Like mascots for Lifetime Fitness, lean and ripped, the Piedmontese swagger passively about the farmyard. These are no ordinary beef cattle. The heavily-muscled breed, from the Alpine regions of Northern Italy, yields tender, lean beef with little fat or bone waste.

Randy Brandt has been raising Piedmontese on his farm south of Marshall, Minn. since 1994. In 2001, he started marketing beef sticks to a handful of stores. Now, with his new wife Donna, he is managing three companies to produce and market a variety of Piedmontese-cross beef products.

The R&P three

The Brandts production company, R&P Piedmontese Cattle Company LLC, is seeking ranchers to raise Piedmontese half-breeds. Farmers can cross any cow with a full-blood Piedmontese bull to produce calves that can be labeled Piedmontese.

Randy is encouraging dairy farmers to use the bottom third of their herds: “They don’t want their genetics, and they can breed them with Pieds.” R&P will pay “20 cents above market price,” for feeder and finished cattle,” Randy says. “It will give farmers the incentive to breed more.”

The second company, R&P Gourmet Food Processing, Inc. manages product development and packaging. R&P contracts with several processing plants to make and package their beef sticks, jerky, hot dogs, brats, steak cuts and burgers. Currently, it is seeking investors to finance an on-farm facility. “We really want our own plant because then we have quality control,” Donna says.

Finally, R&P Gourmet Beef, Inc., the marketing company, distributes R&P products to almost 150 convenience and farm-supply stores in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Colorado, Tennessee and Kentucky. The company is in negotiations with several major grocers to market steak cuts and burgers, and it sells a full line of products online.

The Piedmontese advantage

Nationwide, there are only about 400 Piedmontese breeders; Minnesota has about a dozen. The Brandts are the only Piedmontese ranchers in the state who produce and sell value-added products. But the Piedmontese, which have only been in the United States for about 20 years, are just being discovered by American consumers who want lean but tender meat.

Full-bred Piedmontese, unlike British breeds such as Angus and Charolais, have few fat cells. On a hanging carcass, there is no layer of fat covering the red, sculpted, double-muscle meat.

Calves from dairy or beef cows bred with full-blood Piedmontese bulls have a little more fat. But a Pied-cross sirloin steak has less cholesterol and about half the fat of skinless chicken. Although Pieds are the same size as average beef cattle, they weigh more because muscle is heavier than fat. And their bones are smaller and denser.

To show the difference, Randy holds up an R&P Gourmet T-bone the size of a large dinner plate – about twice the size of the same Angus cut. Only a thin bone separates the tenderloin from the New York strip sections of the T-bone.

With so little marbeling, is it tough? Actually, “it’s more tender than other beef,” Randy says, and cooks in half the time. He explains that the Pied’s hyper-trophy muscles yield a fine-textured, naturally-tender meat.

A cook-out proves his point – steaks grilled only a few minutes on each side are juicy, tender and flavorful. He recommends also trying the ribs, which are “twice as meaty and not fatty like other ribs.”

However, R&P is up against USDA grading standards that equate fat marbeling with quality. Prime is recognized as the top grade, but it’s also the highest in fat; choice is next. R&P receives only the “standard” grade on steaks because they have little fat. “But talk to your heart specialists and they’ll say… lower fat… lower cholesterol,” Randy says.

Little lost to fat

Full-blood Pieds have coats of hollow hair that insulate them for Minnesota winters. “And they have sweat glands, so they don’t pant in hot weather,” Randy says.

With lightweight skin and small bones, even the half-bloods leave little processing waste. Slaughtered at 12 to 14 months old, a 1,100 pound Pied will yield up to 800 pounds of meat. “In the industry, 60 to 63 percent usable is considered good,” Donna says. “We get at least 70 percent.” Cows top out at 2,000 pounds and bulls at 2,800.

Production costs can be higher, “but the difference is minimal if you adapt feed rations to the breed,” Randy says. Because Pied crosses don’t have as many fat cells as Anglican breeds, feeding them corn to fatten them up “can be a waste of money,” Randy says. Instead, they need high-protein feeds such as alfalfa and beet pulp.

R&P raises its animals on natural feed without hormones or antibiotics. The hot dogs and brats contain no added nitrates or phosphates. All-natural Piedmontese beef is somewhat higher priced than Angus. Tenderloins are $23 per pound; T-bones are about $14. Wieners, brats and hamburgers are about $5 per pound. But little is lost in cooking.

For example, Donna says that for a fundraiser she prepared sloppy joe’s with R&P ground beef alongside regular ground beef to compare. “Out of the 50 pounds of regular beef, we lost 30 pounds of fat and liquid and were left with 20 pounds. From the 50 pounds of (R&P) beef, we only lost 10 pounds and ended up with 40 pounds,” Donna says. She put the drained liquid in buckets and refrigerated it. “The top four inches (of regular beef drippings) was fat. With the Pied drippings, fat barely skimmed the top … it’s great in soups or as au jus.”

Arriving from Italy

The breed can be traced back 25,000 years to Italy’s Piemonte region. (see accompanying story, “History of the Piedmontese”) They didn’t arrive in the United States until 1984. By 1994, there were 300 breeders and almost 12,000 registered Piedmontese in the country.

That’s when Randy discovered Pieds. He owned a 250-acre farm and had been in and out of dairy farming since he was 19 years old. In 1992, he decided to discontinue his 100-head dairy herd operation.

“I told an old classmate who works for the DNR that I wanted to get back into raising cows that had a future. He told me he had just planted trees at a neighbor’s who was into raising Pieds and said ‘I really like the look of these cows; they’ve been raising them for seven years.’ I went out and looked at the cattle the next day.”

Impressed with the muscular, docile animals, “I plunged in and bought one heifer – back then they cost 300 percent more than other cows.” The next year, his heifer won Reserve Grand Champion at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Co.

He started crossing dairy cows with a Piedmontese bull, then experimented with other British crosses such as Guernseys, Jerseys, Charolais and Herefords. He analyzed growth rates, yields, leanness and tenderness. His steaks tested favorably for fat and cholesterol and he decided to invest more in what he deemed the “beef of the future.”

Randy started selling steaks direct to friends and through farmers markets but realized he had to find a market for the trim. So in 2001, he contracted with a processor to make pepperoni meat sticks from his beef, blended with pork, which he marketed to local stores.

Knocking on AURI’s door

Later that year, Randy decided he wanted a new all-beef recipe and more products and approached AURI’s meat lab in Marshall. Former AURI meat scientist Brian Reuter experimented with various spices and natural smoke and designed Smoky Meat Sticks, which quickly became popular with R&P’s customers.

Randy peddled his sticks at southern Minnesota venues, including Sponsel’s Minnesota Harvest Apple Orchard in Jordan. There he met Donna, the orchard’s operations manager and head chef. But Donna had little time for schmoozing during the harvest season, when the restaurant served 150,000 people in 10 weeks.

A month later, during his Sponsel stop, Donna asked if he could make brats with the orchard’s home-pressed all natural apple cider. With AURI’s help, he delivered. The next spring, she asked for bacon burgers. “That’s what did it for me,” Donna says. “On a Sunday, when we were closed, he brought a sample to my house. I had always been too busy to talk with him before.”

She was impressed with the bacon burgers – and Randy. “We started dating a year ago last April, and we married in August (2003).”

In the meantime, Reuter continued to help Randy design more products at AURI’s meat lab, including a fine-textured, tender, intensely flavorful pepper jerky that went on the market in January.

This spring, AURI helped Brandt develop hot dogs and brats for retail and tested all the products for protein, fat and carbs.

“AURI has done so much for us,” Randy says. “They have helped with product development, moisture testing, cooking time – everything. We know once it’s developed by them, it’s done right. And we get product consistency.”

Meat cuts

Donna matched Randy’s production experience with retail expertise, helping move R&P into the more lucrative steak market. “I knew we needed uniform packaging, and standard cuts that are individually frozen.”

Now R&P is negotiating with several major grocery chains to market Piedmontese steaks. “We built a trim market first,” with jerky and sausages, Donna says. “We have been stockpiling steaks,” so there will be enough to meet market demands. Often, small meat processors have the reverse problem – they can easily market steaks, then have to figure out what to do with leftover trim.

With more interest in high-protein, low-fat, low-carb foods, the Brandts are expecting rapid growth, Donna says.

They intend to design pre-seasoned, microwavable steaks and are adding complementary products, such as steak seasoning. “We would like to develop 15 more products,” Randy says, and they want to build an on-farm retail store.

However, “we’ve been trying to do it all ourselves,” and R&P will need employees in production and marketing, and more farmers raising Piedmontese crosses to meet demand.

Donna says if their plans go as expected, “we’ll do $500,000 in sales this year, then one million next year, two to three (million) after that … and it will just keep growing.”

For more information on R&P Gourmet Beef or to order online, visitwww.rpgourmet.com.

From Pakistan to Italy to the U.S.

HISTORY OF THE PIEDMONTESE

Piedmontese cattle evolved in the Alpine regions of Italy known as the Piemonte, or “foot of the mountain,” some 25,000 years ago. Brahman cattle from Pakistan migrated to the region and stayed, as they couldn’t cross the Alps. They intermingled with native Aurochs, resulting in a grey-white breed with black pigmentation that became recognized as Piedmontese in the 1800s. They were raised as much for their rich milk, used for specialty cheeses, as their beef.

In 1886, the Italian Herdbook noted the appearance of ‘double muscling’ in the cattle. More than 100 years later, it was discovered that the Myostatin gene was the reason for the bulging muscles.

Myostatin occurs naturally in all mammals and restricts muscle growth. However, the gene naturally mutated over centuries and became inactive. Without the “growth governor” to restrict muscle development, the Piedmontese developed on average 14 percent more muscle mass than cattle with functional myostatin.

The Myostatin blockade effect not only allows for more beef per carcass, it “also dramatically improves the beef tenderness, leanness and healthfulness,” according to the North American Piedmontese Cattle Association Web site.

North America’s first Italian Piedmontese arrived in Canada in the fall of 1979: one bull named Brindisi, and 4 females: Banana, Biba, Bisca and Binda. The next year, five more bulls arrived: Captain, Champ, Corallo, Camino and Domingo. In the early 1980s, three more sires: Instinto, Imbuto and Iose and two females: India and Gazza were imported into the United States. From this genetic base, the breed was launched and Canada and the United States formed breeder associations. Today, there are about 400 Piedmontese breeders in the United States.

Source: North American Piedmontese Cattle Association Web site:www.piedmontese-napa.com