Where’s the beefalo?
April 15, 2013
For 29 years Mark and Linda Merrill have been spreading news about the quality and flavor of the beefalo they have produced through Beefalo Meats Co. at their Kittitas Valley Washington State ranch since 1984. Their October 2012 Grass-Finished Grand Champion title won at the inaugural Kansas City American Royal Steak Competition – won with two ribeye beefalo steaks – confirms what they've been saying all along.
"Juiciness, tenderness and flavor were part of the 10 different criteria judges used in scoring the best steaks in the competition," Mark says. "We've found beefalo to be just a littler milder and sweeter than beef. It's very flavorful, and the best news is that it's a very healthy beef product, too."
Steaks in the American Royal competition were grilled on a George Forman grill to an internal temperature of 155 degrees Fahrenheit, sliced into one-inch cubes and served to a panel of expert judges. Each steak was identified only by a numerical code to ensure unbiased results.
One of the judges, Mark Schatzker, authored "Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Beef." He traveled around the world to locations where residents claim to have the best beef. In his book, one of the top four steaks he wrote about came from Beefalo Meats Co.
"We couldn't believe we won the grand prize in the grass-fed category, beating out all the steaks that so many great U.S. beef producers entered in the competition," Mark says. "We are getting a lot of recognition from this. We hope it's an opportunity for us and the Kittitas Valley and our local beefalo industry."
His own search for a low cholesterol beef product was the spark that drew Mark to beefalo products nearly 30 years ago. When compared to beef, chicken and pork, beefalo is lower in calories, cholesterol and total fat. It is higher in protein, with 30.66 grams of protein in a 100 gram serving. The same 100 grams of beef has 27.33 grams of protein.
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The Merrills purchase calves from breeders who are among the 15 members of the Beefalo Northwest Association. Calves are three-eighths bison and five-eighths domestic cattle, usually Angus. They place their calves with landowners who feed them out. Much of their meat goes directly to retail outlets in their area. Washington stores carrying Beefalo Meat Co. products include Ballard Town & Country Market in Seattle; Mill Creek Central Market, Mill Creek; Super 1 Foods, Ellensburg; Ken's Market, Greenwood; and Red Apple – Bridle Trails, Kirkland. Oregon's Zupan's Markets also offer Beefalo Meat Co. products in their Portland and Oswego locations.
"We do provide beefalo to a few restaurants, too," Mark says. "It's more challenging to supply the restaurant industry because they're usually interested in a few specific cuts and then you have to have a market for the rest of the animal. Most of our meat is sold through area grocery stores."
Each of the Merrills animals is certified as beefalo. The animals are raised on a combination of hay and forage. Grain is never used in their diet.
"Because grass finishing takes longer than grain finishing, the cost of our beefalo is higher than the grain-fed," Mark says. "We can't compete price wise with regular beef. We targeted high-end grocery stores to carry our meat because their customers are typically willing to pay a higher cost for the grass-fed quality."
Beefalo exhibit some Bison characteristics, including twice as many hairs per inch as cattle. Beefalo (and bison) sweat through their skin so they're more heat and cold tolerant.
"They don't require any special fencing or handling procedures," Mark says. "They're pretty quiet and fairly easy to work with. Calves average about 70 pounds at birth. We feed our beefalo out to about 1100 pounds for heifers and 1400 pounds for steers."
According to Merrills, bison often have calves every other year and top weaning weights average 400 pounds. Beefalo retain the fertility traits of beef and weaning weights average much higher than bison.
"Right now, beefalo animals are netting a premium of about $50 more than regular market price," Mark says. "Getting beefalo processed is challenging. You have to take them to a USDA plant that has been certified to kill buffalo. Going through the government to obtain certification can be a slow process."
In contrast to the $100 approximate cost of processing beef animals, beefalo processing can cost as much as $450 per animal, further hampering overall sales.
"Beefalo producers are challenged with both raising and marketing their animals," Mark says. "We make some of our own deliveries in a refrigerated truck every week. But it's difficult to find time to make that route. Expanding it further would require even more time. If you pay someone to do it for you, that adds to the final cost of the meat."
Mark graduated from Utah State University with a degree in animal science. He also studied livestock embryo transfer at Washington State University. He came to Kittitas Valley in 1975 as a regional representative of an artificial insemination company. In addition to producing beefalo products, Mark and Linda operate Northwest Reproduction Center, a company that offers livestock artificial insemination and related services in their region.
The Merrills expect that, over time, beefalo will gain popularity with producers and consumers. They believe there are consumers who desire to purchase the meat and grocery stores who would like to offer it.
"We've been talking about beefalo for all these years, but the general public still doesn't know what it is," Mark says. "It's an uphill battle to get the word out."