Why should I pay more? We’re asked that question. A lot. Especially when you can save some of your hard-earned income by shopping at a big box store.
When you’re paying more, you should know more about the products you are buying, whether it’s halibut or ham, broccoli or beef. To do just that, we recently spoke with Lorne and Sandi Zentner to better understand why their beef costs you more. There are obviously a lot of costs that go into raising cattle, more so if you aren’t a big producer and strive to provide top-quality humanely-raised, grass-fed cows. And there are a great many factors to be considered, like weather fluctuations, an aging population of farmers, competition with alternative protein sources, even global demand, but what it really comes down to is simple supply and demand. The input costs are up and the demand remains steady. The price of purchasing bulls and heifers has increased, as well as the price of feed, and the demand for beef has not waned.
To make a plain analogy, it’s like fine wine. A bottle of wine that costs $8 is likely to taste a lot like grape juice, yet a bottle of finely aged wine made from carefully selected grapes of expertly-crafted vines grown in unique soil will go for substantially more. It’s simply better. Silver Sage Beef is like a finely aged wine; an older cow = better beef.
So, what sets them apart from the rest? Keep reading…. or stop by the shop here at the market and ask, they’ll be happy to share more information with you!
If you’ve been into the Silver Sage Full Service Beef Shop at the market, you’ve probably met Kent, the Zentner son who runs the city operations, or even Lorne and Sandi themselves when they’re able to get away from the ranch. Friendly and knowledgable, they guide you through the process of choosing just the right cut of beef for your tastes and occasion. But there’s a whole lot more behind Silver Sage Beef and we wanted to find out just how much.
The Zentner family’s ranch, located just south of the Cypress Hills, is now 14,000 acres of sun-washed, gently rolling prairie land that has been in the family for more than a hundred years. The journey, while long at approximately five hours from Calgary to the intersection of the Alberta, Saskatchewan and Montana borders, is beautiful. A sea of green as far as the eye can see; hills swaying with vibrant grass like rolling waves, flecked with dark dots: happy cows lazing about and grazing on sweet grass. It is picturesque.
I arrived at the ranch with my guide, Kent Zentner, with a warm welcome from his parents, Lorne and Sandi, his sister Kristine, and brother-in-law, Monty. I could tell right away that I was in for a treat as Piper (the indispensable and beloved farm dog) bounded over to me while Sandi tilled the to-be planted vegetable garden, and Lorne strolled over from the charming red barn.
They invited me in for a homemade lunch of hamburger soup; I grew up eating this prairie essential, but my mom’s never tasted this good. Sitting with the Zentner family over a warm bowl of soup was as familiar as sitting with my own family; they have a beautiful way of making you feel at home. They shared with me their family history as far back as they could remember as we finished the last drop of lemonade.
And then we were off. To the old barn that was moved in the icy winter across the farm to where it stands now, still in use to milk the cows, as a manger for horse and cattle, and assist in calving season.
And to meet the bulls. Lorne and Kristine explained to me how they choose the perfect bull; selecting ‘quiet’ animals and conducting an ultrasound of the rib eye to ensure adequate size and pristine marbling. And that’s even before they bring the beast home. They’re beautiful creatures, calm yet mighty. I could see the pride on all of their faces, and knew they saw the awe on mine. Lorne wanted to show me his favourite spot on the ranch, how could I resist? As we drove across the hills, following what I was told were the wagon-made trails made by his family long ago, we reached a ridge overlooking acres upon acres of green; bison far off in the distance (of Olson’s High Country Bison to be precise).
The five of us stood up there, a blanket of blue and soft, pillowy clouds above us, the breeze caressing our cheeks; I felt like I’d been invited into a secret club. I was in. I never wanted to leave. But we had more to see. So much more.
Lorne and Sandi have been refining and improving their herd for 35 years, carefully buying new stock to bring in desired genetics, continually selecting the best quality replacement heifers. The herd is predominantly purebred Angus and Gelbvieh cattle, the result: a very consistent, hardy cattle well-suited to Canadian prairie conditions, yielding beef with the excellent flavour and marbling characteristics preferred by knowledgeable beef lovers.
The cattle are humanely raised in a natural environment, roaming and grazing freely on the Zentner’s open pastures of nutritious prairie short grass for most of their lives. Just before winter sets in, the calves are weaned and put on a high roughage diet – primarily hay and green feed – for about five months. This is, I learned from Kristine, called “backgrounding” and is necessary to keep the calves well fed and healthy during the very cold, snowy winters. In the spring, yearlings are returned to graze on open pasture, allowing them to grow naturally on a grass diet in a healthy stress-free environment with clean air and water, and lots of sunshine and space to roam.
Remember Lorne’s favourite spot? Now imagine you’re a cow, it’s like heifer heaven out there.
At maturity (which is 2-2.5 years), Silver Sage cattle are finished for about 100 days at the Scheibner family farm near Gem, Alberta on a diet of hay and silage, supplemented with barley and other grains. Grain finishing strongly enhances both the marbling and flavour of the beef. All Silver Sage cattle are free from hormones and therapeutic antibiotics. And there are no animal by-products in the feed. Ever. Silver Sage Beef is dry aged for superb flavour and tenderness. And all animals in the Silver Sage program are age-verified and fully traceable. So that means when you return to Kent at the market to give him your feedback, the family knows exactly what cow that delicious, succulent ribeye came from. Pretty neat eh?
It’s pretty amazing to think that a centurion ranch spread across 14,000 acres with 1,500 cattle is maintained and nourished by 3 people: Lorne, Sandi, and now Monty. Let’s just say, they’re hard workers. Their ‘small’ family beef shop managed by Zentner brother, Clark, launched just two years ago in April 2011 when the market opened in our new location. Offering a complete range of cuts and a full-time butcher for custom orders, they’re a busy place. It hasn’t taken them long to gain a following of loyal customers, demanding more than 500 cattle from the ranch every year. AND, they serve up a range of delicious beef at Silver Sage Burgers in the market food court.
But my field trip wasn’t destined to end in the numbers of their business, no, there was more to see of course! Walking through cool streams, skipping rocks (well, attempting to at least), and even seeing Kent and Kristine’s old high school in Consul, I got the full tour.
The sun: a farmer’s timepiece, still high in the sky enticed us to stay out just a little longer. I had a long journey home upon uninhabited gravel roads and cattle crossing when they fancied, but my head was still with Lorne as he showed me where the Zentner Family School once stood. I could hardly decline Sandi’s invitation to stay for what I can only describe as Flintstone-sized ribeye and homemade peanut butter cookies.
No, there is more behind Silver Sage Beef than just a butcher at the market and a burger in the food court. There is family. There is history. There is heart.
So the next time you’re visiting us at the market, look for Lorne and Sandi’s son: Silver Sage Beef’s Marketing Manager, Kent Zentner (that handsome guy above). Shake his hand, you’re connecting with generations of the people who made this country one we are proud to call home. He’ll fix you up right as rain with a steak that will convert you, if not just for the outstanding difference in taste, but the story behind the beef.
*Leilani Olynik is the Marketing and Events Coordinator at the Calgary Farmers’ Market