As two dogs trot into the pasture, tall, smooth black cattle raise their heads, curious but unconcerned.
“Hi, girls!” shouts Kirk Sterzick. He’s trying to sort out the cow who craves human attention, but the herd, as one, calmly moves away. Young Reba wants to work harder than this day will offer, but she controls herself. Missy, getting up in years, lags a bit behind the pup.
Kirk seems unperturbed that the barn painter is late. It took longer than expected the day before at Single Tree Farms near Charlotte, painting a giant logo which identifies a brand that only two farmers in Michigan can claim.
Michigan Angus farmers aren’t exactly in the breed’s hotbed. That’s out West. But the honor of having the Certified Angus Beef (CAB) 40th anniversary logo painted bigger than life on their barns is a tribute to Kirk Sterzick’s and Evan and Grace Boehmer’s love of both the breed and a grilled steak that’s as elegant as the plain black steer that produces it.
“I definitely am the plain type of guy,” said Evan Boehmer. “We don’t have a single bottle of A-1 in the house. We put on a little coarse salt and pepper, but if we can’t produce a steak that can stand on its own, we’re not where we want to be.”
Kirk said people make fun of him because he likes his steak – Certified Angus, of course ‑ brown.
“I don’t want it mooing,” he laughs. “No pink. My mom always grilled it with a little salt and pepper, and to this day, I like my steaks plain.”
It’s plain to see, even though neither Kirk nor Evan knew exactly why their farms were chosen at first, that there’s unbridled dedication to Angus and the people who raise them in Michigan.
“There’s a real community within the breed,” Evan said. “We all at least halfway know each other. Back in 2010, we bought a couple cows from Kirk as we reestablished the herd here in Charlotte with all Michigan cattle. One of the neater things in the beef industry is that you’re not in competition with anyone but yourself. It’s about what your market is, not what the industry tells you to do.”
That kind of freedom is what makes the CAB program so attractive for dedicated farmers.
For consumers, it’s all about the product’s attractiveness in the meat case and consistent quality. As long as the animal it came from is at least 51 percent black and its meat grades properly with the right marbling and consistency, it can be certified CAB.
It all begins in the pasture, but that doesn’t mean any one farming method is better than another. The Boehmers grain-finish their steers. Sterzick doesn’t.
“Right now I’m getting ready to wean calves off, so I’ll give them a little grain to get a taste, but my herd is grass-fed,” Kirk said. “My folks were never believers in pushing grain. They said if a cow was going to make it, she should make it on grass. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but it’s neat that I can keep my parent’s legacies alive here. My grandpa bought this farm in 1909, and I’ve lived here all my life. It’s mainly for reproduction; replacement heifers and bulls.”
Beohmer’s farm is a bit different. Like Kirk, Evan grew up with Angus. His herd is a little bigger, having been populated with both Angus and Simmentals in 2009 after having no cattle on the farm since the early 1970s, Evan said.
“We started with a small herd, but now we’re up to 50 cow-calf pairs and still growing,” he said. Like Sterzick’s 24-cow herd, cattle raised for the high-quality heifer and bull market are exclusively grass-fed.
With general agreement on how the best Certified Angus Beef is raised, the two farms have another thing in common now. Both farms have a barn with a large Certified Angus Beef logo on it.
“It’s beautiful,” the two agreed. But there’s a major difference. The Boehmer barn is white, and the logo is “visible for over a mile,” Evan said. Sterzick’s barn remains natural and grayish, so the trademark stands out with a decidedly rustic contrast.
For their efforts in raising high-quality cattle and beef, the logos are free advertising, but both farmers are deserving, said Nicole Erseg, producer communications specialist with Certified Angus Beef.
“We were looking for great ambassadors for the brand who would help tell our story,” she said. “They both have gorgeous barns. They both have farm histories and great stories to tell. And in Michigan, where Meijer and Cisco have big retail markets, we wanted people to see the logo and go and buy the product.”
Nominated, undoubtedly, by someone with ties to the industry, the two farms are amid 40 barns that were painted in 25 states, Erseg said.
More exciting than the anniversary, however, is that CAB celebrated a record-breaking sales year, she said.
“In the last year, 1.14 billion pounds of Certified Angus Beef was sold,” she said. “That brought Angus producers marketing through the program $75 million in grid premiums” (based on superior carcass quality).
Quality, of course, all begins with breeding, and as genetics are improved, so is the meat.
“At one time, only about 10 percent of carcasses had the specifications it took to get into the brand,” she said. “Today, the industry average is 30 percent. That’s a tribute to the farmers who have improved the genetics to focus on marbling, and that turns into profits for the farmer. This whole brand’s mission is to increase demand for registered Angus cattle, and in order to do that, we have to make them profitable. Nearly two-thirds of last year’s 4.54 million Angus cattle accepted for the brand (that means they met live-animal specifications of having a predominantly black hide) were sold on value-based grids. The USDA refers to this as ‘formula pricing,’ but most feeders call it ‘grid marketing.’ Either way, value per carcass is determined through premiums and discounts.”
Naturally, the brand puts out recommended guidelines for cattle nutrition, health and genetics, but again, farmers are not judged, aside for one main thing they try to control.
“We say that a calf can never have a bad day,” Erseg said.
Knowing that is one reason Kirk said he breeds for docility. But as the dogs do their jobs in the pasture, it’s clear there is more.
“I dabbled with Shorthorns and Simmentals, but I don’t know what it is about them. The black Angus cows always interested me,” he said. “I guess you’ve got to love it.”
As long as people love the quality of CAB meat, folks like Boehmer and Sterzick will continue to seek improvements. And even if markets change, love for the breed will endure.
“Michigan Angus breeders are a smaller group, but we all think Angus is the best,” Boehmer said. “It’s what brings us together first. We all speak the same language. We’re all willing to help each other out. Once you meet Angus people, you know them for life.”
Once in a while, you offer them a good steak, too. And share a little with the dogs.