Beefing up the school curricula
Local students learn about agriculture research
By CHRISTIE BLECK
Journal Staff Writer
CHATHAM — Call it a school lesson via hayride.
Students from Negaunee High School’s environmental science class on Wednesday visited the South Farm at the Michigan State University Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center — an appropriate activity since the class has a distinct agriculture bent.
Abbey Palmer, MSU Extension educator at the UPREC, located in Chatham, helped lead the activity that got the students outside on a sunny fall day in a rural setting.
“When students come to visit the MSU U.P. Research and Extension Center, we do a variety of things,” Palmer said. “We do a hayride where they can see the cows and learn about their life cycle. We sample local food, and then we also do hands-on ‘Next Gen’ Science Standards activities in small groups.”
“Next Gen” stands for Next Generation Science Standards, which were developed to improve science education for K-12 students.
Wednesday’s activities were to include trips to the UPREC’s South and North farms.
Palmer told the students that statewide centers such as the UPREC are designed to provide outreach for area farmers.
They also are places for experts to educate youngsters on new agricultural methods, as evidenced by Wednesday’s hayride through the South Farm fields.
Paul Naasz, the UPREC’s farm manager also known as “Farmer Paul,” talked about the center’s Red Angus cattle herd, which showed an interest — albeit a docile one — in the students’ presence.
Curiosity aside, the herd has calves of varying ages.
Some calves were born last fall at this time, Naasz said, while others were born two years ago.
“The ones born two years ago are going to be marketed here within the next few weeks,” said Naasz, who noted the farm uses a fall-calving method for the grass-finished beef operation.
The UPREC chose to raise Red Angus cattle because they tend to be smaller in stature than other varieties, so they “finish” better on grass, Naasz said.
Since Negaunee proper isn’t overrun with Red Angus cattle, the students had a few questions, one of which was about the identification tags.
The first calf born, Naasz said, is numbered G901, followed by G902, etc., with G signifying 2019.
Birth weights on the farm also differ, and it can be quite a bit.
“Our average on this group of cows is 80 pounds,” Naasz said. “That’s a little bit breed-dependent. Different breeds have different birth weights.”
The heaviest calf so far this fall weighed in at 114 pounds, he noted, with the lightest calf weighing 37 pounds.
Fortunately, that smallest calf lived.
“It’s very uncommon, from that small, to make it and survive,” Naasz said.
It is a farm operation, though, and cattle, it must be remembered, are raised for a reason.
Naasz said Black Angus beef seems to be the American standard for meat quality, which is determined by marbling, or intramuscular fat, which makes a steak juicy.
Prime grade beef is considered the best, followed by choice grade beef, he said.
Even the lower grade can be difficult to achieve.
“On the grass-finished beefs, we have trouble meeting that choice grade,” Naasz said. “Hardly ever do we get a prime.”
So, the UPREC has been undergoing a cross-breeding program to improve the herd’s beef quality.
Naasz said Wagyu cattle, which has high marbling, is being bred with the Red Angus.
“For like 150 years, they selected these breeds in Japan,” Naasz said. “Didn’t let the genetics out of the country until the 1970s.”
He said the crossbred calves came from female Red Angus and a male Wagyu. Those calves have red tags.
“We’re trying to increase the marbling content, increase the quality grade, which we get paid a premium every time we go up the scale and end up with a higher-quality grade,” Naasz said.
That means a better steak — and the three things that make up a good steak, he said, are tenderness, juiciness and flavor.
And who wants to eat a dry steak?
WIth the UPREC being a research facility, some experimentation is expected.
“We’re in the process of doing a research project comparing the grass-finished beef to corn-fed beef,” Naasz said, “and we actually had 30 head of contemporary steers in the barn that we fed grain to, or corn, all winter long, and those just got slaughtered last week.”
What’s next, he said, is a “taste panel” performing sensory testing on different cuts from the grass- and corn-feeding systems as well as the crossbred cattle.
“We’re working on really trying to make that grass-fed beef taste as good as the corn-fed beef,” Naasz said.
That’s a challenge since he acknowledged most people prefer corn-fed beef.
“If the grass-fed wants to break into that market, we need to start competing a little better on the quality of the beef,” Naasz said.
Other schools have gone on such farm tours recently, Palmer said, including Bothwell Middle School and Graveraet Elementary School, both in Marquette, and Birchview Elementary School in Ishpeming, with Marquette Alternative High School scheduled to visit next week.
“It’s a really big range of ages, and we try to tailor the activities to be suitable to the age,” Palmer said.
Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.