There was a time when we thought nothing of ordering a 16-ounce steak from grain fed beef and going home with the whole thing in our belly with none of it in a doggie bag for later. Times have changed, though, and more often than not, we opt for a smaller cut of beef, preferably grass-fed. Monte and Karen Burcher of Burcher Ranch in Yoncalla have an answer to both of these needs. They provide grass-fed beef to customers at the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market in Roseburg, and the beef comes from Dexters, a breed of cattle known to be about two thirds the size of traditional beef cattle. So the cuts of beef are naturally smaller, more in line with the recommendations in place today.
Dexters are originally from Ireland, where they were considered multipurpose animals, providing milk, serving as oxen and providing meat. Farms in Ireland were usually small, so a few of these cattle could keep a family in meat and milk and work for a living. They are less common in Ireland now but they have quite a following here in the U.S. as beef animals.
Monte and Karen were raising sheep and a few cattle on their 123-acre property but wanted to switch over totally to cattle, and Karen found some Dexters for sale. They liked the idea that as smaller animals, they were easier on the ground, not compacting the soil as much as their heavier counterparts. Also, Dexters are foragers as much as grazers, so they made better use of the whole property than the traditional breeds. Starting out with a bull and two cows, the herd has grown to 21 cows, and they usually butcher between 12 and 18 per year.
Other advantages of the Dexters are lower birth weight for calves, which means less stress for the cows, and plenty of rich milk so the calves thrive and have a calm temperament, making them easy to handle. The original cattle in Ireland had horns, but breeders have developed a polled variety which is more prevalent in the US.
Dexters meat is not heavily marbled with fat, but don’t think that the meat suffers because of that. The animals aren’t butchered until close to two years old, because they are slower to mature, whcih gives the meat time to develop a richer flavor. The meat is finer grained than traditional beef, which makes it more tender. As long as it isn’t cooked into leather, it is very tender.
Burchers offer most prime cuts of beef, all vacuum sealed. Hamburger comes in one pound packages. They also offer beef in halves and whole and find that many people who try a few packages make the move to a half or whole beef soon. The beef is processed at Crystal Creek Meats, just outside of Roseburg.
Monte and Keren are of the belief that a good piece of beef doesn’t need to be seasoned heavily. They don’t recommend brines, rubs or marinades, just salt, pepper and a little garlic on a roast. They cure their own corned beef from brisket and make beef breakfast sausage that must be pretty darned good judging from the way Monte was drooling when Karen was explaining how she makes it. Their burger is 93 to 95 percent lean. Karen’s recipe for meat loaf follows. Monte cooks most of the steaks on the barbecue grill. For medium rare, he finds that 3 minutes per side is perfect.
Burcher Ranch has lots of little pens and pastures containing interesting stuff, good stuff. One pasture holds McKenzie, a 14-year-old Dexter pensioner. Past calf bearing age, she is kept around to calm the younger animals and babysit the calves while the mother cows graze. Five horses hold court at one of the barns, contentedly munching hay, probably more than the whole herd of cattle eat. And the lower pasture is full of Canadian geese, whether Burchers like it or not. Geese eat a great deal of pasture, but are determined to live where they want, in this case, the Burchers’ lower pasture. And then the dogs. Monte has three; Karen has one. Karen’s dog is a dinky little house dog. Monte has working dogs, two of them being Huntaways, a breed originated in Australia. Bigger and sturdier than a border collie, they are intent on watching over the ranch. There is also a border collie who isn’t quite sure what her career will be.
Next time you need some beef for your freezer, stop by the Burcher Ranch booth at the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market. You won’t be disappointed.