The Cattle at This Zen California Ranch Basically Run the Joint
Just on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, in Northern California’s Plumas County, sits Genesee Valley Ranch, a small, family-owned cattle ranch producing Wagyu beef that is so high-quality it grades well beyond USDA Prime.
“Prime is below what is considered the Japanese scale for Wagyu,” co-owner Florencia Palmaz told me. The Japanese scale “goes essentially from A2 to A12. We’re at A7,” she said. Their Wagyu is completely grass-fed and finished, using practices that are sustainable and beyond humane.
Imported Wagyu beef is often thought to come from pampered cows. In many cases, these cows are restricted from walking to keep their muscles tender. Grass-fed beef has a reputation for being tough, and it often is. “It’s very rare, if ever, that a grass-fed animal grades at Prime,” Palmaz said. These grass-fed cows, though, roam freely and have no restrictions on their movement, and yield remarkably tender beef with even marbling and rich flavor. A rarity, for sure, but even more rare is how they go about producing such a special product.
Genesee Valley Ranch is owned by a family of winemakers, the Palmaz family of Palmaz Vineyards in the Napa Valley. The Palmazes have embraced technology that helps monitor their soil, reduce water usage, and better manage their vines. In charge of the operation is ranch manager Michelle Haskins, a fifth-generation cattle rancher who grew up learning from her family. She still follows a lot of her grandfather’s advice: “He’s 80 and has been doing this all his life. I think it’s safe to follow his advice. He knows what he’s talking about,” she said.
Her practices are extremely respectful of the cows and the land. The land is never sprayed or manually irrigated. The only maintenance is provided by the cows—they weed and trim the grasses (but never so low that regrowth would be compromised), and fertilize the plot they’re on before moving to their next location on the ranch. To decide where is best to move the herd, Genesee Valley Ranch has an infrared aerial photo taken once a month. The imaging shows the state of growth of the grasses on every part of the ranch. Haskins can see where the optimal pasture is, and move the cows accordingly. In the cold months, she makes sure they’re in parts of the ranch that offer some cover. “No animal just sits there and weathers the storm if it doesn’t have to. I want to be able to offer them shelter in the rain or snow,” she said.
There is an emphasis here on making sure the cows never experience stress. Haskins lets calves wean naturally, which keeps both mother and baby happy, and she doesn’t remove the cows’ horns. The dogs are trained to never bark at the cows. Her crew is trained similarly—there’s no poking, prodding, or aggression of any kind. To move a herd, they’ll wave the cows in a certain direction and let them move at their own pace, waiting patiently. She and her crew joke that it’s the cows who are really in charge of the ranch.
Haskins actually does give the cows some autonomy. She set up what she calls an “open-choice mineral program.” Rather than supplying a single mix of mineral salts for the whole herd, the cows get to make a nutritional decision for themselves. There are stations set up on the ranch that resemble large day-of-the-week pill boxes. Each compartment contains a single mineral salt (magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur, etc.), and the cows help themselves to what they want. “The body knows how to care for itself,” she said. “This lets them take what their bodies need.” She notices that the popular minerals change throughout the year, and that there are some the animals never want, “our pasture must be very rich in magnesium, because that one’s always left untouched.”
Every cow on Genesee Valley Ranch is treated with thoughtful care from birth to the end of its life. “We see them all the way through their lives, so there’s even more incentive to do right by them,” said Haskins. It would be disrespectful of the animal if the end product wasn’t of the best possible quality. At the end of their lives, when the animals appear to be ready for processing, they employ technology once more. Sometimes a cow looks ready, at least from the outside, but its muscle and fat composition isn’t exactly perfect yet. To guarantee that they’re processing the cattle at the right time, and not a moment too soon, they use an ultrasound to measure the percentage of intramuscular fat (aka marbling). This is a unique step that gives them more certainty about the quality of the beef.
The final step in quality control: Every piece of meat that is sent out is hand-wrapped by Haskins, giving her an opportunity to make a final inspection. If something doesn’t look quite up to her standards, it doesn’t go to a customer.
Genesee Valley Ranch Wagyu beef is available through a subscription that works much like a CSA. Every two months, subscribers receive a delivery that includes various cuts of beef, many of which are not commonly found at a butcher counter. They utilize every part of the animal, including bones (soup bones and marrow bones sometimes show up in a delivery). The goal of the subscription, says co-owner Christian Palmaz, is “getting the customer to think about the cow as a whole animal and not just a ribeye or a New York strip.” They want people to appreciate every part of the animal. To help with that, they’ve created a site for subscribers that anthologizes every cut they receive throughout the year. They include the history of the cut, the best ways to handle the meat, and suggested recipes.
You can sign up for 2020 subscriptions here.