Jill Marckel, co-owner with her husband, Jeff, of Chase Brook Farm Market in the Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market, tells how their happy, free-range, grass-fed, and antibiotic-free bovines make for tasty fare.
Humans, for the most part, are carnivores — and Americans are voracious carnivores at that. Meat farms, whether a large commercial production or an independently operated, 120-acre (60 of which is used for grazing), 2,700- animal business, like Chase Brook Farm, raise and butcher animals to feed our hungry appetites. No matter the opinion — “Meat Is Murder,” or “Meat Is Murder … Tasty, Tasty Murder” — there’s no getting around it.
At Milaca, MN-based Chase Brook Farm, though, Marckel explains, cows are raised in a manner that is healthful and productive — a situation beneficial to both cow and consumer. She says, “our cows are happy and relaxed” because “they’re out to pasture and doing what they’re supposed to be doing: grazing and being herbivores.” In fact, that’s the farm’s motto: “Our animals are vegetarians, so you don’t have to be.”
It’s a contrast to the approach that other farms — typically large, commercial factories — take, where cattle are fed mass quantities of corn to promote quick growth, which results in more meat to sell at the market. Healthy cows on large-scale feedlots may also be fed FDA-approved medications, which hasten growth and help stave off infections, a common occurrence when 10,000-plus cows convene in tight quarters.
No matter where one stands in the debate between organic and/or local meat and its commercially raised counterpart, we may all agree that when productions are kept small and simple, quality control is easier to maintain and accountability is less murky. Marckel says this simplicity and transparency is what makes Chase Brook meat unquestionably healthy and flavorful. She says, matter of factly “[our] meat tastes like what it’s supposed to taste like.”
Marckel sheds some light on how to raise cows that will yield beef that is rich, lean, healthy and full of flavor. Here she describes the life span of a Chase Brook cow from the time it is purchased at auction until the day it’s sent to slaughter.
From cow to cutlet at Chase Brook Farm
September: Once a year, Jeff Marckel bids on and hopes to take home, roughly, 70 Red and Black Angus cattle from an auction barn in nearby Mora, Minn. “We’re up against the big guys at the auctions,” she notes, so this process requires some skill in order to obtain the best cattle. The cows he chooses will have just been weened and weigh between 400 and 600 pounds and may be four or five months old, Marckel estimates. Jeff will aim to buy a range of three weight classes to ensure that there is a steady stream to send to the butcher throughout the summer.
September through April/May: Once the young cattle arrive at the Marckels’ farm, they are immediately put to pasture. For approximately six months, “their life is hanging out on the pasture,” where they are fed a strictly grass diet and fresh water daily. They “eat as much as they want all day long, sit in the sunshine, and just be a cow,” Marckel beams. The bales are scattered throughout the cows’ patch of land, which is kept separate from the pigs, chickens, lambs, and other animals the Marckels’ also raise. Their cattle are not rounded up at night, but are free to roam their section 24/7. If inclement weather strikes, they may take shelter beneath an open-air “half-barn” that faces south. Even in the winter, the Marckels “put their hay bales out to pasture … so [the cows] don’t have to come up to a feed lot and stand [in their own] manure.” This way, their waste is spread throughout the field, which fertilizes the soil with minimal effort. All this running around, Marckel surmises, also improves the taste and texture of the beef. “When the animals use their muscles and get exercise, [their meat develops] texture.”
April through August: All good things must come to an end; slaughtering begins as early as April or whenever a large enough batch reaches 1,100 to 1,200 pounds. At this size, Marckel explains, they’re “just starting to get plumper,” which is desirable. Because they don’t keep their cows past 15 months old, buyers are “not going to see the marbling [that’s apparent] when you go to the butcher shop and you see a ‘prime choice’ [cut],” Marckel says. “What that’s telling you, essentially, is how fat it is — in translation: how much corn did that animal get?” Because of their practices, their meat is still tender and succulent but free of the fatty lacework common to commercially raised beef. One quick look at their thick ribeyes — deep, lush red undisturbed by any fatty islands whatsoever — proved this.
Once they deem a group heavy enough to slaughter, they load the selected cows into a rented livestock truck and drive them to a small, USDA butcher shop two and a half hours away in Cannon Falls. The shop has only one holding pen, so the batch is butchered swiftly. Once killed, the carcasses are hung to age for 10-15 days (at the shop). Then they are cut to the Marckels’ specifications, flash-frozen and air-sealed in plastic packaging, labeled, weighed, inspected, and shipped directly to the Versacold storage facility in St. Paul. The meat is stored here, and Jill picks up loads throughout the year, which she sells at the Midtown Global Market store or various Twin Cities’ farmer’s markets throughout the year.
Marckel has noticed that “people want to eat better food, but they don’t know where to find it, and they don’t want commmercially raised stuff.” Now, hopefully, they do. Chase Brook Farm sells naturally raised meat and dairy products from local farms at the Midtown Global Market Sundays 11 am to 6 pm and Monday through Saturday 10 am to 8 pm, at local farmers markets May through October, and Saturdays 9 am to noon during the winter at the downtown St. Paul Farmers’ Market.