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Our steaks have come a long way

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By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

The evolution of ranching in North America has become incredibly efficient since its arrival in the new world.

For almost 500 years, habitants of North America have kept cattle as livestock. Europeans introduced domesticated cattle almost immediately upon arrival to the continent. While they were used for sustenance at the local community level, for centuries, cattle were used primarily for their hides and tallow. Beef was just a secondary use. 

Herds were growing quickly as the U.S. was growing, but this growth was limited the western half of the country as Texas. 

Although the demand for beef was increasing nationwide, it wasn’t until the invention of the refrigerated railcar in 1860 that allowed beef to be transported and sold all the way back to the East Coast.

Subsequently, the number of herds on ranches west of the Mississippi doubled in just 20 years; from 1880 to 1900. But, since meat was still towards the bottom of the list of reasons for raising and selling cattle in the first place, there still was no reason or resources to fatten them up.

As the demand for food increased, they started exploring how to more efficiently raise a heavier animal. And four things came into play.

Cattle breeds in Great Brittan were larger and more muscular. Much more so than the smaller leaner longhorn native to Spain that we now associate with Texas. And while Texas has taken claim the Longhorn, they have been crossbred with the larger British breeds for over 150 years.

While Texas certainly had the land for stockyards and feedlots, they lacked the connective railway system. Cities like Chicago and Kansas City did have the required rail infrastructure. This meant that cattle could be transported easily to the upper Midwest and finished, which led to the third development.

Cattle then needed to be processed. They could now be shipped live for relatively short distances into these same large cities with refrigerated processing plants very close by. Today, the upper Midwest is still a huge producer of processed beef for the nation.

In addition to the ability to greatly expand what we know as the modern restaurant diner (which I wrote about a few years ago), President Eisenhower’s massive national highway project began in the 1050’s. That allowed beef and beef products to now reach all corners of the U.S.

All over the world—but nowhere more so than in the U.S.—has the raising and production of cattle become so incredibly efficient and congruent with the land they graze on gone from a negative to a positive.

As we often hear that beef cattle are taking over our planet and steering us towards eminent doom, it’s interesting to note that while the gross weight of beef cattle in America is only slightly higher than it was in 1955, the total number of beef cattle is in fact less than it was in 1955. 

We have kept up with food supplies since first colonizing the Americas, but that brings up a bit of a chicken or the egg quandary. Have we innovated and found ways to keep up with human growth and grow more and better?  Or, has our innovation and efficiency allowed us to grow our population? 

A question for another time perhaps.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the multi-concept culinary director for a Bozeman based restaurant group.

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