Dairy farmers milking Jersey cattle know that in today's meat market, their bulls have virtually no value. Beef breeds genetically selected for meat production dominate the market.
Those who raise dairy calves have a hard time making any profit and prefer larger Holsteins to smaller Jerseys.
Yet researchers with the American Jersey Cattle Association believe certain consumers would prefer Jersey meat. They believe it can be marketed as a specialty product, if studies could be conducted as to how long and at what ration Jersey steers put on optimal weight to "finish" a good product.
So they've enlisted Tillamook dairymen Norm and Chad Martin, along with Oregon State University, to research the merits of finishing Jersey steers for the commercial market. "I don't know anybody who's done a trial like this," said Chad Martin.
Eighteen months ago, the Martins said, they raised 20 Jersey bull calves to weaning age. OSU researches then transported the calves to Corvallis and began a trial study by feeding the steers the same ration that beef breeds are fed.
The goal was to tabulate the animals' feed intake and the number of days necessary to finish the steers to a final product grade of "choice." Researchers then would compare the results to those of traditional beef breeds such as Angus or Herefords.
"I'm hoping we'll learn enough that it'll open a market for Jersey meat," Martin said.
Results of the study have yet to be tabulated, but early indicators are promising, said Garret Tschida, an OSU graduate student studying animal science and ruminant nutrition and working on the project under Chad Mueller, a PhD in ruminant nutrition and management.
One interesting item emerging in the early study results, Tschida said, is that the Jersey steers needed just two-tenths of an inch of back fat to finish at "choice" grade. Traditional beef breeds typically need four-tenths of an inch to reach the same grade.
That may indicate Jerseys put more fat into their muscles instead of along their backline, he said. Intra-fat marbling is what gives meat its tenderness; butchers carve away and discard excess topline fat before selling the meat.
Tschida fed the Jerseys grass hay, cracked corn and protein pellets, "a very traditional beef setting in terms of diet," he said. The steers needed 444 days to mature, the same as a beef animal.
The researchers received the calves from the Martins at 200 pounds. Their average mature size at "choice" grade was 1,000 pounds.
Beef breeds mature to approximately 1,250 pounds, Tschida said, which may pose a problem if producers want to market Jersey steers in a commercial setting. In today's homogenized processing plants, processors are looking for animals of uniform size and scale to fit standardized equipment and to speed up the process. Smaller Jerseys don't fit the bill.
Still, Jersey beef may be what health-conscious consumers want. "We can all talk about smaller portions," he said, "but if a large cut is on your plate, you'll eat it."
Tschida said the best meats cuts, such as rib eye or prime rib, will be a smaller product with Jersey beef.
The American Farm Bureau Federation says as consumers take stock of their budgets during the national recession, high-end, high-expense meat cuts, such as prime rib and rib-eye steaks, are falling to the wayside as buyers substitute hamburger or other meat products for beef.
And those still incorporating beef cuts into their eating-out habits are looking for the best price possible and substituting smaller portions. Too, there are those who desire grass-fed, all-natural beef.
Tschida said Jersey beef has shown to be at the top level of all cattle for the propensity for marbling ... the intra-muscular fat that gives meat flavor and tenderness. Jersey meat, he said, is high in flavor and because Jerseys often are grass-fed, the meat tends to be high in beta-carotene as well.
Martin said his family eats Jersey beef and that "it's great. If you put beef in front me, I don't know that I could tell the difference if it was Jersey or a (different) beef cut."
Tschida said that although not all the data are in yet, "there are a lot of positives at this point" in the study.