For three days this week I was a student at Beef 101, an intensive course taught by the Texas A&M University meat science staff, led by Dr. Davey Griffin, Dr. Jeff Savell, and Ray Riley. The class covers everything about cattle, from the time that they’re weaned to the moment their meat makes it to your plate.
The first day began with all of us students introducing ourselves. It’s a very cordial way of breaking the ice that I’ve come to expect at seminars in Aggieland. There were students from Cargill, Le Cordon Bleu, Taco Bell, and national grocery retailers. There was even an economy professor from Tokyo. They all explained their reason for taking the class, and most of those reasons were simple and straightforward: they wanted to learn about how a steer is graded or where the sirloin comes from. There were also a few barbecue guys there, like Aaron Franklin and Braun Hughes of Franklin Barbecue and Justin Fourton of Pecan Lodge. They attended to understand how the brisket is removed from the steer and where all those short ribs come from. When the introductions got around to me, I said something about wanting to know more about beef ribs. But that was because it seemed a bit dramatic to be brutally honest: I was there to see a steer die.
Of course I wanted to learn more about the anatomy and the individual muscles that make up a side of beef. But I’m keenly aware that my job is essentially about eating beef, mainly smoked brisket. If that’s my livelihood then I should probably be able to witness how beef goes from being on the hoof to on the butcher paper. It started by meeting a few live steers.
Seven steers were inside a fenced area just outside the morning’s lecture hall. Each team was assigned one and we got to grading. The official beef grading happens by an inspector after the carcasses have hung for a few days, but we needed to become amateur estimators. We felt the animal’s brisket, poked into his coat to estimate the amount of fat covering the ribs, and at one point had to stare straight at his ass end. With little confidence we wrote these numbers into a scoring chart that would be checked against the same animal’s carcass. The tan-coated Simmental cross I was inspecting was soon to become the carcass that we would butcher the next day.
Back in the classroom there was much talk of “harvesting.” This is the term used by most everyone at the university. I did hear the words “kill” and “slaughter” used a few times, but the obvious preference was to say harvest. We suited up in aprons, hairnets, and hardhats before entering the slaughtering facility. I was braced for the worst as the doors swung open. It was warm and there was a mineral smell in the air. Several of the cattle were hung and had already made their way through several steps of the process.
It starts by stunning the cattle. They are then hoisted upside down and bled out. The head, hide and hooves are quickly removed in preparation for evisceration. Once the guts are gone, a man with the very large portable band saw halves the carcass, which is treated with lactic acid to kill bacteria. Those half carcasses are then sent into a cooler to chill, usually for a few days.
At one point a student approached Dr. Griffin and asked if he could take photos. Griffin’s response set me at ease about the intentions of the program. He said “Of course. We have nothing to hide here. This is why we’re showing you all of this.” It’s a refreshing attitude in the wake of “Ag Gag” bills being passed in states all over the country where the simple action of snapping a photo in a processing plant is a punishable offense. We were all taking photos from one end of the floor to the other, then I heard the gate open at the stunning station. In walked a black Angus steer and the gate shut behind him. He was quickly stunned in the forehead by a student (almost the entire labor force are meat science students), and hoisted up for the rest of the process to be carried out. I had witnessed what I came for.
I was one of the last to leave and Dr. Griffin stood just outside the doors. He asked about the experience. I had learned so much about the process of beef slaughter, but what stuck was how the still-warm carcasses jiggled. I was used to seeing them on the other end of that two-day chill in the cooler where they’re stiff and the fat is white. Griffin noted that the necessary evil was the harvesting process, and he quickly admitted that it wasn’t his favorite part of the job. “I don’t get excited about watching cattle harvested.” I then asked about that term “harvest”. He said there was some discussion in the industry to go back to a term like slaughter in order to be more honest about what occurs in that room, but one of the tenets of this industry is that these animals are raised for no other purpose than for food. When they have reached their optimal weight, cattle are sent through the processing plant in the same way that an ear of corn is plucked from the field when it’s ripe.
One thing that was most clear was that at some point the animal becomes beef. I mean that along the continuum of transformation that a steer goes through from stunning to consumption, most everyone has a point where the item in front of them is no longer an animal, but is food instead. For some this dissociation might occur when the meat is packaged for retail sale under shrink wrap or maybe just the act of cooking the beef dissociates it from its living state in some people’s eyes. For vegetarians or vegans that point does not exist, but for me, a hanging half carcass of beef has already reached the point of food.
The following day that hanging half a beef became a full day’s work. In the butchering room, our steer from the day before was hanging and had been ribbed. Ribbing is the cut through the ribeye between the thirteenth and fourteenth rib. This is how every cut of beef hanging on the carcass gets its grade from prime down to choice or select, or even further down. Ours graded out at high select, and it was time to start cutting. Covered from neck to ankle in a chain mail apron, they let us loose on the beef. We cut away fat and bone to disassemble the carcass into recognizable cuts like brisket, tenderloin, and tri-tip. We saved the bones and fat in a separate bin, and there was plenty of it. After out final weigh-in, our steer was thirteen percent fat, eighteen percent bone, and twenty percent trim. That means that 51 percent of the carcass would be no better than hamburger. The prized cuts in my view–brisket and short ribs–were only 5.5 percent of the animal. After seeing the different cutting options along the ribs it was easy to see how much packaged short ribs can vary. A mantra of butchering is to cut more valuable from less valuable. That is to say that the expensive prized cuts like ribeyes will be cut first to those customer’s specifications. Cuts like the brisket and short ribs are truly the leftovers. I still plan to write about both in more detail in the near future. I can share a few tidbits that I took away from the butchering exercise:
- The end of a brisket flat is a cut side, not the natural end to a muscle. This is because that section of the animal is cut away between the fifth and sixth ribs which aligns with the usual cut end of the brisket flat.
- The shoulder clod comes off all at once as a twenty-ish pound cut of shoulder. It can also be broken down into several unique muscles that can be marketed on their own.
- There are three kinds of beef ribs. Back ribs, chuck short ribs and plate short ribs.
- Seventy percent of an average steer’s life is on grass. The last 90 to 150 days are on grain.
- Fifty percent of all agricultural income in Texas is beef.
- Thirteen percent of US beef is for the export market, and most of that is offal.
- After all of the work that the university and our team put into this two day slaughter/butchering process, the net profit for the beef at commodity prices was $107.79 for the entire carcass. We would need to do this a bit more swiftly to make a profit.
Beef 101 was a valuable experience. Witnessing the slaughter process heightened my awareness of what is required to eat beef for a living. It also changed other students’ attitudes about waste. Justin Fourton said he would strive to waste less of the barbecue trimmings at Pecan Lodge. Aaron Franklin is toying with the idea of making sausage: not only is there monetary value in using scraps from the trimming of his pork ribs and beef briskets, but he realized that utilizing those scraps just seemed like the right thing to do.
I won’t say that I am morally or ethically superior to anyone who would refuse to witness what it takes to help create the food chain that we enjoy. I’m not. I will say that I probably appreciate where beef comes from more than someone in denial that their burger was once a living animal. While some might find the slaughter process a macabre curiosity or even sickening, it simply gave me a greater appreciation for what is required so that we can all eat beef.