There was a time when it was enough just to say “I’m a cowman”. Thanks to people like Allan Nation and Jim Gerrish, we came to realize that the term “grass farmer” another way of looking at our calling. But the term “grass farmer” short-changed the animal in the equation. A cow is far more than just a “grass harvester”.

In fact, the argument over “grass” or “cow” is a bit like the old riddle about the “chicken” or the “egg”. We’re more than cowmen, more than grass farmers. The bottom line is we are actually producers of food for America’s families. And as Devon breeders, our product should be healthy, high quality beef and milk. Unlike the rest of the beef industry, we can’t settle for “good enough”. Our standard must be not only a healthy product, but a quality product.

So the question here is what kind of breeding and management practices are required to produce what the North American Devon Association calls “gourmet beef on grass”?

The easy answer is to just do the opposite of what 99% of the rest of the cattle breeders in America are doing. A better answer would be to select and manage for quality, not for production and performance. Focusing on that would certainly be an improvement over breeding by the EPD numbers.

But that’s still not enough; we’re still a long way from gourmet beef and milk on grass. And incidentally, in my experience gourmet meat and milk go together; they are one in the same. An animal with high quality meat will also produce high quality milk, just as you can be sure a quality milking animal will produce quality meat.

So just what is gourmet meat and milk? Fine quality meat is always fine-textured, always tender with at least 3.5% intra-muscular fat. Fine quality milk has at least 3.5% butter fat. And it wasn’t long ago that both were produced on grass. Common breeding and management practices which evolved over the past 60 years, and symbolized by EPDs, ignore quality as a requirement.

It is quality that must be our standard if we are to truly serve our consumers. The rest serves the show ring, the magazine ads, the ego of the producer!

Quality is the result of the genetic package put together in the breeding program of each animal. Nutrition affects taste but changes tenderness and quality very little. If we’re to control quality, we must control genetics. That is the only route to gourmet beef (and milk) on grass.

The first step is to start with the best cows you own, ones that through observation and testing you know are capable of putting a gourmet steak on the table. There are a number of visible characteristics you can look for: a very soft hide with velvety hair, a fine symmetrically-shaped cannon bone, well-defined escutcheon, moderate size. Beyond that, if possible I would test her for a minimum of 3.5% butter fat and a high level of intra-muscular fat.

That is the cow that I would breed to the very best bull I can find and afford. In a bull I would look for a moderately-framed, deep-chested, wide-shouldered, balanced animal. And it is from that mating in succeeding generations that I would select my future herd bull. Gourmet meat and milk is a maternal trait. Take a son from a fine female, make him your herd bull, and you will spread her quality traits through your herd.

Stick with the selection process I have described, concentrate the genetics of your best, and you will produce a product you can be proud of. All quality traits always come in a package! Each of these traits is visible, even in baby heifers and bulls.

The scarcity of gourmet beef and milk is simply due to the fact that we have not selected for it or bred for it, at least in my lifetime. We have not, because we practice not!