Ranching isn't easy, nor always profitable, but for two Delta County ranchers, Piedmontese cattle may be the key to agricultural success. Gayle Ware, Hotchkiss, first learned about Piedmontese cattle from her father. At that time, the breed had been in the U.S. for only about 10 years.
"We always had problems with brisket [disease]," she said referring to why they decided to try the foreign cow. Being at a higher elevation often led to losing calves for her family, even when they tried various "high altitude" bulls. She estimated at least 20 percent of the herd would die.
Since switching to Piedmontese, she hasn't lost a single calf to brisket, also known as mountain sickness, pulmonary hypertension and dropsy. "These [Piedmontese] are the only truly brisket-free cows," she said.
Four years ago, Lance Kappel, Austin, learned about Piedmontese from Ware and decided to try out her bull. He ended up purchasing that bull and uses Piedmontese bulls now to create "an excellent cross breeding program."
Essentially they take a full blood Piedmontese and cross with another breed. Cross breeding helps the offspring, say a Saler or Braunvieh, have the desired Piedmontese characteristics ideal for ranching success and premium sales.
A Cow from Abroad
Piedmontese cattle originate from the northwestern region of Italy. In 1979 the first bull and cows were brought to North America. Now there are over 15,000 such cattle in the U.S. and Canada, totaling less than one percent of all cattle on the continent.
A blend of the wild cow, Parouch, and Zebu from Pakistan, this unique breed has a unique gene mutation.
An inactive myostatin allele causes double muscling, or overgrowth of muscle. Purebred Piedmontese carry two identical alleles present for this gene.
This gene tells muscle to quit growing. With it being inactive in these cattle the muscle grows more than normal.
The DNA Advantage
Ware understands why many are apprehensive about incorporating Piedmontese into their herd. When Piedmontese first came to America they got a bad name due to the need for a higher protein diet. They also require more minerals and selenium. All easy remedies fixed with pre-knowledge.
Even Ware's own father thought they were "dirty" with their unusual creamy white with black coat.
In her experience though, dark skin actually helps protect them from skin cancer or pink eye, and they don't experience foot rot with black hard feet. Fullbloods have hollow hair like a goat so they're insulated well and do better in hot or cold weather.
While Kappel sees other cows seeking shelter during the summer months, his Piedmontese are often still out in the sun.
Another myth Ware hears often is that the double muscling will lead to issues, namely with calving. But the exact opposite is true, since they don't come out double muscled. Ware described the breed as having "hybrid vigor."
The past three years Kappel has been at 100 percent success with no loss of calves and minimal to no intervention."We don't have to doctor the calves," he said. "They hit the ground running after they're born."
By contrast, Ware once had a head of 30 Saler cows and ended up having to pull every calf out of the heifers.
Strong milking traits (rich milk and high udders) and excellent maternal traits also make for healthier calves. Piedmontese calves tend to run a bit smaller at birth with no calving issues -- 60 to 70 pounds for first timers.
They also have smaller bones, and at three weeks the growth kicks in helping them reach a comparable weight when weaned. However, they will have more meat on them.
Typically a Piedmontese when sold will yield about seven percent more meat and 14 percent less fat than other breeds. Smaller bones, less connective tissue and less marbling all create a premium price cut that's said to be extremely lean while incredibly tender.
"Heart patients are usually told no more red meat but this meat is lower in cholesterol than turkey, chicken, bison and traditional beef, and has few calories per ounce compared to salmon," said Ware, citing statistics also found online for every consumer.
Certified Piedmontese Beef also has over 10 cuts that meet the American Heart Association's certification qualifications for extra-lean meats and is endorsed as a "heart-healthy choice."
Add in quicker cook times and less shrinkage and it's easy to see why this is becoming a more popular choice for steak lovers. "The meat might cost a little more for the Piedmontese, but it's a better experience," said Kappel.
A Better Ranching
Premium pricing is another selling point that prompted Wale and Kappel to switch toward Piedmontese.
"We were tired of going to the auction barn and taking whatever they offered," said Ware. Kappel agreed. He wanted more consistency in sales.
Now both have a private treaty with a popular purchaser of Piedmontese, Lone Creek Cattle Co. in Nebraska.
Kappel and Ware get an incentive of $180 just to raise a calf. Then when they sell, heifers pull the same price as steers and they get the highest market price in the entirety of Colorado when they're hauled to Nebraska.
"This meat is sold all over the world for a premium price," said Ware. Places like Las Vegas and Japan can't keep up with the high demand.
Kappel and Ware will sell a butcher cow; even older cows have been found to be just as good for personal use.
While juicier meat and a healthier cut lead to premium pricing, the fact that Piedmontese beef is raised naturally and has a strict traceability program also creates customer value and satisfaction.
No additional hormones, steroids or antibiotics are allowed with certified Piedmontese beef. A good vaccination program keeps most bugs at bay and should they need medication then the cows cannot be sold as certified, but Ware and Kappel have had no difficulties with sick herds.
Like other Piedmontese breeders, Kappel and Ware use DNA testing to ensure that the desired genetics are present in their bulls and cows.
According to Ware, she takes a full blood Piedmontese and cross breeds with another, say a Saler. A full blood has DNA tested original Piedmontese parentage on both sides back to the inception of the European herd book in 1897.
The full blood puts one copy of the unique gene to the offspring, giving them the Piedmontese characteristics of extra muscle but little fat and hybrid vigor. While requiring a little extra thinking, the cross-breeding program is what meat buyers want and helps ensure the best outcome for calves.
For both Ware and Kappel, the benefits of Piedmontese cattle are numerous. Ranching, they said, is who they are. Ware's family started homesteading in 1881. "It's hard work but an honest living," said Ware's husband, Jim. Success with Piedmontese has only improved their experience.
The only drawback is that an initial investment can be costly. Due to limited availability but rising popularity, Ware said Piedmontese bulls can now sell for prices of $8,000-$30,000.
Kappel's route, finding someone he knew with a Piedmontese bull to lease and possibly buy, might be easier for some desiring to make the switch.
"At first I thought my father was crazy, but now I realize that raising Piedmontese is a way for us to sell the best beef you can eat and come out ahead with fewer cows," concluded Ware. "They're the only breed of cows I know will always pay the mortgage."