n a recent visit to my local grocer I stepped up to the polished meat display case and spotted Brandt Beef’s products laid out before me, the meat glistening in the fluorescent light like prized gifts in a glitzy department store. Even to my untrained eye, their steaks seemed to have a richer and more marbled look than their other unbranded steaks. Brandt’s products had the words “The True Natural” stamped on them, but they were also distinguished by a higher price tag. I could see the butcher approaching me out of the corner of my eye, and I began to wonder if the word “natural” was persuasive enough for people to pay the higher amount for a steak? I considered asking the white-coated employee to explain the differences of their various steaks, but I feared the resultant sighs and dirty looks from the shoppers in line behind me. But what if the butcher responded with a wink and a wag of his finger, inviting me into a back room where some futuristic transport took me to Brawley California for a personal tour of that producer’s cattle ranch? Then I’d have the information I’d need to make an informed decision, right? Well, that’s a fairly close approximation of what happened to me, and I’d like to share the story with you.
Brandt is a family-owned and run organization known for raising hormone and antibiotic-free cattle that produce what many chefs consider the finest steaks you can buy. The Brandts do it by feeding their 100% Holsteins a diet of locally and family grown alfalfa and sudan grass along with rolled corn that is steamed on the premises. They take great pains to minimize the stress level of their cattle, and maintain one of the most advanced waste composting systems that are commercially available in order to naturally replenish their farm grounds with organic matter, producing responsibly grown alfalfa that is fed to their cattle. But the real story is not how they do it, or even why they do it; in a closed and somewhat unpleasant industry that has sadly surrendered to the trend of mass produced corporate food processing, the Brandts are inviting chefs and reporters and anyone else who has an interest to openly witness every single step of their operation, from the raising of 3-month old baby calves to their harvesting and packing process. The Brandt family not only grows better-tasting beef, they do so in a sustainable manner that encourages and promotes the use of the entire animal. They are also trying mightily to demonstrate to others how you can make a great product that people desperately want, while treating animals humanely and protecting the environment by leaving the soil they use in better condition than it was before.
When people go on vacation, there are always certain memories that stay with you over the long haul, while most of the smaller, filler memories fade slowly over time. During my two-day tour, seeing the Brandt’s method of creating their specially formulated feed was the one thing - about the cattle ranch anyway - that I won’t forget. To any chef who is curious about the quality of his or her beef, their first question might not only be “What did the cattle feed on”, but also “how long were they feeding on it?” Both questions have intriguing answers, as least if you hear them explained by two of the Brandt family’s ambassadors, Eric and Mark Brandt.
“We are feeding them for 365 days on a corn ration,” explained Eric. “In the Midwest it’s 90 to 120 days. They call it corn feeding, but it is really corn finishing. What we do is full corn feeding from start to finish, which is kind of a blend between traditional corn feeding in the States and grain feeding like they do in Japan.” The longer and more consistent corn rations, along with vitamin supplements during critical growing periods during the cattle’s 17-month life, are critical. But the number of days they are feeding on corn is just the beginning.
One of the secrets of Brandt’s special cattle feed lies in a scented field tucked away behind the seemingly endless stretch of spacious pens where the Brandts maintain their 100,000 head of cattle. Perfectly aligned rows of black dirt stretched for over a hundred yards, and every day a customized tractor churns the manure that is brought over regularly from the pens, where it eventually becomes something precious; mineral-rich compost that is used to enrich their alfalfa fields. Fifty thousand tons were spread last year, with the rest being sold at a profit, reducing their overall growing costs substantially. The high-tech compost project was begun by Eric, who after finishing college was relegated to the task of shoveling manure by his father, where he had plenty of time to think of a better use for what many ranches sadly view as a waste or as an unusable liability. Then one day, he saw an ad in a trade magazine. “It said ‘Composting Seminar by Midwest Bio-Systems’, and so I called the number,” he recalled. Eric was sold on the idea, and today Brandt Beef owns three of their special composting machines. The compost has allowed them to grow alfalfa naturally without synthetic fertilizers containing anhydrous ammonia, a hazardous chemical that is now the second most dependent chemical in the United States. All those extra efforts result in healthier animals and a healthier environment – and also in a better grade of beef. “The industry gets about 2% prime, and one day last week we had 32% to 33% prime,” said Mark. “When you get that high rate of prime, it tells you that you are doing things right on the feeding side.” Their products have not gone unnoticed by some of the top chefs across the country, including New York’s Michael Lomonaco and Tom Colicchio.
Brandt Cattle Company is owned and operated by Bill Brandt, whose father and uncles originally started the business in 1945, along with his three sons and two daughters. Beside Eric, who manages Brandt Beef and oversees the meat processing plant, there is Mark who manages the farming operation, Scott Chapman who manages the feeding operation, Ryan who oversees the compost operation, and Amy who coordinates the Farmer’s Markets in San Diego. Bill says that he first saw the potential for natural beef at family-style barbeques he’d regularly have at his home, where different samplings of beef were passed around. It didn’t take long for him to realize that the naturally raised Holstein beef consistently had more taste and tenderness than anything else he had ever seen. “Our little toothpick taste-test that we did in our backyard is being proven now,” he says.
(left): Brandt's labeling and tracking system (middle): Eric Brandt explains the process of the shrouding of the beef (right): Cutting stations in the Brandt processing plant
Although Brandt is currently only about 40% natural with the remainder being commodity beef, they anticipate and hope that the future direction of their operation is in the natural market. It’s a difficult switch to make quickly because of the cost - the cattle take an extra 55 days to grow without the hormones, which is why most of the largest producers are sticking with their traditional ways. “Maybe we are a little hard headed in what we do, because like I said it is cheaper going the other way,” says Bill. “But you want to have something you are proud of and not just more ‘commodity beef’ that everybody else does. And the more people embrace our philosophy of how you raise cattle without hormones, the more we will grow with it.”
After touring the cattle pens, the compost area, and the corn mill, we visited their brand-new storage facility, which has the ability to store 25 thousand tons of corn. It was surrounded by a huge semi-circular railway, where every 10 days or so a long train of rail cars filled with ten thousand tons of corn from the Midwest is delivered. Corporate chef Tom McAliney said that this was a critical addition to their operation if they are to continue expanding the natural side of their beef business.
The tour of the Brandt cattle ranch ended later that afternoon with lunch at The Stockman’s Club in downtown Brawley, where we dined on something almost jokingly called a steak sandwich; a plate containing a huge slab of New York Sirloin steak resting on a single slice of bread. Although the taste was amazing, we looked forward to the following day, where after seeing the processing and harvesting plant in Los Angeles we’d be dining at the fabulous Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe. There, Chef Andrew Johnson would be preparing dishes for us using a sustainable beef menu - beef cuts that most restaurants don’t generally consider.
You’ll see the word “consistency” used by the Brandts, as well as their customers, when describing the most important characteristic of their products. It’s not much use to a restaurant or a consumer to get a great steak 75% of the time. But bringing their consistency to a new level is the goal of the younger Brandt clan, whose ideas may cost their father large investments – he joked that sometimes it would be easier to send his sons away on vacations than have them think up new ideas – but in the long run they will bring even more improvements to the one element that the USDA doesn’t really grade: taste.
In the processing plant in a suburb of L.A., Eric Brandt and Tom McAliney walked us through the area where the chilled sides of beef hung from the ceiling waiting to be hand-cut by a team of talented workers. Eric explained how they use RFID tags on the beef along with a bar-code tracking system on the packaging to keep track of all of its cattle, from calf to harvesting and then into the store or restaurant. This brand new “GlobalTrack” system from a company called Datastar also gives Brandt the ability to use web-based applications to trace any piece of beef all the way back to the exact animal and its origins. Data related to the calf, such as its date of birth, health and birthplace, is added to the GlobalTrack system using the RFID tag, and after the steer is harvested the information is transferred to special bar-code bags designed especially for Brandt by Cryovac. Eventually, data such as taste and tenderness feedback from chefs and other valuable information will be entered into the system, providing Brandt with important information that can be used to make future breeding decisions. All of these improvements look to have the same result; to continually improve the grade and taste of all their products.
(left): Chef Andrew Johnson, chef at The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe, in his garden (middle): Pan Seared Brandt Culotte roasted potatoes, arugula, shallots, roma tomatoes, Parmigiano-Reggiano (right): Johnson's oxtail soup
The processing plant is small and handles only about 200 head of cattle a day. It’s the last meat processing plant left in Los Angeles; Eric calls it “The Last of the Mohicans.” Another smaller beef company shares the plant with Brandt, and the first thing that I noticed were the cloudy white sheets that were wrapped around each of Brandt’s beeves as they hung suspended from the ceiling. This was a practice called “shrouding,” another technique that costs a little more, slows down the production process a bit, but gives back a solid benefit of quality. “We lose about 8 to 12 pounds per beef,” says Eric. “If we didn’t shroud the beef, we would probably lose more like 14 or 16 pounds. It minimizes the shrink and we get firmer beef.”
As we walked through the various stages of the plant, the 32 to 34 degree temperature began to feel colder than that, especially in the soles of my feet. But when we reached the area where the meat is cut up and sectioned, the eyes of the chefs who were touring with us lit up, and our discomfort vanished. This team was almost like watching 50 sushi chefs in a choreographed assembly-line, except instead of small pieces of fish they were expertly carving large slabs of marbled beef. I was told that the workers cut the animals differently depending on what their customers ordered, giving them the ability to sell more of each calf as a non-commodity animal.
Moving on, the harvesting area of the plant was a bit surreal, especially the area where calf heads were perched on racks side by side – a delicacy for some cultures I was told. Good luck to them. Another area of the harvesting room contained heart sacs, which were separated in a large stainless steel bucket. These would be used to manufacture heart valves for human patients, a worthy and profitable exercise. We were also told that the cattle were knocked out humanely before being killed, and it was at this point in the tour when I realized the true importance of sustainability. After all, an animal’s life was lost here, and to use that life for only a few select desirable cuts of beef would be a sad waste. Luckily there are some chefs who make use of many cuts of beef that would ordinarily find their way into the ground chuck bin, or worse, the box they put the scraps in that wind up at fast food chains.
One of those chefs is Andrew Johnson, and some of the dishes he created for us later that day included cheek, oxtail and culotte. Not only is he using more than just the “sexy” cuts like filet or New York Strip, he’s introducing new flavors and interesting dishes into his menu, increasing his profit margins at the same time. The taste of the culotte was amazing; it was as good as any steak I’ve ever had. And a final treat was when Chef Johnson showed us his beautiful Connolly vegetable garden on the swank grounds of the Bridges, where lo and behold we saw a giant pile of Brandt’s compost pile – Eric Brandt’s pride and joy – which the chef has used with great success in his garden.
I woke up again, as if in a dream, standing in line at the meat counter. Two elderly ladies were eyeing me impatiently, while the butcher tapped his fingers on the glass waiting for my order. Now I understood where those extra dollars per pound came from, and why the product from Brandt was worth every penny. I smiled at the ladies, then looked up at the butcher and pointed to the first row of steaks. My decision was made.
Naturally, I ordered the Brandt.
For tours or to learn more about Brandt Beef, contact Tom McAliney (845)661-3451 or email@example.com
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