In its early days, the meat business “was about filling containers up with cuts of meat and shipping them off around the world, and that was it,” says Grant Howie of Silver Fern Farms. "We knew we had a pretty good grass-fed beef, but at the time it was inconsistent. Our customers were telling us that it would be great if every piece of meat in the box had the same quality.”
With fantastic resources – like a collective of committed farmers raising cattle on gorgeous year-round pastures – Silver Fern started with a distinct advantage.
The story of a great steak usually starts here, on a pasture, right? But it was by stepping away from these lovely pastures that things started to change...
What makes one steak memorable and another mediocre?
And without nibbling on the edge of each Porterhouse they ship, how can Silver Fern Farms ensure that every steak they ship will be swoon-worthy?
To determine what makes a steak truly great, Silver Fern turned to some of the best steak-eating experts in the world: regular steak eaters.
Texas Tech & Otago University
Cuts of grass fed beef
Regular Folks Tasting
"We had little cookers set at exact temperatures, and every piece of meat was cooked for exactly the same amount of time - with stopwatches, right down to the last second - so that one piece of meat wasn't cooked differently from another."
Each taster was given 7 different cuts of meat to rate:
4. Overall Likeability
"Each of the 97,000 samples of our grass-fed beef had different attributes. Some had high marbling scores, some low; high pH or low pH. We used a whole spectrum of different combinations, and then we looked at all that data and build an algorithm for each cut. From that, we identified seven attributes that mattered a whole lot."
Silver Fern trained a staff of EQ Graders in how to identify and accurately measure each of the 7 attributes that indicate that tasty beef is at hand.
The EQ graders quickly assess the carcass of each animal that has been brought in from the farms and processed at a Silver Fern facility.
The Graders input this data into a computer on their left wrist that holds the algorithm data. Does this beef qualify to be sold as Reserve beef?
You think you're picky about your steaks... Only 4% of the beef raised on these pristine farms qualifies as Reserve.
The data from the Silver Fern Farms EQ program is also sent right back to the farmers.
“Each of our beef suppliers gets animal-level data,” says Grant Howie, “and the good ones can match that up with their own on-farm records, and can determine the on-farm management factors that result in higher-quality beef grading.”
Farmers are paid more for producing this premium quality beef, so many of them are running experiments in their on-farm management practices to improve how many of their animals make the Reserve grade.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this was Middle Earth, from one of the Lord of the Rings movies. It’s actually a lovely farm called Mount Linton Station.
“Mount Linton has long claimed to have some of the best beef genetics anywhere,” explains Grant Howie. “When they first started with the EQ program, about 50% of their animals were grading into the Reserve program, so they were already well ahead of the curve.
"But they weren’t happy with that, so they changed a whole bunch of things on farm, over a matter of months, and now 90% plus of their animals are making it into the best-quality Reserve program."
“They sat down with the transport company that runs the trucks that pick the livestock up," said Howie of Mount Linton's efforts under Ceri Lewis.
"Keeping the stress levels of the animals low keeps the pH low, so they helped the transport company train their livestock loaders to load the animals onto the trucks differently; not to use cattle prodders, push them, or spook them."
“And then they also stopped mixing herds up. Cattle have a social hierarchy. Over a matter of a few weeks, they sort out who the top dogs are, and all the rest of it. If you mix them up, they have to sort it all out again, and end up fighting a bit for two or three weeks. And that stresses them out again. So they stopped that.”
Which brings us full circle, back to the lovely pastures where this story of a company changing their approach to producing high-quality beef began.