Real cowboys and cowgirls, the kind who wear Wrangler jeans and drive Dodge trucks, run Painted Hills Natural Beef Inc. in Fossil.
Most days when you call, Joanne Keys answers the office phone. But on this May morning she’s out team roping and branding young heifers, so you talk to office manager Gabrielle Homer instead.
She’s another rancher to the core, having lived in Wheeler County all of her life. And she’s a straight shooter when it comes to promoting all-natural Painted Hills beef. Folks simply need to try it for themselves, then let their appetite decide.
“It can be the healthiest thing in the world for you, but if you don’t enjoy eating it, you’re probably not going to come back to it, right?” Homer prompts.
Much closer to home, near Coburg, Alvina Butti admits to being tuckered out. She had spent the weekend on horseback, running her border collies through cattle-herding drills in a show at Susanville. Now she’s home for the dawn-to-dusk laborers at Knee Deep Cattle Company, a free-range and certified humane beef ranch owned by her husband, Mike Stevenson and his parents, Bill and Lois.
Whether riding horses on Honda four-wheelers, the family must keep their Angus herds on the move. The cows eat nothing but grass and need their grazing space to avoid germs. None of the cattle is treated with hormones or antibiotics.
Healthy and lean, Knee Deep beefsteaks have a different flavor than grain-fed cows, Butti insists. “When you first eat it, it may taste a little odd. But then, ‘oh,’ the other stuff doesn't taste as good anymore.”
Just like grandpa raised
Chat with Oregon’s specialty beef ranchers, and two words sum up your convention: mighty neighborly. It’s their claim to fame.
Times were, consumers needed a big ol’ chest freezer on the porch for fine beef straight off the farm. Now it’s in the meat counter at stores like Long's Meat Market, Market of Choice and some smaller natural foods outlets in Eugene. It comes one steak at a time, with both the rancher’s name and reputation branded right on the package.
Often, it’s the butcher’s best beef.
“What you’re getting is an animal like one of your relatives would grow back in the ‘50s,’ says Allen Shelton, head butcher at the Market of Choice store at 29th Avenue and Willamette Street in Eugene. “They would say, ‘Hey, we just had it processed for you, here’s a quarter of beef. It’s homegrown.”
Shelton figures Painted Hills beef, carried locally by Market of Choice, costs about $1 per pound more than typical grocery store fare. For the extra cost consumers get beef free of added hormones and antibiotics, and the assurance the meat has been processed as an isolated herd rather than commingled with cattle from other ranches.
“Our cattle are raised on grass until the point they go into the feeding facility,” lauds Homer, who, along with husband Will, is among the seven ranching families that run the Painted Hills enterprise. “We finish them on a corn diet. The corn creates that flavor profile that’s very unique and very desirable.”
The Angus and Angus-cross cattle gain about 350 pounds during their four months on corn. At slaughter the beef has ample fat marbling for sweet taste, yet still is a little too lean for a “prime” rating. The USDA rates 85 percent of Painted Hills beef as “choice,” a step down from prime and the remaining 15 percent as “select.”
Head butcher Shelton says it’s the fat marbling that tenderizes and seasons beef with a richer taste, as folks on the yesteryear farms knew so well. But fat doesn't’t sell so well these days.
“Everybody’s wanting to live healthy and be on diets right now.” Shelton says “Even the very, very thin layer of fat we leave, people will still come up and ask me to weigh the product, price it and then trim the rest of the fat off.”
A matter of taste
For the succulence of an unabashedly prime beefsteak, visit Long’s Meat Market in the Southtowne Shoppes.
“We’re the only market that I’m aware of in Lane County that carries any prime beef,” says owner Mike Wooley in reference to his grain-fed meat supply from processor Carlton Farms in McMinnville. “We’re going to the very highest end for it. Only 2 percent of cattle nationwide make (the prime grade).”
Though not an all-natural product like the market’s locally raised meats, the prime beefsteaks have fine strands of white fat clear through the red meat. The fat marbling “is like sticking a stick of butter in it,” says Wooley. “The juiciness is just tremendous. It’s the ratio of the fat inside the red meat you’re getting, and how fine the strand is. You don’t want the big barky stuff in there, you want this fine marbling through it.”
Indulge at your own risk. “Those of us who do eat it probably shouldn't’t have it daily,” allows Wooley, who savors his high-fat prime steaks when dining at fine restaurants such as the Ringside Steakhouse in Portland.
But does the butcher’s best beef really need those rivulets of fat? That’s a matter of taste.
Wooley admits he was skeptical when first ordering the very lean, grass-fed beef from local Knee Deep Cattle Co. steaks from the ranch.
“There is no fat in it whatsoever,” he says of the sirloin. “We were having a bunch of people to watch one of the Duck football games. The meat was so tender and lean … Everybody thought I was feeding them tenderloin, which is three times the price of top sirloin.”
Dry aged for flavor
But Wooley uses an age-old butcher’s trick for adding flavor to the local beef, pork and lamb he carries at Long’s Meat Market.
He gets about three whole beef a week from the Knee Deep ranch. The quarter-beef carcasses, having already been cured for about five days by processor Mohawk Valley meats, are then hung for another five days on refrigerated racks at Long’s. By the time it’s butchered, the beef has been “dry aged” for almost three weeks.
“The dry aging will tenderize the meat and enhance the flavor,” Wooley says. As much as 20 percent of the beef’s moisture evaporates during dry aging, which mellow the meat and enriches its sweetness.
Eat it for health as well, claims Knee Deep rancher Butti. Grass-fed beef is naturally high in vitamin E, plus it’s a source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and Omega-3 fatty acids.
CLA may help fight cancer and tends to reduce cholesterol Omega-3s have been proven to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, allergies, auto immune disorders, states a brochure from the Knee Deep ranch.
“It’s my health beef,” says Wooley. “It’s kind of like the double-edged sword: The feed-lot beef is going to give you the fat marbling, but the grass is going to give you that healthy product.”
Besides Long’s, Knee Deep beef is at the Red Barn Natural Grocer in Eugene, rural markets such as the Lorane and Crow country stores, and several local and outlying restaurants including Our Daily Bread in Veneta.
Like the Angus cuts from Painted Hills, it’s one Oregon name brand you won’t find just anywhere.