A good steak honors the animal, the land, and the ranchers who work it. Last summer under the backdrop of Crazy Mountains, ranchers and chefs gathered at the American Fork Ranch just outside of Big Timber. Ranchers Jed and Annie Evjene, who received the 2016 Environmental Stewardship Award from the Montana Stockgrowers Association, were being honored for their exemplary care and hard work.
About 40 people participated in the inaugural Raising the Steaks: 2016 Environmental Stewardship Ranch Tour to learn about the interplay and influence of humankind and Mother Nature. The program focused on promoting bovine health by nurturing the rangeland, streams and wildlife that live in these habitats. The attention to sustainability results in good product for chefs and consumers, while preserving the earth for future generations.
Raising quality steak begins early in the life of a cow according to Lon Reukoff owner of the Cherry Creek Ranch, north of Miles City. Reukoff explained, “The process actually starts before the young animal is conceived.” The mother needs to be in a good shape, receiving the proper diet and living in a healthy environment. “The nutrition of mom and the calf determines the marbling that you desire, not waste fat,” Reukoff continued. The care influences the flavor.
Annie Evjene shared, “I feel we are taking good care of the land, which in return is helping us take good care of our cattle and raise a good product for our consumer.”
The life cycle of a beef is not all that complicated. After weaning the cow grazes on natural pasture, growing to the point where it may be auctioned off. It continues to mature on a feedlot where roughage, grain and other local renewable resources such as potato peels or sugar beet tops are included in its diet. When the cow reaches a market weight of 1200 to 1400 pounds it’s off to the packing house.
Executive Chef Eric Traeger of The Old Piney Dell Restaurant in Red Lodge attended the conference last year and is returning to this year’s tour in Terry. “For a chef it was an educational experience to learn about the extra mile the Two Dot Ranch goes to maintain sustainable practices.”
The experience at the American Fork Ranch expanded Traeger’s cooking repertoire, “ I have since purchased a side of local beef, and feature it at our restaurant, preparing meatballs, meat pies, shredded beef, smoked short ribs and beef skewers, in addition to the premium cuts.”
In the industry, producers can receive the Certified Angus Beef (CAB) brand. The branding established in 1978 ensures producers adhere to guidelines to create a standard of marbling in the beef. Participants must provide the proper nutrition and care for their animals along with best practices in the field.
Executive Chef Amy Smith from the Grand Hotel in Big Timber serves many diners requesting steaks. She would like to support local producers, but cannot because of her large numbers. Smith shared, “We want CAB certified. We want to have that high of product here, and I like grain-finished beef. A lot of people definitely want that grass fed beef. Well, all beef is grass fed, it’s just that last thirty days. I want to be able to put out a consistent product.” Smith will offer specials with local beef, but on the menu, for consistency, she sources from outside vendors.
To guarantee Montana beef is being delivered to restaurants, Warren Helmer, President of Food Services of America stated, “We have a program called Grassroots that represents our offering of “local/regional” vendors. We have partnered with Montana Meat because of alignment and their offering of an exclusive supply of Montana beef.”
The relationship between chef and producers was best expressed by one of the tour’s presenters, Executive Chef Mike Erickson, of Austin, Texas. He stated, “I thank God everyday for the job I get to do, and I would not get to do what I like to do were it not for the farmers and ranchers in the United States of America.”
For Chaley Harney, Executive Director of the Montana Beef Council, her want for Raising the Steaks participants was, “We hope everyone leaves with an enriched sense of ranching in Montana, a deeper appreciation for why agriculture is Montana’s number one industry and why the sustainable efforts of Montana’s cattle ranchers can be counted on for future generations.”
To listen to Stella Fong’s Flavors Under the Big Sky episode on 2016’s Raising the Steaks Event, or to read more about it, visit http://ypradio.org/post/flavors-pasture-plate#stream/0.