Beef Bites Back - Bob Dunn Photography
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Beef Bites Back

Burgers Coming UpSince we’ve begun grinding our own sausage and hamburger, I’ve been paying closer attention to certain cuts of meat that never really caught my eye that much in the past, namely beef chuck roasts and steaks, and pork shoulder or so-called Boston butt. Both the beef and pork cuts come from the animals’ shoulders, and both contain between 20% and 30% fat – perfect for burgers and sausage.

In the past, those cuts also have been known for their low price. However, as I have been learning, that has changed. I’ve been able to find deals on boneless pork shoulder from between $1.89 to $2.39 a pound at various grocers. But boneless chuck roast or chuck steaks are running above $4.50 a pound, with deals going for $3.59 – $3.79. That seems high to me.

And it turns out, it is high (for the feedlot beef you’re stuck with if you buy from grocery stores, and of course grass-fed, custom-slaughtered beef would be much higher).

According to data from the USDA, beef prices now are at or near record high prices, and they are forecast to rise another 3% to 4% over 2014.

This really should’ve been no surprise to me, if only I would have connected the dots from my farm neighbor’s pasture to Kroger’s meat market.

The neighbor behind my little Lavaca County farm runs cattle (as we say) on a main pasture of about 100 acres. But for the past couple years, it’s seemed as if the grass stopped growing, and the fields just look mostly like brownish stubble. It’s the drought. It got so bad last year that a band of his cows managed to break through the fence to get to my hayfield for some good eats for a change.

My neighbor has had to pay a lot of money to supplement his cattle’s feed, including buying hay that he’d be able to provide for himself if the rains were sufficient, which they are not.

As go the cattle fortunes of my neighbors, so go the fortunes of Texas in general, and the beef fortunes of the whole U.S., because Lavaca County is the biggest beef-producing county in the state, and Texas is the biggest beef-producing state in the union. There were about 68,000 head of cattle in Lavaca Cunty in 2012 – 50,000 more bovines than human county residents. But by the end of 2013, the total cattle herd was just 60,000. Ranchers had to sell off part of their herds because there just wasn’t enough forage due to the drought.

That’s been happening to herds across Texas and most of the rest of the large cattle states, to the extend that now, according to The Associated Press, there are fewer cattle on U.S. pastures than at any time since 1951.

So even if it starts raining hard for the next three months and my neighbor is prompted to keep more cows to birth more calves, it’ll be a long while before that translates into beef prices us peasants might consider “reasonable.”

Thus, if you must buy feedlot meat (and at this point, I still do) my advice is to forget the beef and go for the cheap pork shoulder. At half the price of its equivalent in beef, you’d have to consider it a bargain. Plus it’s more versatile than chuck. Not only can you make all manner of sausages out of it, you can toss it in the smoker, and turn it into awesome pulled pork (although granted, this can take 12 hours).

Or, you can make a Mexican version of pulled pork, which is much easier and really tasty:

Easy Yucatan Pork

→ 3-4 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into three or four semi-equal pieces
→ 2-3 tablespoons achiote paste, which can be found at grocery stores all over Texas, or you can make your own
→ 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
→ the juice of two limes
→ 2 cups of orange juice
→ 1 large sweet onion, sliced thin
→ 2 large garlic cloves, minced
→ salt and pepper to taste

→ Place the pork pieces in a large crock-pot
→ Combine the achiote paste, olive oil, lime juice and a little salt in a small bowl. Use the back of a fork to work the achiote paste into the liquid. Watch for splashes, because the red paste can stain.
→ Pour the contents from the bowl over the meat. Turn the meat to make sure all sides are coated with the achiote mixture.
→ Turn the crock-pot on low and cook for 8 hours if you have the time, or on high for 4 hours if you’re in a “hurry.”
→ Sprinkle the garlic over the meat. Pour the orange juice over everything. Lay the onion slices on top. Close the crock-pot lid and wait. When a knife slides through the meat almost like butter, it’s done.

You can shred some up and serve it with chopped tomatoes or sliced hot peppers or avocados or onions marinated in lime juice, all rolled up in warm corn tortillas. Or just ladle some up over rice. Simple, easy, good enough to help wean you away from expensive beef.

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