Wisconsin may be America’s Dairyland, but there’s another bovine-related food abundant here: beef. In fact, the number of beef farms here is growing even as the number of dairy farms is declining. The state has nearly 14,000 beef farmers,

“Beef can be a staple for any meal enjoyed year-round, but summer months are special for Wisconsin residents who want to spend more time outdoors with family and friends,” said Kaitlyn Riley, communications director with the Wisconsin Beef Council. 

Beef farming grows in state

Unlike small dairy farms, small beef farms are proliferating in Wisconsin. The number of beef farms in the state grew about 7%, from about 13,000 to 14,000, from 2012 to 2017, the latest figures available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

In sheer numbers, there were 310,000 cattle to produce beef in the Dairy State in January, according to the USDA. Nearly all of Wisconsin beef farms had fewer than 50 head of cattle. 

Just nine Wisconsin farms had 500 to 999 beef cattle, and only one was listed as having more than that, according to 2017 figures, the latest available.

The state’s beef trends are apparently the opposite of what’s happening with dairy farms and different from other states. 

“While it can be difficult to pinpoint all contributing factors, we do know that dairy farmers diversifying their farms or converting to beef production certainly is playing a part in Wisconsin growing their beef herd,” said Jeff Swenson, livestock and meat specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, in an email provided by the Wisconsin Beef Council.

Many of the state’s smaller dairy farms have been drying up, with remaining ones getting larger. Wisconsin has 1.26 million head of dairy cows as of the start of 2021, about four times the number of beef cattle. Yet, only 6,800 dairy farms remain, about half the number of beef farms. 

Another stark contrast is that less than half of the remaining dairy farms have fewer than 50 cows, according to Riley at the Wisconsin Beef Council and census data.

The number of cattle in Wisconsin has grown consistently in the past decade, even as the number has decreased in many states, Swenson wrote in the email.

Beef is big in summer

The increase in local beef farms is good news for Wisconsin’s beef lovers. In summer, ground beef and steaks rule.

One of Wisconsin’s beef farmers is Doug Ney (rhymes with pie), a fifth-generation farmer and owner of Ney’s Premium Meats in Hartford, formerly known as Ney’s Big Sky. Ney, who raises Angus and Angus-cross cattle, has built a following for his bone-in rib-eye, filet mignon and custom burger grinds.

Ney’s free-range beef is entirely sourced and processed in Wisconsin, from Ney’s friends, uncles and other family members.

One notable selection is their prime rib burger, using ground rib-eye. The burgers come three patties to a 1-pound package for $9 at neysbigsky.com. The burger is about 92% lean, Ney said; burgers typically can be 20% or 30% fat.

Ney’s also grinds its custom Bloody Mary burger, corned beef burger and whiskey peppercorn burger, to name a few others. The uniform size and thickness of pre-formed patties can help with even cooking on the grill.

Ney’s meats are sold at the South Shore and Brookfield farmers markets plus stores including Metcalfe’s Market in Wauwatosa and Madison, Woodlake Market in Kohler, Good Harvest Market in Waukesha and The Organic Market in Slinger.

For Strauss Brand meats based in Franklin, ground beef is the bestseller during grilling season.

“Ground beef — hard to beat a burger on those hot days. Rib-eye steaks and strip steaks are also popular choices this time of year,” said Devin Kulla, marketing director at Strauss.

At home, Kulla said, he enjoys grilling a marinated flank or skirt steak for tacos.

“A little brown sugar in the marinade helps get a nice sear on the outside,” he said.

Strauss gets about 15% of its beef from Wisconsin producers, with the remaining primarily coming from the rest of the Upper Midwest and South Dakota.

“Our cattle are born and raised in the USA, where they are always free to roam on pasture. Our ranchers utilize pasture management practices like rotational grazing that helps restore our soil, therefore reducing erosion and improving water quality,” Kulla said. 

Strauss beef is all grass fed with no antibiotics or added hormones, he said.  Strauss beef is available at Pick ‘n Save, some Piggly Wiggly, Meijer, Woodman’s Market and Sendik’s Food Market. 

Wisconsin Meadows is another option for pasture-raised beef. A co-op based in Viroqua, Meadows’ beef cattle are rotationally grazed on Wisconsin family farms across the state, according to wisconsinmeadows.com. Its cows are treated humanely, born and naturally raised without synthetic growth hormones or antibiotics.

The cattle are never put in feedlots, and calves are left with their mothers to learn grazing and social behaviors. Wisconsin Meadows beef can be found at its website and throughout the Midwest in stores including Albrecht’s Delafield Market, Outpost Natural Foods, Metcalfe’s Market, Riverwest Co-op, Health Hut and Glenn’s Market in Watertown.

Another farmer co-op, Organic Prairie, based in La Farge along with Organic Valley, provides more beef options, available at Health Hut, Woodman’s Market, Whole Foods, Outpost Natural Foods, Woodlake Market, Metcalfe’s Market and Sendik’s Food Market.

At Sendik’s Food Market, with 17 locations around southeastern Wisconsin, steaks are the “big focus” for Father’s Day weekend, according to Brian Schroeder, meat and seafood director.

He predicted increased demand on Father’s Day and through summer for rib-eyes, T-bones, filets, porterhouse and New York strip steaks. Also popular are marinated beef tenderloin kebabs, gourmet burgers and marinated beef skewers.

 The stores carry mostly USDA choice or higher-grade beef, including American Wagyu beef, grass-fed and grass-finished beef.

Jennifer Rude Klett is a Wisconsin freelance writer of history, food, and Midwestern life. Contact her at jrudeklett.com. USA Today contributed to this report.

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Beef buzzwords

To cut through all that meat lingo, here’s a rundown of a few of the beef buzzwords, according to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association at beefitswhatsfordinner.com, USDA, americangrassfed.org and certified.naturallygrown.org.

Grain-finished: This beef comes from cattle that have begun eating grass or forage but then spend four to six months at a feedlot fattening up on grains, forage, hay or local feed ingredients such as potato peels or sugar beets. FDA approved antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones may or may not be given.

Grass-finished or grass-fed: This beef comes from cattle that have spent their entire lives eating grass or forage, possibly spending time in a feedlot. FDA approved antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones may or may not be given. While government agencies have no standard for this term, the American Grassfed Association has its own requirements for certification; check labels for that logo.

Certified organic: Cattle have never received any antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones and can either be grain- or grass-finished as long as the feed is 100% certified organically grown. To know if the cattle spent time in feedlots, check with the producer.

Naturally raised: This beef can be similar to certified organic, but the feed is not 100% certified organically grown. To know if the cattle spent time in feedlots, check with the producer.

Certified naturally raised: Beef was raised based on national organic standards but with stronger rules for cattle living conditions such as access to the outdoors with direct sunshine and fresh air except in inclement weather. Feed must be organic but does not have to be certified.

Marbling: The primary factor in determining the quality of grade in beef, marbling is the visible white fat streaks in raw meat. To determine the amount of marbling, the meat grader will look at the rib-eye where the carcass is cut at the 12th and 13th rib juncture. Marbling is a strong predictor of tenderness, flavor and juiciness.

Prime: This U.S.D.A. beef grade comes from young, well-fed cattle and has the most marbling; it is sold in smaller quantities. Prime beef cuts are best roasted, grilled or broiled.

Choice: This USDA  beef grade is high quality but with less marbling than prime and produced in higher quantities. Good for roasting, grilling or broiling, or slow cooking for less-tender cuts.

Select: USDA select grade is leaner than prime and choice and can lack tenderness, flavor and juiciness. It benefits from slow cooking or marinating prior to grilling.

Generally, it takes 18 months to three years to bring beef from pasture to plate. The life cycle might involve stages at farms and ranches, feedlots, livestock auctions, packaging plants and retail stores.

Overall advice: Take time to read package labels, check websites and ask questions.

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Beef tips

Experiment with different outdoor techniques this summer, suggested Brian Schroeder of Sendik’s Food Market.

 “If you’re looking to entertain at an open-flame cookout, I recommend a top sirloin cap, also known as the picanha,” he said. “Grill it slowly over an open flame, slice it thin across the grain when done and pair it with a homemade chimichurri sauce to impress your guests.”

Devin Kulla from Strauss Brand Meats also offered some grilling tips.

“Use kosher salt generously. Invest in a good-quality digital thermometer and use it. …  And, most importantly, let it rest,” he recommended. “A good rule of thumb is to rest it as long as you cooked it.”

If lean beef is preferred, there are many options at about 170 calories per 3-ounce serving, said Kaitlyn Riley, of the Wisconsin Beef Council. “A telltale sign that a cut is lean is if the word round or loin is in the name,” she said. “Some of the most popular options for lean beef include top sirloin steak, strip or top loin steak, tenderloin steak and 93% lean ground beef.”

Riley said beef provides 10 key nutrients including protein, zinc, iron and B vitamins. “One 3-ounce cooked serving of beef provides 50% of the daily value of protein,” she said.

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This recipe is a reprint from a 2016 Great Host feature on Melissa Utschig, who recommended it for grilling season and said “I’m totally addicted to this chimichurri sauce.” She created the recipe by combining a few recipes. 

Argentine Grilled Flank Steak with Chimichurri Sauce

Makes: 6 to 8 servings

For Argentine chimichurri sauce:

  • 1 cup lightly packed chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 to 5 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons shallot or red onion, minced
  • ¾ cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar (or substitute red wine vinegar)
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

For the steak: 

  • 2 flank steaks (1½ to 2 pounds each)
  • Olive oil to coat steaks
  • Salt to taste (see note)
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste

To prepare chimichurri sauce:

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse until well chopped, but not pureed.

To prepare steak:

Heat grill to medium-high.

Pat steaks dry with paper towels. Rub both sides of the steaks with olive oil and season both sides generously with salt and pepper.

Grill steaks 4 minutes per side for medium-rare, or to desired doneness. (Turn steaks after 2 minutes on each side to form crisscross grill marks, if desired.) If you like your steaks less rare, move to indirect heat for about 2 more minutes.)

Remove steaks from grill and transfer to a cutting board, covering loosely with foil. Let steaks rest 5 to 10 minutes. Thinly slice against the grain.

To serve: Transfer slices of meat to individual serving plates and top with chimichurri sauce. Serve with plenty of bread to sop up the sauce. 

Note: Utschig likes to use Moir’s Steak Salt.

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