Piedmontese cattle were unknown to Hooper, NE beef producer John Snover 20 years ago. That's when he purchased his first Piedmontese bulls to produce terminal cross feeder calves using his commercial Angus cows. Since he began using Piedmontese genetics, his feeder calves have brought premium slaughter prices.
"I always raised Angus cattle and in 1989 I had no idea what the myostatin gene was," Snover says. "I bought some of my neighbors cows and he had three Piedmontese bulls in his herd. I didn't realize what I had in those calves that first year. When I started checking on my options for getting a premium price, I was real happy with the Piedmontese genetics."
USDA studies have demonstrated that the myostatin gene causes Piedmontese beef to be naturally lean, exceptionally tender and flavorful. Carcasses bring premium prices because they usually yield about seven percent more meat and have about 14 percent less fat than other breeds. The meat is also lower in calories than other types of beef and cooks quickly.
The Piedmontese breed originated in the Alps Mountains of northwest Italy. In recent years, some American breeders have developed full-blood Piedmontese that possess all the genetic traits for tenderness and flavor but have black or red hides and are more appealing to producers than the original white/grey color of the Italian cattle. That's the path Snover has followed over the past eight years.
"It was 2001 or 2002 when I started breeding to get a full-blood, black-hided, 2 copy Piedmontese bull," Snover says. "I saw some Piedmontese with these traits in Washington State. I liked what I saw and decided to start my own Piedmontese breeding program."
Just as Snover was ready to launch his breeding program, Gary Owens developed the North American Piedmontese Association (NAPA) an official registry for North American Piedmontese cattle. Snover purchased 13 of Owens' flush cows in order to establish his own purebred Piedmontese herd.
"In those 13 cows I had about eight different bloodlines," Snover says. "I've been using Pied bloodlines on my Angus cows and now I have a 2 copy black bull I've been using. He's producing 2 copy black bulls that I'll be able to sell in the near future. All the calves, no matter what breed of cows are used in a terminal cross, will qualify for premium carcass prices."
By retaining his best heifers out of the black-hided 2 copy bull, Snover has developed a herd of one-copy and two-copy black heifers. Like other Piedmontese breeders, he uses DNA testing to ensure that the desired genetics are present in his bulls and cows. One of his bull calves recently was awarded Grand and Reserve Grand Champion in the Denver Stock Show Junior Piedmontese division.
"I sold my white bulls and now only use the black Piedmontese," Snover says. "Almost all my terminal cross calves go to Montana Ranch Brand Natural Meats in Billings. Piedmontese beef is becoming so popular with consumers that the meat company is recruiting breeders. I sell a few of my cows locally and once people taste the meat, they don't want anything else."
Snover has been pleased with the hybrid vigor in his breeding program. He experiences low birth weights, strong milking traits and excellent maternal traits in his cows.
"I always had great mothering traits in my Angus herd," he says. "I see those same genetics in these 50 percent Angus and 50 percent Pied cows. All my Pied heifers and bulls qualify for Montana Ranch Brand's natural beef program so they're just what commercial breeders need to get started with Piedmontese beef."
Snover has sold a few select bulls from his herd and will have more bulls for sale in the near future as his program develops.
"The genetics I've produced, 50 percent Pied and 50 percent Angus, have just a little more fat than the original Piedmontese breed," he says. "It's a real choice meat and people who buy our cattle rave about the flavor, the tenderness and everything else. It is good meat."
As he shares his vision for his breeding program and discusses the benefits of Piedmontese genetics, Snover contrasts what he and other Piedmontese breeders are doing with genetic developments that revolutionized the swine industry 30 years ago.
"I had a 2,000-head hog operation quite a few years ago," he says. "The trend at that time was to produce leaner hogs. A particular genetic line was used to achieve that. That's similar to what we're doing with beef. Breeders like myself and Jerry Hofer at Lake Andes (SD) are partnering to develop colored cattle that have the genetic traits for tenderness and flavor that make the Piedmontese beef so popular. We're excited about the potential for this new breed of cattle."
In spite of the favorable results Snover and other Piedmontese breeders are realizing, there are still only three Piedmontese producers in Nebraska. Snover believes that will begin to change over the next five to seven years.
"People don't believe how good this meat is till they taste it," he says. "The word's getting out about the quality of the meat and the premium prices producers receive. It's pretty easy to produce natural beef for Montana Ranch Brand and consumers are demanding more of it all the time."