“Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner”

I have mentioned a few times that I am a student of the College of Agriculture at Purdue. Something that I have been involved with here, and have been involved with for a number of years, is judging. I know that sounds a little “judgmental,” but I promise it’s not judging other people – only livestock.

If you have ever been to a livestock or horse show of any kind, or even have the slightest idea of how one works, you know that someone has to decide who wins, and who loses. It takes years of hard work to learn how to evaluate classes at these shows, and it is something you can do as part of a team at multiple levels, including collegiate.

When it comes to judging livestock (which typically includes the species of beef cattle, swine, sheep, and goats), the purpose is to find the best stock, which ultimately ends up on the plate. The whole drive behind the livestock industry is to evaluate which animals are going to create the tastiest end product, whether that be a steak, bacon, or a lamb chop.

Livestock judging has been one of the most important things to me over the years, and especially during my time at Purdue. I gained invaluable skills that I will be able to use for the rest of my life, I had the opportunity to travel the country, and I made the best group of friends a girl could ask for.

As I was sitting at my desk this afternoon, contemplating what to post about, I was looking at a newly framed picture of my team. I decided to bring my passion for animal agriculture into the picture, and try to get a little creative with my post by sharing something that doesn’t have to do with trying new restaurants in Lafayette, but something that might make your grilling experiences this spring and summer a little more informed.

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My team members and I with our coach out at Purdue’s beef unit this past December, where we put in multiple hours of practice for competition over the past year and a half.

While I have plenty of experience as part of a team evaluating the different species while they are on the farm in a live setting, when it comes to judging cuts of meat, I am not necessarily the most competent from a visual standpoint. However, this is an extremely valuable skill that anyone could make use of.

I could delve into any species from the standpoint of different cuts of meat, and where they come from on the animal, and what factors go into making a cut of meat taste amazing. However, for this post, I decided to talk a little bit about beef.

There are different categories of beef cattle that we judge, but specifically, “market cattle” are the ones that are going to end up as the steak on your plate. Therefore, we take into consideration things like muscle and fat when we decide which animals are the best.

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College students from Universities across the country evaluate a class of cattle at a practice hosted by a farm in Illinois.

When evaluating live market animals, it takes a while to train your eye to be able to evaluate how fat an animal is, as well as how muscular it is. We also are able to handle the livestock to feel for fat and muscle.

You want a little fat in your meat, because that is what gives it flavor. This is called marbling in a steak. However, it is a fine line. You don’t want too much fat in your steak, but you do want just enough to ensure that delicious flavor.

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Boilermakers learning how to handle cattle from the Purdue livestock judging coach.

There are three grades of beef: USDA Prime, USDA Choice, and USDA Select, with Prime being the best, and Select being the least desirable. When you order a steak at a nice restaurant, it is most likely USDA Prime beef, which has the most marbling (fat) – although not too much – is extremely palatable (meaning that it is easy to chew), has a lot of flavor, and is very juicy.

USDA Choice is also served in restaurants. Although it will cost a bit less, it is still extremely flavorful and tender if cooked correctly. Select cuts are the leanest, and so many people who are hoping to cut back on their fat intake will reach for this cut at the grocery store. However, in doing this, they sacrifice flavor, because it is the cut with the least amount of marbling.

Cattle farmers and ranchers sure do have their work cut out for them. They want to raise cattle that grade really high, and they also want the public to get the best product possible. Also, the higher the grade, the more they make on their sales. Feeding cattle is a tricky business, because they have to be on a ration that ensures they have plenty of muscle, and just enough fat.

In the diagram above, you can tell what each cuts of steak look like before they are cooked. These grades also apply to other cuts of meat, including ground beef. I know that before I was familiar with judging, I would typically reach for the leaner ground beef, but in doing that, I was sacrificing flavor.

Nowadays I make sure that I am evaluating the meat that I buy in the store, because livestock judging taught me what will taste the best, and why.

There are so many factors that have been constantly improved upon over the years to make the meat animal industry what it is today, and as consumers, it is in our best interest to try to understand it. My hope is that you all learned a little something about purchasing beef, and how to find the steak that will taste great, as well as a little bit about the commitment and time that has gone into what ends up on the plate.

If you want to know a little more about where other cuts of meat come from, check out this diagram from the American Angus Association.

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Different cuts of beef, and where they come from on the animal.

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