An Illinois beef farmer shares what makes a great steak
When you think about what makes a really great steak, you might think of a cut of meat that is juicy, tender, flavorful. You might not think as much about how that animal was raised, what it ate or how it was cared for. But, achieving those characteristics of juicy, tender, and flavorful start with Illinois beef farmers like me and doing what is right for the animals we raise.
Farming for me is a major family (and friend) affair. I farm in southwest Illinois with my wife Lauren, my brother and sister-in-law Adam and Emily and their two sons Jeffrey and Henry, my mother Rosemary, and a good friend Tyler Bauer and his wife Kasey and son Clayton.
Together we raise Angus beef cattle from the time they are weaned from their mothers until they go to another stop in the beef supply chain where they are fed to market weight. We also grow corn, soybeans and wheat, and own and operate Bagley Farms Meat Market, offering an array of fresh and frozen meat, cheeses and local produce when it’s available. My brother and I are fifth-generation farmers.
So, as Illinois beef farmers, you could say we know a thing or two about achieving the perfect steak. Actually, many factors go into raising a product that makes for a quality steak.
A great steak starts with science
It’s important to select the very best genetics when considering beef cattle breeding options. We have models that help us to predict qualities like growth, weight and characteristics like marbling and ribeye size. In fact, Illinois beef farmers use all kinds of technology to raise high-quality beef. Researching genetics is why we’ve personally chosen to raise purebred Angus; we believe nothing beats Angus beef.
Quality meat is achieved with quality animal care
From there, it’s all about making sure that animal is cared for properly throughout its life. Diet is extremely important to ensure that the animal possesses enough body fat to produce a tender, well-marbled steak. Our cattle eat a combination of feedstuffs, depending on the stage of production. They eat a very high fiber diet of grass, soybean hulls and oats from three months to about 12 months. At that point, the starch in their diet is increased by adding corn and corn byproducts such as corn gluten feed or distillers grains (both by-products of corn processing during human food production or ethanol production).
A common misconception is that cattle are either all grain-fed or all grass-fed, when in fact all cattle spend most of their lives on pasture/grass or a forage-based diet. Cattle that are “grain-fed” spend just a short amount of time eating a diet of corn and other grains, which helps improve meat quality and provides a more tender and juicier product. When it comes to labels like grass-fed and grain-fed, you can learn more here.
For us, achieving a great steak also means administering antibiotics when our animals are sick. It’s a topic I’m very passionate about. In fact, I would say it’s inhumane to not treat an animal when it’s sick. I try to think about in in the context of my two nephews and encourage others to do the same if they have kids. If one of them was sick and needed an antibiotic, I would absolutely give it to them. The same goes with the animals on our farm.
The antibiotics we use today have been through rigorous testing before they’re approved. We follow label directions closely for dosing, frequency and withdrawal periods (the time a farmer must wait after administering the antibiotic before selling the animal for harvest). I truly believe antibiotics play a critical role in helping Illinois beef farmers keep animals healthy and ensure they live the happiest, healthiest lives possible. Healthy, happy animals are productive animals. There is no financial incentive to not do what’s in the best interest of the animal, even if it means more work for us as farmers.
Picking out a great steak
As you can see, there are lots of things Illinois beef farmers do to raise a high-quality product. And when you’re at the meat counter or in the frozen aisle, there are things you can do to pick out a great steak, too:
- Look for a steak that is light cherry red in color, and make sure the fat deposits in and around the steak are white in color, not yellow.
- Ask your butcher if the steak has been aged. Wet-aging a steak for 30-45 days can significantly increase the tenderness of a steak – and very much improve the dining experience.
- Make sure the steak has a high degree of marbling (the little white flecks of fat within the muscle).
- Finally, take it home and cook it to a beautiful medium rare at 135 F internal temperature – and enjoy!
Who’s ready for steak? Tell us in the comments what your favorite cut is to buy!