Farm to fork with Piedmontese cattle

It’s been nearly 20 years since Jerry Hofer, manager of Lakeview Piedmontese at Lake Andes, S.D., heard about the Piedmontese beef breed that Harlan Ritchie predicted would begin playing a key role in meeting consumer demand for beef.

Farm to fork with Piedmontese cattle

It’s been nearly 20 years since Jerry Hofer, manager of Lakeview Piedmontese at Lake Andes, S.D., heard about the Piedmontese beef breed that Harlan Ritchie predicted would begin playing a key role in meeting consumer demand for beef.

Ritchie, a Michigan State University animal science professor, studied USDA Meat Animal Research Center research results on a range of beef cattle and concluded that the Piedmontese’s “specific myostatin gene’s unique combination of yield, healthfulness and tenderness should make the breed ideally positioned for what I [Ritchie] am going to refer to as the new meat industry.”

In addition to providing a tasty eating experience, Piedmontese beef has fewer calories than conventional beef and roasted chicken. It’s also lower in cholesterol, with significantly less cholesterol than pork or choice lamb, and even less than skinless chicken or turkey. In comparison to bison, Piedmontese beef has significantly less cholesterol.

Ritchie’s prediction caught Hofer’s attention and has since played a major role in his focus on developing a high-quality Piedmontese herd.

“While we were cautious in venturing into this new breed of cattle, the solid research and comments from people like Dr. Ritchie led us to switch our complete cattle operation over to Piedmontese,” Hofer says.

Hofer partnered with other U.S. Piedmontese breeders to develop a centralized bull development program to ensure consistent quality in U.S. Piedmontese beef. They currently send their young bulls to Nebraska’s Lone Creek Cattle Co., where four bull tests are completed each year.

“Bulls arrive at weaning around 6 months of age,” Josh Benton, LCCC cattle manager, says. “Testing is completed by the time they’re 12 months of age. We look at bull performance, feed efficiency, and overall soundness and quality. Through this process we identify the top 10% of the Piedmontese bulls which can be utilized in seed stock production to ensure an ever-improving supply of Piedmontese bulls and females to produce top quality bulls.”

The data set gathered on each of the Piedmontese bulls drives the breed EPD database with individual intake, feed efficiency, growth, ultrasound, phenotype and docility. In all, approximately 85% of U.S.-born Piedmontese bulls are evaluated through this program.

“Over the past three years, our bull development process has included use of GrowSafe Technologies to record individual feed intakes,” Hofer says. “That data is extremely helpful in genetic selection, allowing us to select for lower cost-of-gain animals that are also toward the top of growth statistics. Rigorous visual evaluations completed by a team of professionals are included in the final selection, which also gives us the opportunity to cull any poor performing, poorly structured or otherwise problematic bulls. Today, this opportunity to identify the trait-leading bulls, and make semen available for seedstock production, has become a major tool for our success.”

In spite of their meat quality, Piedmontese cattle don’t typically net premiums at the packer, in part because of their white or brown hides. The meat qualities they produce aren’t currently part of the USDA rating — which focuses highly on marbling — so breeders and commercial cow-calf producers have found a different, more profitable means for marketing Piedmontese beef through the Certified Piedmontese program.

In order to qualify as CP beef, cattle must be raised without use of growth hormones or antibiotics. Cattle in the CP program are born and raised on open rangeland and fed a pure vegetarian diet, with no animal byproducts. Animals who require use of antibiotics don’t qualify as Certified Piedmontese beef.

A network of commercial cow-calf producers contract with LCCC to sell their calves, at a per-head premium, to the CP program. “Our program offers an integrated process that allows for farm-to-fork traceability with true source verification,” Billy Swain, Certified Piedmontese sales Manager, says. “Ranchers combine the most up-to-date handling and husbandry practices with classic stockmanship, so cattle are raised humanely and land is managed sustainably.”

Swain works with chefs across the U.S. to fill orders for Piedmontese beef at their upscale restaurants. In his interaction with chefs, Swain has learned that sustainable production practices are often a deciding factor in chef purchases.

“Chefs listen to their patrons and understand their concerns about animal treatment,” Swain says. “In the end, chefs want the finest ingredients. They insist on beef that is consistently tender, truly traceable and humanely raised from farm to fork. Our Certified Piedmontese program far exceeds these standards.”

Rick Hardin, LCCC cattle procurement manager, oversees cow-calf operations that provide the necessary meat supply.

“Our bull-lease program offers profit opportunities for ranchers in the High Plains and beyond,” Hardin says. “Growth of sales through the Certified Piedmontese program has created a demand for more feeder calves sired by Piedmontese bulls.”

Bulls in the lease program are certified through DNA testing to possess the genetic traits necessary to produce the tender, flavorful Piedmontese meat.

“Our lease price is an initial attraction,” Hardin says. “But the competitive contract for calves, which includes a premium paid for all natural calves, is a bonus.”

It hasn’t happened quickly, but the potential Hofer saw in a demand for Piedmontese beef is now taking shape. He is continually building a network of cow-calf producers taking advantage of this new beef production opportunity.

“Our breed association was very much keyed in on the fact that we had to quickly act on what we recognized, or the Piedmontese breed would quickly outgrow this powerful opportunity,” Hofer says. “It has taken time for this effort to get traction. However, once it did, we saw a domino effect, and we’ve progressed beyond what we originally expected. We expect demand to continue to increase for a long time into the future.”

Sorensen is a Yankton, S.D., writer.

Piedmontese origins in Italy

Piedmontese cattle evolved in the Alps Mountains of northwest Italy, an area known as the Piemonte, or “foot of the mountain.”

It began when a group of Zebu or Brahman cattle from Pakistan migrated to that area. Because the Alps prohibited further movement of the cattle, they intermingled with the local “native” breed, the Auroch. The resulting progeny continued to evolve in the harsh terrain of northwest Italy, developing into the Piedmontese breed known today.

Piedmontese carry genetic traits that are unique to the breed. The myostatin, which gives Piedmontese the “double muscling” trait, was discovered in the 1980s. Myostatin occurs naturally in all mammals, with the purpose of restricting muscle growth. However, when the gene naturally mutates, it can become inactive. That is what causes the naturally occurring qualities of Piedmontese beef. The breed develops an average of 14% more muscle mass than cattle with functional myostatin.

The significance of this genetic mutation is that it produces naturally lean, tender and flavorful meat that many prefer.

Additional information about Piedmontese and the North American Piedmontese Association is available at piedmontese.org.

Loretta Sorensen

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GAINING MARKETS: Jerry Hofer, manager of Lakeview Piedmontese, took a gamble nearly 20 years ago that Piedmontese cattle would satisfy a niche market. His hunch is starting to pay off.

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LEAN MEAT: This is one of the Lakeview Piedmontese herdsires. The cattle originated in Italy and are said to be gaining in popularity with chefs because of their naturally occurring lean, tender meat.

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NATURAL: Hofer’s cattle are raised without growth hormones or antibiotics, qualifying them for sale as natural beef.

This article published in the January, 2015 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.

Beef Herd Management

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