Food & Drink

Meet the Ranchers Applying Moneyball Techniques to Beef

Courtesy of Cabo Wabo Tequila

Mike Silvey isn’t quite sure when his cattle-breeding hobby became his main job. He's just finished some midday artificial insemination of cows in heat and now heads off to his other full-time job -- fixing heavy machinery.

It’s a busy life, but Mike and his wife Pearl obviously care a lot about their ranch -- and care a lot about cattle. The Silveys' commitment to refinement and improvement through both hard measurements and a gut judgment is what drew the attention of BBQ scion Michael Mixon in his quest to perfect the barbecued brisket. Mixon is a renowned smoker slow-cook in the tradition of his grandfather and father, the latter of whom, Myron Mixon, is widely renowned as The Winningest Man in Barbecue.

Like attracts like

When we last saw the younger Mixon, he had set out on a hero's journey to master and reinvent brisket, the tough cut that lesser states cure into corned beef, but which Texas has raised into the highest of all culinary arts: barbecue.

Partnering with Cabo Wabo tequila -- a natural fit considering the agave-forward label's love of vivacious taste pairings -- Mixon has made his aim to become a kung fu master of brisket in time for the American Royal World Series of Barbecue at summer's end... and to have a hell of a lot of fun while he's learning. 

For his first stop on the road to the Royal he steered for the Silveys' stockyard, where today's happy cow is the day after tomorrow's rich lattice of smoky beef. Barbecue might have many subtle layers of flavor -- and Mixon knows all of them --  but there's no excuse if they don't add up to bold taste. There's always more to learn: in this case, what two of the most respected ranchers in Texas know about making truly great beef. 

Armed with this knowledge, he and Cabo Wabo intend to bring what they've learned about thick cut taste to the Royal. Normally the plan is to go big or go home, but when you're a Mixon home is where you learned the biggest flavor of all -- flavor that can teach the Royal a thing or two about brisket. 

What makes the Silvey Angus Ranch different from most is the cattle aren't there primarily to become beef -- rather, Pearl and Mike are trying to make the best cattle to breed the best cattle that then end up as your beef. This far up the source of Angus beef, a family business can tilt the entire cattle industry, and even advanced calculations support -- but defer -- to a knowledgeable eye.

Twisting in the wind

To get to a perfectly marbled, well-fed cow that will end up as USDA Choice and Prime steaks behind the butcher counter, the Silveys have to plan ahead for one or two generations. To do this, Mike and Pearl have to know everything about the genetics, health, diet, and habits of their cattle. But they didn’t start off with this knowledge -- or even this goal.  

“Pearl had the farm when she was a little girl, and her family fixed it up and made it nice,” says Mike. “She lost her dad early on when she was in high school, but his whole deal was he wanted to retire up there, and so we started buying up more and more land up there... and so it grew and grew to the point where we had to put something on it to justify it, to make it pay for itself.”

"It's all about collecting data. We need as much information as we can get before we go to the next generation."

The Silveys started out buying commercial cattle at the market and breeding steers who were just destined for fattening and eating. But not all cattle are created equal, and Mike and Pearl didn’t have great luck with their first attempts. “We finally just decided that maybe if we just made better cattle, it would make it easier on us,” says Mike.

They turned to the expert -- Bill Clark in Crockett, TX had been in the business for 60 years (yes, 60 -- he’s in his nineties now, and still hasn’t handed off the reigns of his operation). They bought ten certified Black Angus cows, and with these building blocks officially incorporated their ranch in 2005.

With pedigreed cattle in the pasture and Pearl learning artificial breeding techniques to make the most of their prized cows, they switched their focus from being commercial cattlemen to “seedstock producers” -- ranchers whose primary goal is not the “terminal aspect” of meat or dairy production, but rather making animals who can pass along the proper traits to such animals. In short: They're breeding for taste, not for immediate eating. 

Courtesy of Cabo Wabo Tequila

Acquiring the high-end stock gave them the focus they needed to make the most of their opportunity. “Before that we were kinda twisting in the wind,” says Mike. “We really didn’t get our direction until we got those cows -- the difference is night and day. That was our big turning point.”

Certified Angus: Ne plus ultra 

When the Silveys shipped their prize bull David Harris up to Montana for a few months, the other ranch kept him in a bio-secure quarantine until they were sure he was clean. Sounds like sc-ifi? Try this: The American Angus Association scrutinizes cattle DNA for 14 different genetic conditions -- even the inactive marker for a disease usually means they’re immediately retired.

Healthy animals are evaluated for “Expected Progeny Differences” [EPDs] based on their intended use; some cows will be favored for excellent “maternal milk” (is there any other kind?) or “scrotal circumference,” while less fortunate ones are being judged for “marbling” and “ribeye area.” When Mixon visited the Silvey Angus Ranch, he got to see firsthand how that marbling was measured: thanks to their visiting ultrasound tech, the Silveys can see the fat distribution in a cow without so much as making it flinch. 

Sometimes they know they have a cow with great intangibles beyond the EPDs -- or maybe even in spite of them. As he tells Mixon in the video above, "Temperment's highly heritable. Good temperment increases the carcass weight over 10%."

The ability to spot an outlier can take a rancher very far, very fast -- in either direction. “When you tell someone that this bull is $7,000,” says Mike, “It’s because he’s a better bull and here’s why -- and if they think that’s out of line and that’s crazy, well... then that’s probably not the bull for you."

"You've gotta learn the real cowboy s***, not that stuff you see on TV."

Even with careful controls, there are times when (paging Jeff Goldblum) life finds a way. Recently, before visiting Pearl’s mother, the Silveys ran a quick check of the herd -- and found a neighbor’s bull had noticed some Silvey cows in heat, jumped a five-foot fence, and begun his own plan for breeding the herd.

It was Mother’s Day.

Courtesy of Cabo Wabo Tequila

Savor metrics

The Silveys regulate breeding for variance -- and variance tests for consistency. Calves are born, weaned, moved to solid food, and weighed all at the same time as the rest of their “contemporary group” so as to provide the best understanding of what is nurture and what is nature. When they’re weighed, both their fat percentage and its marbling are recorded.

“If it doesn’t have a lot of back fat and rump fat it wasn’t fed hard,” says Mike. “So then if you find some that score a real high percentage of intramuscular fat and marbling this is an individual that is carrying more than the contemporary group on their own, and so that’s obviously genetic.”

False positives from nurture rather than nature could echo into much larger effects in a business where breeding decisions precede a deep inspection by two years.

“You’ve got a huge investment in them -- and if you’re choosing the wrong one or the wrong breeding methods to get to your end goal -- you’ll learn it real fast and it’ll be an expensive lesson.”

The best compliment the Silveys can receive is not that their cows are the biggest or most productive, but that they come out “like cookie cutters.” When one of their cows has strong genes that make masculine males and feminine females, the end result is a genetic line that follows very closely and predictably. When the cattle are sent to their final destination before the slaughterhouse -- the fattening -- they yield a consistent product: A very important selling point for the slaughterhouse to then move the meat to butchers.

Courtesy of Cabo Wabo Tequila

The Silveys know first and foremost that to make the best animals they can, they have to cull ruthlessly. Any animal not meeting standards is turned to carcass instead of wasting precious time or resources.

Mike says their ranch's influence is decent, if only a “microscopic amount in the whole scheme of things.” But he admits that they are known for having a really strong maternal herd. Their model is to sell the best cows and “keep the junk” to fine tune it through breeding into another winner. 

The matriarchal breeding puts the onus on the cows to show their maternal influence. “It’s so obvious when you find really good cows how gentle they are with their calves,” Mike says. The ones who step on or ignore their calves are quickly culled. 

"In the end, a calm and gentle animal will live longer, last longer, and have better meat, and take care of the cows better."

The Silveys believe that after everything else they do in terms of selection, the most important part of raising their cattle is the temperament of the herd. The secret to a good seedstock cow isn’t so much in a series of rated percentiles like EPDs (which Mike admits are “very good”), but in making something quality that can last.

“A calm and gentle animal will live longer, last longer, and have better meat, and take care of the cows better,” he says. “If we can keep everything lined up and not make too big a mess and handle them in a humane fashion and treat them really, really well -- they do really well. ‘We provide no bad days’ is our motto on calves -- we want that calf to have a good life.”

If you’ve having a great piece of meat, there’s probably a chef, a butcher, and a couple cattle ranchers who deserve credit for it. Mike and Pearl Silvey and other ranchers like them are committed to perfecting that cow before it’s even born. Our cowboy hats go off to them, and we raise our Cabo Cowboy cocktails -- so perfectly garnished with beef jerky and jalapeño. Now that's Texas.

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