Five Baltimore County farmers are experimenting to see if they can make a better cow.
Twelve cows have been trucked to Richard Price's 350-acre farm in Stockton to see if fattening them up with a special diet will produce the grade of high-quality beef that fetches top dollar and ends up in restaurants in New York and dinner tables in Japan.
In the face of warnings from health experts about the ill effects of eating too much red meat, the U.S. cattle industry has been in a slump in recent years, Mr. Price said.
Many farmers have left the industry and others have reduced production, said Mr. Price, who has 25 head of cattle.
But while the market for most red meats has slumped, demand for marbled beef -- beef made more juicy and tender by narrow streaks of fat -- has remained steady, particularly in Japan, he said.
"There are markets where there are people who want a high-quality meat," Mr. Price said.
So he and four of his neighbors have agreed to pen a dozen of their best Holsteins, Herefords and Black Anguses into a single corral, where they will get a steady diet of Tend-R-Leen, a high-protein feed that has been marketed for 10 years by Southern States, a feed and grain company based in Richmond, Va.
The feed is costing the farmers $262 per ton -- no small expense since each heifer will gobble up about 25 pounds of the stuff each day for the next 250 days.
Local farmers often have fed their cattle grass, hay, corn or a combination of grains, which costs slightly less than the high-protein feed.
Once fattened up to a hefty 1,300 or 1,400 pounds on the high-proteinfeed, the heifers will be shipped off to J. W. Treuth & Sons Inc., an Oella packinghouse where they will be slaughtered and sold.
Lloyd W. Reynolds, agricultural liaison for Baltimore County, which organized the program, said if the feed helps produce a higher-quality beef and brings higher prices at slaughter, farmers countywide will be encouraged to use similar feeds.
"This could be a real shot in the arm for Baltimore County's cattle industry," he said.
Baltimore County farmers raise about 14,000 head of cattle each year, a $14 million market. Most are sold at auction houses in Westminster, Lancaster, Pa., and Shrewsbury, Pa., and wind up in area supermarkets, Mr. Reynolds said.
If the high-protein feed works, the beef will fetch higher prices. How much higher depends on the market when they're slaughtered. In today'smarket, grass and hay-fed cattle sell for about 60 cents per pound, Mr. Price said.
Farmers say a pound of marbled beef could bring about 79 cents per pound.
Vernon L. Treuth Jr., a principal of the Treuth & Sons packing house, said the experiment came out of his request to county officials severalmonths ago to encourage farmers to upgrade the quality of their beef.
"We're a local slaughterhouse, and I've made it clear that we'd really like to buy locally if we could," said Mr. Treuth, whose business buys cattle from Ohio, Indiana and Virginia and slaughters 20,000 cattle per year.