Beefing up local sales of state's cattle

Farmers marketing meat closer to home

January 08, 2003|By Cynthia Glover | Cynthia Glover,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Would it surprise you to learn that Maryland cattlemen produced 84 million pounds of beef in 2000? That wasn't even a banner year. In 1999, they produced 95.9 million pounds.

OK, so the state will never be called "Little Texas." For that, you'd be talking more than 7.7 billion pounds a year. Still, it's an impressive showing for a small mid-Atlantic state.

Where does the beef go? Most of it is sold wholesale to regional meatpackers, where it might become, say, part of a McDonald's hamburger served somewhere around the world. Yet, as farmers get savvier about ways to market their products closer to home, increasing amounts of Maryland-grown beef are appearing on dinner tables across the state.

Much of this beef is grown carefully and humanely, without growth hormones or antibiotic-spiked feed. That makes it the kind of wholesome, locally grown product many consumers are clamoring to include in their diets. It's a win-win, says Scott Barao, beef program leader at the University of Maryland, College Park. "The closer you are to the food supply, the better off you are, and the greater the economic impact for Maryland and its farmers."

One way we get to chow down on the local goods is the time-honored tradition of freezer beef. If you've ever wandered around the Maryland countryside in spring or fall, chances are you've seen the signs. Usually hand-lettered and posted near the entrance to a grassy-looking farm, placards proclaiming "freezer beef" are a seasonal rite.

This beef is sold by the side or half-side, meaning you must buy half a steer or a quarter steer, which the farmer arranges to have butchered to your specifications at a packing plant that's approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The meat is then packaged and frozen.

A side of beef amounts to about 275 pounds, cut into porterhouse, T-bone and strip steaks, flat-iron, skirt and flank steaks, roasts of all descriptions, sirloin tips, ground beef and more. At an average price of $2 per pound, it can be quite a deal.

For most of the 4,500 or so cattle farms in Maryland, beef production is an adjunct to other income. Most herds are quite small, often just 25 or 30 cows and steers. Some of the growers work in other jobs - veterinary medicine is a favorite - while others are full-time farmers.

"Nowhere in the state will you find beef production as the sole activity," says Barao. "It is a very appealing enterprise for a diversified farm operation. Cattle use feed sources and land that are not suitable for other purposes."

Much of Maryland's rolling countryside - that part that remains undeveloped - is not conducive to the classic corn-and-soybean rotation, but it makes excellent grazing turf for cattle.

Take Waffle Hill Farm, north of Churchville in Harford County. The hilly farm, dotted with black cattle clustered in various pastures, rolls up toward a farmhouse, then back down again as it heads toward Deer Creek. So dark are the woolly winter coats of these Angus steers and cows that they look like black holes against the faded green grass.

On a drizzly day that has most of us dreaming of a cozy fire and cup of tea, both man and beast seem content to brave the elements on this 300-acre spread. The man, Ned Sayre, is showing off his various herds to a visitor, and the cattle watch with interest.

"We've been selling freezer beef for 40 years," says Sayre. His father, Lawrason Sayre, who bought the property in 1960, is still its guiding light. The primary work of Waffle Hill is to grow registered Angus seed stock. The farm raises and sells bulls that represent the finest of the breed, carefully selected for their ability to produce healthy offspring that will ultimately deliver beautifully marbled, high-quality beef.

The Sayres' beef cattle are grain-fed, meaning they spend their final 90 to 120 days eating corn and hay. Until that time, they dine on forage, the natural grasses and grains that grow in the farm's verdant pastures.

Most Maryland cattle are Angus, considered the breed of choice among beef aficionados. Touting better marbling - essential to the tenderness and flavor quotient - and less body fat, along with terrific flavor, Angus beef has become a high-end supermarket staple in recent years. Grain-fed cattle have long been the American standard, on small farms and large. Yet pasture-raised cattle, steers that eat only forages, are gaining vogue.

One ardent proponent of grass-fed beef is Ruth Ann Derrenbacher of Ruth Ann's Garden Style Beef, a 130-acre cattle farm in Frederick County.

"There are two schools on grass-fed animals," she says. "One is to go for leanness, but then the beef won't be as tender. That's not how we go. We want our grass-fed animals to have the same proportion of fat and marbling as a grain-fed cow."

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