Genetic purity said linked to beef tenderness and taste

Staff report

INDIAHOMA, Oklahoma: Jim Lents said that for many years he felt that as a vociferous proponent of linebreeding his middle name was "Lonesome." However, the recent growth of branded beef programs and direct marketing have created a small, but growing, following of people who are eager to listen to him.

Lents' message is that genetic purity is integral to exceptional beef flavor and tenderness.

He first became convinced of this when his many of his guests always commented on the superior flavor of his home produced beef.

He subsequently learned that his particular linebred bloodline had been renown for its superior flavor at least as early as the 1930s.

"I began to notice that the beef I ate in restaurants had no real flavor and was very unsatisfying. Sometimes when our home-raised beef would run low, my wife would sneak out and buy commodity beef and serve it without mentioning it to my two boys. Every time they would turn up their noses and say `Eeww! Store bought beef.'"

Lents believes that uncontrolled cross-breeding is the cause of the decline in beef flavor and tenderness.

"All production industries suffer from one common problem - quality control. Seedstock breeders are the tool and die makers of the beef industry. We need bulls that have the prepotency to punch out repetitive parts. Prepotency only comes from linebreeding."

He said the textbook definition of prepotency was the ability of a parent to stamp his characteristics on its offspring. As an example of prepotency, he said his Hereford bulls bred to Angus cows frequently produced calves that colored similar to Herefords, complete with yellow horns, rather than the normally expected black white faced calf.

LINEBREEDING LARGELY MISUNDERSTOOD

While he admitted linebreeding is quite controversial today, this is largely due to misunderstanding.

"Most people have the perception that when they start out linebreeding half the calves are going to be three-legged and have one-eye. This is not the case. Some of the calves are going to lean toward the ideal you are trying to produce. And that's the first step."

He said a big problem was a misunderstanding of what the ideal animal should look like. He said it was absolutely essential that the breeder have a mental picture of what he was trying to create.

He said much of today's genetic confusion stems from breeding animals for the feedlot's needs rather than the consumer's desires.

"It's to the feedlots' benefit to have an animal that is inefficient. He'll stand there longer and he'll eat more of their feed. What they want is an oversized, inefficient, hard-doing animal.

"Similarly, the packers' business is pounds. His overhead cost to kill an elephant and a veal calf are the same. So, it is to his benefit to kill elephants.

"The only person in the whole chain who is truly in the beef business is the cow-calf guy. The feedlot guy is running a hotel that sells grain in the dining room and the packer is running a dis-assembly plant. All of the quality attributes in beef are put in at the cow-calf level. No one else in the chain can radically change the quality of the product.

"Luckily the ideal animal for the cow-calf producer and the ideal animal for the consumer are one and the same."

He said a good, grass-efficient, fertile cow would be a little shorter, a little thicker, with a little deeper body, thicker flesh and more spring of rib.

"These are the very things that change the carcass composition but also contribute to a lowering of the production cost of the animal."

HAIR COLOR DOESN'T COUNT

While he is personally a Hereford breeder, he said he was not hung up on specific breeds.

"This isn't about hair color. This is about creating consistency regardless of hair color."

Lents believes in the future seedstock production will be more about individual blood lines than breeds.

"We've turned our cattle into ruminant hogs. They have been turned into a grain machine. You can't get most of today's beef animals to finish on grass anymore."

He said that economic sustainability in ranching starts with good grazing management. "You can financially turn around most ranches by just concentrating on grazing management alone," he said.

Another piece of the puzzle is identifying the correct animal form and increasing the animals' (grass) efficiency. He said that in the last 50 years, we have not devoted over 30 minutes to determining what the ideal beef animal ought to look like.

"You have to link some of these things together and when you do, you've created a different picture. You've created a picture of (economic) sustainability."

He said where he lost most people was when he told them that they would have to do their own meat marketing to ever get paid for quality.

DIRECT MARKETING ONLY WAY TO GET PAID FOR QUALITY

"I'm a believer that one of the keys to regaining beef marketshare is through branded beef programs," he said.

"And yet all of the ones today can never be more than marginally successful because none of them are significantly different. They are just trying to get a higher price for the same old crap."

He said an extreme example of what was wrong with branded beef programs was "Nebraska Corn Fed Beef."

"This is an animal that spent some time in a feedlot in Nebraska. Where's the added value to the consumer in that?"

He said the problem with crossbred and out-crossed animals was that you could take two animals and breed them for their lifetimes and never get any two calves that would look (or eat) exactly alike.

"Beef quality is not slipping anymore, its skidding. We're on a slippery slope and totally out of control. We just keep mixing and mongrelizing and the deterioration is continuing. We've lost nearly half our marketshare over the last 30 years."

Lents believes the only way to have a consistently flavorful and tender beef product is to use linebred seedstock bulls on a straightbred cow herd of whatever color.

He said today's commercial cows were so watered down genetically that using a preponent bull allows you to make great strides quickly.

COMPLETE TURNAROUND POSSIBLE IN THREE GENERATIONS

Lents said the average commercial cow-calf man would be pretty amazed at what would happen in the first generation. He said you would be "staggered" by the change in the second generation, and by the third generation the calves would be difficult to distinguish from the seedstock breeder he buys his bulls from.

"One of the advantages that is gained in getting an animal's body type and composition right is longevity. We'll use our herd bulls until they are 12 to 16 years old. I don't consider a bull in his prime until he is about eight. We'll use cows for 15 to 20 years.

"Put a pencil to what that kind of longevity does to your overhead costs. But you can't add longevity until you change the animal's form. We won't turn the beef business around until we properly identify the cow atop the udder."

While some linebreeders believe crossbreeding is okay as long as all progeny are sold off the farm, he is afraid this is still going to produce too variable a beef product for direct marketers. He said that linebreeding had to be accompanied by focusing on the right type and body composition for it to be useful. This is why linebreeding is best accompanied by linear measuring.

"Linear measurement really emphasizes animals that are mid-range in body composition and type. Getting the body back in balance affects glandular function and feed efficiency. You get a different blend of muscle, bone and fat and that's what affects beef flavor and tenderness."

He said the beauty of focusing on genetics in a branded beef product was that it effectively provided not only a source of unfair advantage in a superior beef product but also an effective barrier against competitors.

"Most people think the system that is in place today is the only way it can be. It is in our power to change it and some of us are going to do it."

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