To celebrate National Beef Month, we salute our state’s farmers and ranchers who raise cattle — and beef — to help feed people in the U.S. and all across the globe. Our last post highlighted the livestock industry in South Dakota and our connection to farmers growing corn, which is then fed to cattle. And yes, that produces corn-fed beef we can feed to our families in the form of delicious and nutritious steaks, roasts, ribs, hamburgers and more.
As our society becomes more curious about where our food comes from, the local butcher shop is a prime place (forgive the pun) to stop and shop. Meat is freshly processed on site and packaged to suit specific situations as requested for retail purchase.
Some would claim that the best place to find quality beef is right from the source itself — South Dakota beef producers who raise it on their farms and ranches. While not all of them are able to sell directly to customers, many of them offer a side business selling packaged meat to individual buyers.
#DYK: USDA grades meat quality as Prime, Choice and Select. A quality grade is a composite evaluation of factors that affect palatability of meat (tenderness, juiciness, and flavor). Prime grades have abundant marbling scores while Select has slight marbling.
BUYING BEEF RIGHT FROM THE RANCH
Aside from the local butcher shop or grocery store aisle, you can purchase meat directly from the farm or ranch that raised it. This direct-to-customer route ensures you know where the beef comes from, and how it was raised. For many, that’s worth every penny.
One such supplier is Sipka Meats, who has been selling meat directly to customers for five years.
Farmers Ginger and Doug Post in eastern South Dakota near Volga have a 36-cow dairy and sell extra-tender beef from Jersey steers they raise from bottle-fed calves.
Doug is a fourth-generation dairy farmer and Ginger is a third-generation coming from ranching out west. They are raising a family of five children in the dairy cattle business...and they all play a role in the operation.
“Because of their breed, our Jerseys provide all the desired health benefits genetically, no matter how you feed them,” says Ginger. The Sipka Jersey herd is fed a conventional ration of hay, silage, and grain, including corn.
Unlike the popular Angus brand of beef, Jersey is not considered a common brand for its meat. However, it does score very well on the tenderness scale as measured by the Warner-Bratzler Shear Force (WBSF) test, an industry standard gauge for quality. Post shares that Jersey beef is second only to the highly prized Wagyu beef in its tenderness.
You can find Sipka Meats online on Facebook and at the Brookings Farmers Market on Saturdays for their third full season. Ginger shares that COVID-19 definitely helped boost their beef sales. She admits they moved twice as much meat through the farmers market than they did the year before. Much of that was due to per-customer limits for meat imposed at local grocery stores.
She says steaks typically sell out first, then hamburger and roasts last. She can move about 2.5 steers’ worth of meat a month during the grilling season.
Since they raise the cattle throughout its life cycle from babies to fat cattle with 140 head on feed at any time, the Posts are able to offer meat for sale on a consistent basis. That allows them to arrange standing monthly appointments with the local locker plants, where Sipka Meats is pre-scheduled nearly two years out.
DYK: Jersey steers were reported to have the greatest tenderness, flavor, and juiciness scores for loin and round steaks compared with other breeds of cattle (Hereford, Angus, Brahman, Brahman cross, Santa Gertrudis, Holstein, and Charolais cross) when assessed by both a laboratory and family panel (Ramsey et al., 1963; Cole et al., 1964). A trained sensory panel described by Arnett et al. (2012) reported greater tenderness, juiciness and beef flavor intensity.
BOOMING BUTCHER-SHOP BUSINESS
Today’s small-town butcher shop may look much the same from the street as years past, but inside their meat processing business is keeping them quite busy, especially over the past year.
Across the state, meat processors have been inundated with demand for their work after the pandemic interrupted the supply chain in the spring of 2020. That’s when major processing plants, such as Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, closed for a while due to COVID-19 outbreaks and forced some changes to the industry that drove more people to smaller processors.
During the height of the pandemic, people in search of meat processing were forced to wait many months or were turned away because the crew couldn’t keep up with such a sudden spike in demand for their services.
Dr. Dusty Oedekoven serves as the State Veterinarian, Executive Secretary of South Dakota’s Animal Industry Board, and Director of SD’s Meat Inspection Program. He explained how the state was able to offer grants and streamline the process to expedite approvals to add meat processing in South Dakota.
“We’ve seen many new facilities come on board, and existing businesses expand their capacity, offer additional services, and even extend the operating hours in order to accommodate the escalating demand,” he said.
While the meat-packing industry is still dominated by the “Big Four” companies that process more than 80% of all beef in the U.S., smaller slaughterhouses in small-town rural areas were left to pick up the slack when factory assembly lines closed for COVID-19. For many new and existing clients, it meant waiting for appointments as many lockers were booked out six months to a year.
Sometimes considered a throwback or retro business from days gone by, today’s meat locker or butcher-shop business is just as likely to sell meat directly to customers through online offerings and social-media posts as they are in-person across the counter. In fact, many had to move to curbside delivery from phone and internet orders during the pandemic this past year.
Whether it’s a steer or a deer, the locker can do the “dirty work” so you end up with the meat conveniently cut and packaged as desired. Some shops like Dakota Butcher in Clark even offered educational opportunities along with the South Dakota Beef Industry Council (SDBIC).
While much of this business still tends to be larger quantities of meat bought to store at home in a freezer, the trend toward buying fresh, locally sourced meat from a retail counter or farmers market has certainly grown in popularity.
STAMPING THE SEAL OF APPROVAL
When looking to buy meat directly from a meat processor or rancher, Dr. Oedekoven recommends checking the package or label to find the seal for State and/or Federal inspection.
While state-inspected meat products may not be sold or shipped out of South Dakota, any federally inspected meat may be sold across state lines. Federal inspection is under the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). The South Dakota Animal Industry Board (SDAIB) performs state inspections which are required to be “at least equal to” federal expectations.
A third type of processor is “custom exempt,” which means each carcass is NOT State or Federally Inspected so their products cannot be resold. However, monthly inspections are made to verify sanitation, safety and such. Custom-exempt products are for use by the customer’s family and their employees or non-paying guests only. It cannot be sold or donated. Meat that is processed as custom-exempt is often stamped: NOT FOR SALE.
Get full details on fresh and frozen red meat sales in South Dakota here.
Beyond trusting in food safety per state and federal inspections, Dr. Oedekoeven suggests consumers form a relationship with a meat processor or rancher to truly understand what they are buying.
“We’ve gotten away from the way we used to do business by buying goods and services from our neighbors,” he said. “But going back to that local approach may just be the best way someone chooses to provide food for their family.”
“We realize consumers are often quick to go back to what’s easy and economical, but some in society have embraced the education they gained and appreciate the experience of buying direct and believe they receive a higher-quality product as a result,” said Dr. Oedekoven.
In the 16th annual Power of Meat Report from the annual Meat Conference, three out of every four Americans agree that meat should be a part of healthy, balanced diets. Almost all (94%) say they buy meat because it provides high-quality protein and other nutrients.
Almost all U.S. households (98.4%) bought meat in 2020, and 43% of Americans currently purchase more meat than before the pandemic, mainly because they’re making more meals at home.
Two-thirds say their meat IQ has improved as they took time to learn more and tried a wider variety of meat types, cuts and brands.
Meat and poultry sales grew almost 35% during the pandemic. Beef generated 61% of new fresh meat dollars, as ground beef became a popular choice. Nearly half of all shoppers bought more meat to support the 4.6 times per week they made home-cooked dinners with meat.
#DYK: For almost 100 years, a Warner-Bratzler Shear Force (WBSF) test has been used to measure the physical force required to cut through meat. This is a way to truly gauge the tenderness. Values lower than 3.4 kg are considered “very tender.” [WBSF marketing category classification: very tender, <or= 3.4 kg; slightly tender, 3.41 to 4.40 kg; slightly tough, 4.41 to 5.40 kg; or very tough, > 5.40 kg.]