‘Fat old cow” isn’t generally a term of endearment. But if growing numbers of British dairy farmers have their way, consumers will soon learn to love the description, at least when it comes to buying beef. For years, retired dairy cows have faced an inglorious end in the mincer, destined for low-grade processed foods when their milking lives finish. Now, a small but growing band of British farmers is turning these pensioned-off dames into prime cuts of beef – for the sake of our palates as well as the planet.
These pensioned-off dames are being turned into prime cuts of beef – for the sake of our palates as well as the planet It used to be standard practice to eat older animals, and for good reason. The longer an animal lives and eats well, and the more work it does, the more the flavour of its meat intensifies. But supermarkets have driven demand for cheap meat sourced from intensively farmed cattle that is fattened quickly and slaughtered young, sometimes at just 15 months.
Our loss of appetite for older meat is also a legacy of the BSE crisis in the late Nineties, when cattle over 30 months was banned from entering the food chain. But in 2015, things began to change. British steak stalwarts discovered Galician and “Basque beef” – Spanish meat from animals as old as 17, some retired dairy cows. Diners at London restaurants raved about its tenderness and rich flavour.
Coombe farm meat; full of flavour Now, with BSE regulations relaxed and animals older than 30 months allowed back into the food chain under strict controls, British farmers are producing their own version of this tasty meat. British-reared “retired dairy”, as it’s sometimes referred to, is now popping up on UK restaurant menus, says Dan Austin, managing director of Lake District Farmers (LDF), a supplier of premier meat to London restaurants such as Le Gavroche, The Ledbury and Aviary.
“Demand is absolutely growing. The meat has a fantastic strong, rich flavour – it’s probably the best beef we produce when it’s done right.” There’s the rub. It’s not easy to turn hard-working dairy cows into premium beef There’s the rub. It’s not easy to turn hard-working dairy cows into premium beef. They need to be “finished” with a grazing period so they can recover from the exhausting milk production process, and fatten up.
The Cumbrian farmers working with LDF also give their retired cows a “finishing feed” for several months to further enhance the meat’s flavour. “By adding value to retired dairy cows in this way we’re doing something really special for the dairy industry, and it’s something we’ll be striving to do more of,” Dan says. Coombe Farm Organic in Somerset, a mixed farm and online meat supplier, is one of the few British producers selling retired dairy beef direct to the public.
Business manager Ben White says the move was partly inspired by the popularity of Basque beef. “The response so far has been fantastic,” he says. “The meat has had so much longer to mature, so the flavour is so much stronger and more apparent.” Coombe Farm's Ben White, the business manager (right, in grey jumper) and herd manager Ryan Sloman-Brown It was also driven by a belief that the dairy cows deserved to be put to better use than cheap mince.
“We don’t think it’s fair to send these animals off to be hidden away in lower-grade pies and burgers,” says Ben. “They’re worth celebrating and that isn’t me being corny, we genuinely believe that.” White explains that dairy cows are retired when their milk production slows, generally between five and 10 years old, but sometimes older. They are left to graze on organic pasture for a year or so, and after slaughter they’re hung for 20-28 days to ensure best flavour.
He says: “If you feed an animal on a grass-based diet throughout its life you get a really fine layer of beautiful fat running right through it. When you cook it slowly, that fat renders down and the taste is sensational.” How to | Cook perfect steak Ben hopes demand for the product continues to grow, as it makes environmental sense to use one animal to generate two premium products.
“Why intensively rear an animal on grains and soy in a barn for 15 months and push food down its throat so it’s fat enough to kill, when there are animals that have already provided milk that can go into the food supply? I hope more farms will see that this is something worth doing.” The rich meat has a devoted following among chefs. Telegraph columnist Stephen Harris bought a retired, eight-year-old dairy cow from a local farmer last year.
She was left to graze for six months to recover more fat and muscle, then slaughtered and hung for three weeks. On trying the fillet, he said: “The taste was sensational: it had a blue-cheese funkiness that I thought came only with long hanging times.” Throughout December Stephen served “retired Kentish dairy cow” on his tasting menu, usually accompanied by a tarragon sauce and camembert potato purée.
Get cooking | Stephen Harris's latest recipes Richard Turner, of Turner & George meat merchants and executive chef at Hawksmoor, the London steak restaurant chain, is also a fan. “It takes a little while for cow meat to recover from a life of milking, and it needs to be put out for a year or two to pasture,” he says. “But when it’s done right, it’s fantastic.” Richard plans to serve it when he opens a restaurant in London next year.
Brett Graham, chef-patron of two-Michelin-starred restaurant The Ledbury, warns that not all retired dairy beef is top quality. Much depends on the individual characteristics of the animal, how it was fed throughout its life and how it was conditioned after retirement. He advises consumers to buy from a reputable supplier and ask questions about the animal’s provenance. “But at it’s best, it’s amazing,” he says.
In pictures: the world's best steak restaurants Retired dairy beef can be tougher, so it must be cooked correctly. Brett says it is key to bring the meat to room temperature before cooking it at a low temperature. “And cook it just a fraction longer than for a lean piece of young meat, as you need to be able to melt the fat.” Richard suggests searing steaks at a very high temperature initially to caramelise the outside and create a good crust, then continue cooking at a very low temperature away from direct heat.
Other cuts are ideal for cooking long and slow in braises. Retired dairy beef can have a much more pronounced flavour than younger meat. “Our taste buds have been conditioned by beef we get from the supermarket, which is tasteless as it’s been reared very quickly and intensively to make money,” Richard says. “Flavour takes time, so the faster you rear an animal, the less flavour it’s got, it’s as simple as that.
Some of us think a really good bit of beef that’s eight or nine years old is a bit strong. Actually, that’s what beef should taste like. It’s just a beautiful thing.”See Also: Can You Milk Male Cows
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The following budgets were created using input data from cattle producers. Livestock and feed prices were updated in January 2016. All budgets are in Microsoft Excel format. Sandhills Cow/Calf Producer Budget This budget was created using data from a panel of producers in Valentine, Nebraska. It is a 500 head system that relies almost entirely on grazing. 50 Head Cow System The data for this budget came from producers in Nebraska’s panhandle.
It is a system that is a part of a larger combination farm and livestock operation. It utilizes summer grassland grazing and winter cornstalk grazing with some supplemental hay. 300 Head Cow System The data for this budget came from producers in the central part of Nebraska. It represents a small, all livestock system that utilizes summer grassland grazing and winter cornstalk grazing with some supplemental haying.
750 Head Cow System The data for this budget came from producers in the central part of Nebraska. It represents a large livestock system that winters cows using hay.Budgets were created the System Budgets for a Cow Herd spreadsheet. This program is set up to create separate budgets for the different enterprises in a cow-calf production system. These enterprise budgets including the breeding herd, wintering calves, summering stockers, feeding cattle out, and feeding cull cows.
Purchased Livestock This decision aid is a spreadsheet that allows users to create separate enterprise budgets for the different phases of livestock production when animals are purchased rather than raised. It can be used when an individual purchases livestock and changes how they are handled during the time they are owned. For instance, they may be fed for a while, then allowed to grazed, and then fed again prior to being sold.
Each of these phases can be analyzed separately with the results combined. Excel spreadsheet to compare value differences among bulls of the same type. Excel spreadsheet that estimates the average annual breeding costs per calf. More information available here. Excel spreadsheet designed for producers to estimate the cost of maintaining bulls for their herd. More information available here. Excel spreadsheet that estimates net benefits of buying a heifer instead of raising them.
Based on this analysis it provides a Cumulative Distribution Function(CDF) graph of net benefits. To learn more about stochastic partial budgeting and guidance on entering data in the spreadsheet click here. Excel spreadsheet that gives an example of partial budgeting of buying replacement heifers vs. raising them considering the possibility of a drought. Excel spreadsheet that calculates the cost of raising one calf.
Through that computation, producers can estimate profitability. (For this spreadsheet to work correctly, please enable macros. Go to the security warning in the top menu bar. Click options, then click "enable this content.") Calculates an equitable share arrangement for leasing cows. The password for this spreadsheet is "cow." Excel worksheet for matching livestock size and numbers with corn stalk acres needed with a cost.
Example compares the cost of TDN and Crude Protein in different feeds considering transportation and handling costs and losses. It also calculates the feed needed and total cost given herd size and days fed. The "With Examples" spreadsheet is the spreadsheet with some sample feeds entered. An Excel worksheet that calculates breakevens for feeders or cull cows. A worksheet for estimating the cost for developing water sources for livestock in grazing areas.
This worksheet is from extension circular EC03-821 published by the University of Nebraska. Unstable markets can make it difficult for producers to choose the optimum time to sell their calves. There are a variety of methods available to sell calves. We have built a program that uses historical data to help users understand just one method: hedging.