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Pea-fed beef: Exploring 'something really special'

CARRINGTON, N.D. -- Not long ago, animal scientist Vern Anderson was approached by some North Dakota pea growers. "They came to us and said, 'We're feeding a few peas to our butcher beef in the back yard, and there's something really special abou...

CARRINGTON, N.D. -- Not long ago, animal scientist Vern Anderson was approached by some North Dakota pea growers.

"They came to us and said, 'We're feeding a few peas to our butcher beef in the back yard, and there's something really special about this beef. We'd like you to explore this more,'" he says.

Anderson works at the North Dakota State University's Carrington Research Extension Center, keeping busy year-around with a slate of beef cattle feed trials. He agreed to add pea feed to the slate.

Testing peas

"This was the very first study done with yearling heifers," Anderson says.

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He managed the feeding trial of 118 yearling heifers, all of which were fed varying amounts of peas (none, 10 percent, 20 percent and 30 percent) in their daily diets. At harvest, Kasey Carlin, a muscle biologist at NDSU's animal sciences department, was recruited to examine the muscle qualities and conducted taste testing with a panel of trained evaluators.

Aside from satisfactory feedlot performance, pea feed scored very well in its effect on beef. Both laboratory and taste testing confirmed what the pea growers had told Anderson.

The pea-fed beef was more tender, juicier and had more intense flavor without any "off-flavors," according to the report.

Another study was conducted, this time with 144 recently-weaned steers. Peas were incorporated into their diets as feedlot receiving feed, continual feed and finishing feed. No taste panel was employed in this test, but again, the beef tested out to be tenderer and juicier.

"So several questions come up then," Anderson says. "We fed the whole pea in the first study. Is there some component in the pea that is activating this tenderness factor? Can we tenderize all the muscles in the steer? Can we feed less than 10 percent?"

More tests were devised and scheduled. NDSU's Beef Systems Center of Excellence was brought in.

"We've got research on the front burner with grants that are being considered as we speak, to fund testing multiple muscles, and to test components of the pea," he says.

Anderson and others are hoping to drum up some support for this North Dakota legume as a very desirable cattle feed component.

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"Mostly the pea-growers and the North Dakota Beef Commission are helping us with this," he says, but he would like to see more support from "the cattle industry, which stands to benefit greatly from pea-feed. This could change their industry."

What he's hearing from them is that there aren't enough peas being grown to support pea feed, he says.

"If we do this, there could be," Anderson says.

And if we don't, we may be handing a market advantage to Canadian beef producers.

"There is Canadian interest in this, and the Canadians grow a heck of a lot more peas," he says.

"They've already got a feed pea network in place for swine and poultry.

"They are serious and have interest in pea-fed beef," Anderson says.

Trial pea diets

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- Control -- no field peas fed.

- Receiving -- field peas fed at 15 percent of the ration during the 56-day receiving period.

- Finishing -- field peas fed at 15 percent of the ration during the last 80 days of the finishing period.

- Continual -- field peas fed at 15 percent of the ration during the entire feeding period from arrival until marketing.

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