Raising the Steaks
STEVE WHITMERE DISCOVERS THE SCIENCE BEHIND GOOD BEEF
Words by Jennifer Kornegay
Illustration by Jamison Harper
Steve Whitmire, owner of Brasstown Beef, likes to tell people that his head of gray hair is not the natural byproduct of almost seven decades on earth.
Instead, he believes every single silver strand sprouted as the result of a wrong choice. And yet, he’s proud of these past mistakes. “I’m 69 years old now,” he says, “and every gray hair I have is from doing everything wrong at least once.”
But not often twice. Whitmire brags, without seeming boastful, on the results of his (and his farm team’s) trial and error, hard work, and commitment to getting things right. “We have lots of people say we have the best beef in the United States,” he says. “We’ve been doing this a long time, and we’ve got it figured out.”
With its pastures blanketing the valleys between the high hills and even steep mountainsides of Brasstown, North Carolina, Ridgefield Farm was founded in 1954 by Whitmire’s dad—although the Whitmires have been raising cattle in the area since the 1700s.
It’s now composed of approximately 1,000 acres, where Whitmire and his team employ all-natural techniques to raise three breeds of cattle for Brasstown Beef: Black Angus, Braunvieh (a Swiss breed) and Salers (a French breed). The cows are never given hormones or antibiotics, are primarily grass fed, and roam free in the Farm’s fields. Their diet is augmented with corn silage, a nutritious addition Whitmire calls “cow kimchi,” which is made from corn grown on the farm that’s chopped into tiny pieces and then allowed to ferment. “It’s very healthy for the cows, full of micronutrients, and they love it,” he says. “They get a kinda stupid look on their face when eating it, like, ‘Oh man, this stuff is good.’ ”
This focus on good nutrition underpins the number one objective at Brasstown Beef: perfect animal health. “If they get sick, it is very expensive,” Whitmire says. “Plus, we don’t want to use antibiotics on them. The best way to keep them healthy is the same way people ought to keep themselves healthy: eat right.” Other key pieces of this philosophy include not cramming them together into small spaces, which spreads disease, and keeping their stress levels at a minimum, which can help prevent disease. “It’s all a part of looking out for their welfare, and we do that because treating them humanely is simply the right way to treat animals,” he says. It also produces a better product, and those products include New York strips, filet mignons, beef hot dogs, ground beef, and ribeyes.
While the Farm’s pasture-centered and careful animal welfare methods are rooted in natural processes, it’s not a hands-off approach. Whitmire has conducted tireless research and experimentation to find just the right mix of genetics and diet to get the best beef with the least possible waste. That means lower costs and less toll on the environment. “I’m a bit of a science nut; I love figuring stuff out,” Whitmire says. To see how efficiently they use the fuel from their food, the farm monitors and measures every bite each cow takes with an electronic ear tag system that records every time they lower their head to eat. “If they consume less grass or corn silage to make the same amount of beef, you can have either more cattle on the same acreage, and therefore less cost, or you can have less acreage, which also means less cost,” Whitmire says. “And if they eat less, there’s less belching, and well, gas, so they’re releasing less methane, and that’s a reduced carbon footprint.” Brasstown Beef also employs sophisticated ultrasound to determine the amounts of intermuscular fat in each cow, providing additional insight into which methods are working best.
Whitmire’s not keeping all he’s learned to himself. Brasstown Beef has worked with the University of Georgia on multiple research projects. Sharing information that will help future farmers is one of Whitmore’s favorite aspects of his work. “We’ve gotten several papers published with UGA detailing projects we’ve helped with,” he says. “This knowledge will help others who want to make a living doing this, and it will greatly enhance their ability to do that. I believe it can save some family farms by helping them cut costs, and that’s a home run.”
Another score is passing the Farm on to his two sons, Bud and Whit, both of whom are now co-owners with their dad. But the praise he gets on his steaks is the real prime rating. Brasstown Beef cuts are served at several of the nation’s top-rated steakhouses, FIG restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, serves only Brasstown Beef, and a few of the South’s favorite chefs have them on their menus, such as James-Beard-Award-winning Ashley Christensen, and Mashama Bailey. “That’s the single biggest reward for me, knowing we have earned a reputation for raising the best beef around. I take great pride in that,” Whitmire says. “I guess that’s ego, but it is not just me; I have an unbelievable team.”