Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Cows Don't Know It's Sunday - Meyer Ranch Tour

From what I have seen, being a cowboy or ranching is NOT what the movies make it out to be.  The ranch hands at Meyer Natural Foods' company ranch are working before dawn and continue until daylight has turned to dusk.  Someone asked about the long, arduous hours and not having weekends off.

The simple reply was, "The cows don't know it's Sunday."

Wales Reservoir on Meyer Natural Foods company ranch

But everything stops at lunch time when they all have lunch together at the operations office. Based on all the hard work they do, it has to be a substantial lunch to carry them through the day.  Something like this steak sandwich, piled high with thin sliced New York strip steaks.

Cowboy Strip Steak

Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 10 minutes

Ingredients (4 hoagies)
  • 4 all natural strip steaks
  • 2 Tbsp spicy Montreal Steak Seasoning
  • 4 hoagie rolls
  • 2 large Vidalia onions, peeled and sliced thin
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup marsala wine
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • lettuce leaves
  1. Prep the steaks: Season the steaks with the Montreal seasoning, seal them in a bag and put them in a sous vide water oven set at 127f or a cooler filled with the hottest tap water you have for one hour or 90 minutes.
  2. Make the Marsala Onions: In a large skillet over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the onions, season with a little salt and pepper, toss to coat. Cook gently until caramelized (about 30 minutes). Turn the heat up to medium high for 1 minute. Add the Marsala and let reduce for about 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
  3. Make the Worcestershire Mayo: Mix the two together thoroughly and set aside.
  4. Cook the steaks: Preheat a charcoal grill set up for direct heat to 500f. Brush the insides of the hoagie rolls with a little olive oil if desired and grill until toasted (just a few seconds). Grill the steaks until they reach your desired finishing internal temp. If you used the sous vide and the steaks are already at 127f, the sear will only take 1 minute per side. If you "hot tubbed" them, it depends - probably 90 seconds a side but use a thermometer to be sure.
  5. Make the Sandwich: Top the toasted bun with lettuce, Marsala onions, thin sliced steak, and slather some of the mayo on the top bun.
  6. Note: If you aren't a ranch hand and didn't burn 1,500 calories before noon, a half of one of these sandwiches is a decent portion.
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I like the spicy version of Montreal Steak seasoning but feel free to use the regular.
 The purpose of using the sous vide is to get the steak to the exact desired internal temperature 100% evenly.  You could also reverse sear the steaks or just grill them straight.  I was just experimenting with the water oven here.

Then a quick sear over hot coals for just 1 minute per side.

Here is where I screwed up a bit.  Chef Enright told us that natural beef cooks a little faster than hormone raised beef and he was right.  I like my steaks on the rare side of medium rare, these turned out to be medium.    Still good and preferred by some people, I just like more "moo" in my beef.  So when cooking natural beef, check your temps sooner than later.

Back to the Meyer Natural Foods Ranch.  I wrote in the previous post that I think the ranch is Bob Meyer's legacy. This is why. 
"It is 6:30 local time and I am sitting on a ranch in Montana.  The sunlight is just rising above the foothills and the cowboys just drove a train of about 80 calves and cows by the bunk house.  The red blur of beefy muscle moving as one is a sight to behold.  Their chorus of bellows echoes across the mountain lined plains much like a hymn sung in an empty church. 
This is a hard business but everyone I have met is passionate about this ranch.  It is obvious in their words, their voice, and in their actions. "   ~ Journal excerpt 6.6.2013

I have so much that I want to share about this trip but to put it in one simple sentence, the Meyer organization is about doing the right things and doing them right. 

Stewardship of the land and natural resources
  • A sizable portion of the 40,000 acres is set aside for maintaining wildlife and nature in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management.
  • Actively working the forests to fight the pine beetle and culling trees already damaged.
  • Swamps have been converted to a gravity fed system of ponds to provide water not only for the cattle but some ponds are specifically for supporting the wildlife including elk, waterfowl, bald eagles, bears, and other native species.
  • Conserving water through the pond system and responsible irrigation, since the area only gets 12-14 inches of rain a year.
  • They use "sandhill rotation" of grazing lands to prevent overgrazing and minimize potential for viruses and bacteria.
  • Restored the original ranch buildings that were built from 1906-1912
Preservation of history
  • Meyer has kept pastures and geographic locations named after the original owners.
  • The single room school house has been preserved.
  • The original Wales cabin has been preserved and will be converted to a museum of the area's history.
Culture of Passion
  • The organization has fostered an "owner/operator mentality" and a passion for the ranch in every "employee" (that word doesn't seem to fit) that I spoke with.  They take their job seriously and have great pride in what the organization is doing. 
Treatment of the Cattle
  • Raised naturally
    • Certified humane
    •  Large open fields for grazing
    • only corralled a few times a year for treatment, inventory, and culling 
    • manipulated with gestures and vocalizations, no use of stressful methods like dogs, cattle prods, etc.
    • Special corral systems developed to minimize stress of processing
    • No hormones or antibiotics are administered.  If cow or steer develops a condition that requires TREATMENT with antibiotics (versus just giving all cows preventative antibiotics), the animal is still removed from the program and sold off to a ranch that doesn't have the same standards.
  • Breeding program
    • Use live breeding instead of artificial insemination this year, but do occasionally use AI as needed to maintain stock diversity.
    • All cattle are tracked under the stiff requirements for maintaining the red angus breed.
    • Bulls can stud with as many cows as their age, for example, a 18 month old bull will be paired with 18 cows.  Obviously their is an upper limit to that ;)  
  • Feed Program
    • Use natural grasses, alfalfa, hay, and wheat/rye during grazing
    • Feed is tested for nutritional value and supplemented with minerals and vitamins as necessary. 
    • Fields used for providing sustainable food supply
 To ensure this legacy goes on in perpetuity, Meyer has established a trust that will continue to operate the ranch under the established principals.    This is a real working ranch and it it where they develop the protocols and standards that all of their co-op ranches use.  Here's a glimpse into what they do.

The cowboys head out to gather a herd for "branding", which is actually tagging, vaccinations, and um...."fixing" the boys into steers.

The cowboys bringing in the first herd of cattle up the road.

They guide them into a make shift pin first.

Linnie, the Office Manager, proves the term "cowboy" is gender neutral.

Every now and then a calf makes a break for it.

The ranch has 54 horses used for ranch operations.

Jim (Operations Manager) and Bill (Foreman) having a meeting in their "office". 

Separating the calves for "branding" which doesn't actually include branding.
 The vaccinations each year vary, depending on current health threats.  These are not hormones or antibiotics.
Cattle vaccinations brought to you by Pfizer, the Viagra people.  There's a joke about "call your veterinarian after 4hours or more" just waiting to happen. 

Lennie checking off the cows as we process them through.

Me giving a cow her vaccination.  The hydraulic padded collar holds the cow calmly (most of them) for inspection and injection. 

Linnie and Bill discuss a "dry" cow on the list for this group.

4 week old female red Angus.  Boys have right ear tagged, girls their left ear. 
The buildings were built 1906 to 1912 and were restored in 2005 to original condition as much as possible.

Horse barn on right and I think on the left is the genetics labs.

The original milk barn.

The grain storage building.

Chef Enright preparing lunch.  The door on the barn mural actually opens into a walk in cooler.  The main door is on the other side but the "barn" door lets you grab a cold beverage.

The "Hotel" (white building between tress) was the house for the ranch hands in 1912. 

Post card scenery everywhere you looked.

Two of the gravity fed ponds.

The Blackfoot River bisects the property.  Native Americans would bivouac in this spot during their annual hunt.  The women and children would reside here while the men descended onto the great plains for harvesting buffalo and other wildlife.

Sagebrush - I thought it was only the name of a saloon.  It grows in the more arid fields.

It takes a heck of a lot of land to raise cattle using the Meyer methods.

Chef John taught everyone how to fly fish.

"Put out to pasture" literally.

One of my favorite shots of Wales Reservoir

The one room schoolhouse on the ranch property.

Another view of "The Hotel".  It reminded me of a bed and breakfast.
An example of the appetizers John put out each evening before dinner.  The carpaccio made from a dry aged tenderloin was crazy good.

Chef John trimming a 32 day dry aged strip loin.

Look at that marbling and deep color.

Cowboys taking a second herd back to the pasture.
The sun sets after a long day.

I want to thank Meyer Natural Foods and the staff at the ranch for this amazing look into what it takes to run a cattle operation in a humane and sustainable way.  Ironically, they don't use those two industry buzzwords.  They talk about doing things because "it's easier on the cattle" or "if you aren't going to do it right, don't do it at all".

You can find Meyer products under these brand names:
Meyer Natural Angus
Laura's Lean Beef
Dakota Beef
Local Harvest
Premium Natural Beef