Dean Bryant gazes out at a hulking black bull alone in a hilltop paddock at Roseda Farm. The 4-year-old Angus known as "B010" ranks among the top four of 200,000 bulls in his breed for weaned calf value, a measure of the quality of his offspring.
It's the type of "supercow" Roseda is seeking to breed.
"We're pretty proud of him," Bryant, manager of the Monkton farm, said. "We've been doing this for 20, 21 years now, and that's one of the highlights."
Nestled in the rolling hills of Baltimore County, Md., Roseda Farm has been slowly perfecting its Black Angus herd to create beef prime for plating. Through genetic testing, dry-aging and a closed system that allows the ranch to see its cattle from conception to butchering, Roseda has built one of the largest beef operations in the Mid-Atlantic, according to the Maryland Cattlemen's Association. The brand has become ubiquitous on Baltimore-area restaurant menus, and the farm wants to become synonymous with Baltimore.
Owner Ed Burchell Sr. didn't know one end of a cow from the other when he bought the 350-acre farm in Monkton in 1986, he said. It wasn't long before he took an interest in cattle breeding and recruited Bryant, who was then at the University of Maryland's Wye Institute on the Eastern Shore researching one of the oldest Angus herds in the region.
"What he was trying to demonstrate was if you consistently breed cattle for beef quality, not size, you can dramatically change the quality of beef," Burchell said.
The industry has historically been rewarded for producing heavier-muscled cattle -- the faster cows can put on weight, the more revenue farmers can collect. Roseda takes the opposite approach, breeding cattle for traits that improve the texture of their meat and make for better steak. Black Angus cattle are known for their marbling (fat within muscle that adds to the meat's juiciness).
For every animal killed, Roseda tracks about 50 data points, including information on its weight, the size of its rib-eye and back fat. That data is sent to the American Angus Association, the group that ranked B010 among the best bulls for weaned calf value, and used in breeding decisions.
"We're not interested in the highest-muscling bull in the breed," Burchell said. "We're looking for somebody that's got a certain amount of back fat, very high in marbling, and also we test for a tenderness gene."
Bryant handles all of the breeding and genetic testing at the farm, which is done by artificial insemination. The purebred herd at Roseda Farm -- the genetic base of the entire operation -- is about 130 cows. The farm takes an ultrasound between each animal's 11th and 12th ribs at age 1 to get a sense of the quality of the rib-eye.
""That's when you get your first inkling of how promising that particular animal is," Burchell said. "Most of our cows are really good cows, but we're looking for that supercow, which just doesn't come along all that often."
The animals are not treated with antibiotics or hormones.
"I've never seen cattle that are so consistent, and that gets down to genetics," said Bill Ruppersberger, president of Old Line Custom Meat Co., which processes the beef.
Old Line was formed in 2011, when Roseda merged with George G. Ruppersberger & Sons, a Baltimore butchery established in 1866.
Old Line specializes in kosher beef, and 50 to 55 percent of the animals that pass through its slaughterhouse are deemed kosher, about twice the proportion at most slaughterhouses.
Whole beef carcasses are dry-aged for at least two weeks before they are separated into cuts sold in grocery stores, at restaurants, online and at the Monkton farm. As the meat dry-ages, enzymes in the muscle break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates in the tissue, and evaporation shrinks the meat, concentrating its flavor.
"It's one of our biggest competitive advantages, if not the biggest," said Eddie Burchell Jr., Ed's son and a partner in the business, noting that's especially true for Roseda's ground beef, a type of meat that is not typically dry-aged. "We're a steak burger."
The 17,000-square-foot plant in South Baltimore processes about 120 cattle and 200 lambs per week, Ruppersberger said. Smaller beef packing plants on the East Coast have all but disappeared due to the financial burdens of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulations, and large meat packers make it tough to compete, Ruppersberger said.
"That's why we had to find the niche that we're in," Ruppersberger said.
Dry-aging is expensive for beef producers because it ties up inventory and requires large refrigerated storage spaces. But it pays dividends. Roseda was too small to be profitable without selling its dry-aged ground beef at a premium.
"If we couldn't sell that at a huge premium, we were too small to be able to make the economics work," Burchell Sr. said. "Our program probably wouldn't work (in the West and Midwest) because people wouldn't go to the grocery store and pay $5.99 for a burger; they'd think you lost your mind."
The challenge locally has been persuading buyers to spend more and chefs to raise menu prices to support buying a premium product. Roseda's ground beef, for example, is about 50 to 60 cents more per pound than standard ground beef.
"The East Coast has been both a torment to us because we're not in the middle of cattle country, but ... because you've got a third of the population of the country living on the East Coast, it has really served our meat business well," Burchell Sr. said.