Piedmontese cattle are some of the leanest beef there is.
The breed, which originated in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy, is thought to be a cross between Bos taurus, domesticated European cattle and zebu, cattle from India and Africa, as the zebu migrated from Pakistan.
The two breeds blended in the mountain terrain to become the Piedmontese breed. In 1886, the appearance of the double muscling attracted the attention of cattlemen, and the next year, the first Italian herdbook was begun, along with breeding programs to improve the herd.
Piedmontese cattle are born a fawn color and as adults are off-white and gray. They have black pigment around their eyes, the tip of their tails, their muzzles, hooves and nose.
The most unique thing about the Piedmontese is that they are double-muscled. Piedmontese cattle have a gene mutation, an inactive myostatin gene that increases red meat yield. Full-bloods have two copies of the myostatin gene, which makes for a higher lean-to-fat ratio, less marbling, and less connective tissue. Piedmontese cross cattle usually have one copy of the gene, depending on the genetics. Full-bloods, bred to another breed, will always produce a one-copy animal. In comparison, all other breeds have no copies of the myostatin gene.
Dennis and Jeanette Hennerberg, who live six miles south of Diller, Nebraska, have been raising Piedmontese since 1990, when they bought a steer because they wanted to eat leaner meat. Their daughter showed the steer, which didn’t do well at the live show, but won the carcass contest.
“They’re not a real great show animal,” Dennis said. “They don’t have much hair so you can’t pretty them up.”
But at the locker, the steer excelled. The Piedmontese went to the locker the same day the grand champion Angus steer from the same county fair went in, and Hennerberg asked the processor to keep track of the fat that was discarded from both animals. The Angus had 100 pounds more fat than the Piedmontese, even though the animals were within 10 pounds of carcass weight of each other.
The family took the meat home, “and we ate it and loved it,” Hennerberg said, “and that’s when we started buying (Piedmontese).”
Because of the double muscling and less fat in full-bloods, Hennerberg said, it cooks faster than regular meat. If a full-blood animal is harvested, the cook needs to be aware that it’s easy to overcook the meat.
“If I were to sell somebody a full-blood Piedmontese, the first thing I’d ask is if they like their steaks well-done or medium rare,” he said. “If you cook them well done or for too long, they can tend to be dry.”
Hennerberg usually crosses his Piedmontese with Angus, Simmental or Charolais cattle, mostly because those breeds are more prevalent in eastern Nebraska. The family prefers eating three-quarter-blood two-copy Piedmontese.
“They’re lean and tender,” he said.
Full-blood Piedmontese cows might have had the reputation of trouble in calving, but Hennerberg said technology and bull testing has changed that. Piedmontese bulls in Italy now go through testing, as do Hennerberg’s cattle.
“We watch our birthweights and use smaller birthweight bulls,” he said.
During the third trimester of pregnancy, Hennerberg has learned through experience that cows should be fed less protein.
“You can save yourself a lot of trouble if you feed them right,” he said. ”Don’t give them too much protein, especially alfalfa. If you feed alfalfa, they’ll have bigger calves.”
The cattle do well in hot weather. With the white hair and a thinner hair coat, they are grazing on hot days while black-haired cattle might be in the shade. Their thin hide means they need a bit more protection in the winter, though.
The average cow size is from 1,200 to 1,400 pounds, Hennerberg said, with calves weighing in at an average of 90 pounds at birth. The animals are docile, too.
The Hennerbergs, including their sons and daughter, have shown Piedmontese cattle at the Nebraska State Fair, a show Dennis helped start. They also show at the World Beef Expo in Milwaukee, and the National Western Stock Show in Denver, among other shows. They have a presence at the Gage and Jefferson county fairs in Nebraska, with Dennis and Jeanette’s grandkids.
Their herd consists of 400 cattle, including full-bloods and crosses.
Less fat in the meat doesn’t affect flavor, Hennerberg said, and depending on if the animal is full-blood Piedmontese or cross, it affects the fat cover on a steak. On a typical British breed steak, Hennerberg estimates there can be a half-inch of fat. A half-blood has one-quarter inch, and a full-blood might have “zilch,” he said.
He’s had old timers tell him you have to have fat to have taste, he said. He agrees with them about that on all the other breeds, but not the Piedmontese.
“We love the meat,” he said. “It’s tender, it’s lean, and it has a good flavor.”
The Hennerbergs have sold Piedmontese cattle to producers in more than 18 states. Every calf born on their farm is DNA tested for the myostatin gene and is parentage verified.
Ruth Nicolaus can be reached at email@example.com.