the other.
Suckled Beef Story
This is by far the most natural way to raise cattle for beef. Wide varieties of breeds and cross breeds are used for suckled beef production, often native breeds or with native blood like Hereford, Hereford Cross, Sussex and Aberdeen Angus. Spring sees the birth of most beef calves, their mothers are not milked and therefore the calves can suckle their mother’s milk from day one. Spring calves are usually raised in the open air and benefit from the excellent quality of milk their mothers produce feeding on spring grass. The calves grow very quickly on their diet of milk, soon becoming quite stocky. A new-born calve will weigh on average 45kg, but this varies with breed and sex. Before they are 3 weeks old they will be tagged in both ears as a unique identification showing their individual and herd number. Calves suckle until they are weaned at which point they will weigh about 230kg and around six months old, when their mothers stop producing milk. Calves are fed a growing diet of concentrated feed and grass or maize forage like grass silage or hay. A weaned calf that is being raised for beef production but is not ready for slaughter is referred to as a “store”. Many farmers sell on their stores to be finished elsewhere and are sold at large specialist sales.
Spring calves are turned out to pasture in March, about 12 months old, depending on weather and location. Extensively managed cattle are not normally supplemented with additional feed; the idea is for a long slow growth, finishing at about two years old. Semi-intensive farming aims to finish animals around 18mths and intensive systems as young as 14mths. The latter two systems depend on a high protein diet, carefully calculated to provide full nutritional needs and quick growth. Most of the intensively finished beef cattle are sold under contract to supermarkets and other large user organisations. Carcasses are graded by shape and fat coverage which impacts on prices, with an average carcass weighing around 250kg. Semi-intensive systems produce carcasses on average weighing 300kgs. At two tears old most extensively reared cattle will be near their finished condition, although some are not completely finished until 30 months old. Extensively reared cattle are regarded as superior in taste arising from their grass based diet and longer finishing time; average carcass weight is around 350kgs.
Ageing or Maturing
Beef is aged to help improve taste and tenderness of the meat. Beef can be aged using a “dry” or “wet” method. This is a fairly expensive process and this is reflected in the price of the final product, and it’s availability is usually limited to the restaurant sector of the market, although recently some supermarkets do provide aged beef.
Dry ageing occurs after the animal is slaughtered and cleaned where it is then hung in a refrigerator at low temperature for around three to four weeks. The carcass will be hung either whole or in half, however primal and sub-primal cuts can be racked and stored in drybags. Only high quality meat can be aged in this way, with high and evenly distributed fat content can be used. The key effect of drying is to remove water content from the muscle tissue concentrating the flavour of the meat. At the same time natural enzymes break down the connective tissue in the meat, making it softer and tender. Weight loss occurs due to evaporation and the requirement for extra trimming, which again adds to the cost. Furthermore, hanging beef in this way sees the growth of a fungal mould called Thamnidium, which forms a crust on the outer surface of the meat. This fungus produces enzymes which work in harmony with the natural enzymes in the meat to enhance flavour and increase tenderness. This does not cause spoilage of the meat and crust is simply trimmed off at the end of the process. This additional dimension of dry ageing is thought to heavily contribute to superior taste and texture of the beef, giving it a unique flavour profile.