MEAT: A True Love Story, Megan Brown: Cattle Producer Part 1 / by MEAT ME

The entrance to Table Mountain Ranch
I love MEAT so much I felt the need to have a better understanding of where it comes from. I started with the Moo and followed the process all the way to the Mouth. I drove out to Chico, CA to meet with Cattle Producer Megan Brown. She is an expert in the art of raising cattle to be slaughtered and butchered into the most beautiful meat I have ever tasted. She helped me discover things about myself and MEAT that I did not know existed. People work, bleed, sweat and die all in the name of BEEF. They do this everyday over and over as it has been passed down form generation to generation. Entire lives are devoted to producing a product that only takes me 10 minutes to enjoy. With great appreciation I have learned that it is not just a love I share with these people but a passion, a lifestyle and a culture all dedicated to MEAT.

Megan Browns home and her 2 ranch dogs Hoot & Jinx.
Megan Brown is a 6th generation cattle rancher at the Table Mountain Ranch. The ride up was wet, dark, and cold. My idea of someone living in the middle of nowhere was quiet, slow, and boring. Megan was just the opposite, a fire cracker and may be the most joyful person I have ever met. There was something about this girl, I couldn’t tell right off the bat, but I knew she was special. After the handshakes and hugs she kindly invited me into her home. At first glance it looked like a movie set. Everything in its place including a rifle she keeps bed side. I soon came to realized she doesn’t do this because she has to, she does it because it is what she was born to do.

This is the back side of the ranch where the dogs and chickens call home.
I dropped my things to relax but Megan was all ready to go.  We headed out to the rangeland where the local bee keepers keep their bees in the off season.  Not to far from there graze the cattle. As we pulled up in the feed truck all the cattle started running along side us. I'm amazed, I have never seen this before. I expected cows to be standing around, but these cows are regal and bold. We get out of the truck and a few cows are curious but most keep distance. Their cow-licked coats shine in the sun and tickle the dusty air as the wind blows. Seeing harmony between land and beast is truly awe inspiring.

Endless grass fields and an irrigation ditch run through out the land.
Shortly there after we left for the house to meet her Mother.  Finally someone looked their stereotype and her Mom was exactly that, a Ranch Mother. She had sweet How-do-ya-do's but I could tell this women was tough as nails. In a matter of minutes we were off in the Polairs and headed for the hills. We approached the railroad crossing to what looked like a painting on the other side. I am lost for words nothing I could say would do it any justice. I'm barley religious but if anything it looks like land Jesus may have promised.

Megan's Mom Sharon grabs her gear as we get ready to head out to the rangeland.
We got to base of the mountain and I just stopped and stared at everything my eyes could see. It's as if time stops when there is so much to take in. How neat would it be to wake up to this everyday. My mind wonders what life would be like, I can only imagine.  In the distance one of the hills was dug into where they used the clay in the ground for bricks to build some of the original buildings. I am still in disbelief at what I am seeing. It looks and feels like every iconic cowboy movie I ever saw as a child.

This is the truck used to feed the cattle hay.
Megan is used to the sights but is a little taken back by my reaction. She takes me higher into the hills past the the giant tree's. She climbs up on some broken up mossy rock and looks out over the ravine only to point out the Bald Eagle that also calls this land home. If that wasn't mind blowing enough there was a 4 tiered waterfall behind me with all the drinking water the eagle will ever need. I thought how lucky Megan is to have all of this and it only took 6 generations of work to get here.

Megan opens the gate as the dogs get a head start to show us the way.
Megan explained to me that Ranchers are very private people They don't share their land with strangers and they sure don't offer an explanation on how things are done. I am humbly grateful for Megan to have me out and share the very way of life that she considers sacred. Her families relationship to the land is very special. Year after year they respect what it gives them and they give back by protecting it. My intentions here are not to exploit what she does, but share with you what MEAT: A True Love Story is really about.

Jinx lays down on the side of the road out of instinct to let the cattle go by, before she gets up to herd them.
We headed back to Megan’s house and saw the original barn her Grandfather built to slaughter cattle in. It is still equipped with all the original sliding racks and hooks that modern butchers still use today. It was left exactly how it was some 50 years ago. I will never forget this day it is sad it has to come to an end.

Where the local bee keepers keep their bees on the rangeland during their off season.
Before I leave I had the opportunity to sit down with Megan and find out the in’s and out of what she does and how she does it…

Cattle running beside us in excitement for the food truck.
MEAT ME: Where are we?

Megan: We are on Table Mountain Ranch.

This is the "Airport Field".
MEAT ME: What is the history of the Ranch?

Megan: My great grandfather bought the Table Mountain Ranch in the 1930’s. The Table Mountain Ranch used to be sheep ranch, then a hunting lodge, and finally the bank owned it. My Great Grandfather purchased it from them. Like many cattle producers in our area, we move our cattle between two different ranches. “The Mountains” which is in Indian Valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and “the Valley” is in the Sacramento Valley, near Chico, California. We've operating our ranches like this since my Family started producing cattle commercially.

The cattle are transported in livestock hauling trucks we sometimes call the “bus”. It’s about an hour and a half ride between ranches. Our winter ranch, Table Mountain Ranch, is not irrigated so the grass dies in the summer, and dead grass isn’t as nutritious, the summer insects annoy the cattle, foxtails and other weeds are prevalent in the valley and cause infections, and the extreme heat is not conducive to weight gain and health. Basically, the cows would have to work too hard and wouldn't be as pretty and the calves wouldn’t have the high weight gain that we are proud of.  The cattle have always responded well to this arrangement. They are happy cows.

We also have to deal with fire danger, because in our area of California, summer wildfires can be a very big problem. By leaving the winter ranch empty six months out of the year, it also mimics natural grazing patterns, so we always have grass for our cattle to eat when they return in the fall. We ship the cattle back to the valley ranch when the fall rains begin and the new grass has sprouted. 

The ranch dogs sit and wait for their next orders.
MEAT ME: It says on your twitter bio that you are a 6th generation cattle rancher. So I am guessing wasn’t the original ranch?

Megan: No, the Table Mountain Ranch is not the original Ranch. I am currently doing a lot of research right now on the family. What I have found was my 6th great Grandmother immigrated here from Ireland, she stayed in New York and when her Dad died, she immigrated around South America to here, got married, and instead of becoming a gold miner which everybody was doing, they figured if they produced food to sell to gold miners they were gonna make more money and they did. They actually ended up being very wealthy and a very prominent family in Chico. That was the Lucas family. Hazel Lucas married into the Brown Family. Sam Brown Sr came from Tennessee. His family was also a very prominent agricultural family. Lot of history there, its very interesting to find out how much agricultural history there really is there from the very beginning. After Hazel and Sam got married, they moved to Susanville and operated a stagecoach stop. They saved their money and then eventually bought the ranch in Indian Valley and The Table Mountain Ranch.

The cattle is rather curious at to why we are here.
MEAT ME: What is the nationality of your family?

Megan: Irish and German. 

The calf is nursing its mother.
MEAT ME: How long have you been a rancher?

Megan: All my life. I could ride a horse before I could walk. My first memories are of me being on a horse with my dad and him holding me as a toddler. I have picture of me on cattle drives. My whole life has been AG so there was nothing normal about my childhood. At 5 years old my teacher called my parents in for a teacher parent conference to tell them that I was a pathological liar because by 5 I had already had my own pony, they had already filmed a movie on the ranch, I already had a broken arm I didn’t know and had to have it re-broke. I was telling these stories about Clint Eastwood packing me around on his shoulders, going on cattle drives. My parents came in and said, no these things actually happened she is telling the truth. 

So my life has never been normal. It has had its drawbacks but it has made me a character needless to say… I think I like it.

These are Angus pairs. The calves are about seven months old.
MEAT ME: Are there different classifications for ranches? What type of ranch is this?

Megan: The cattle industry is very segmented. You have cow/calf producers (like me), you have seed stock producers, those are people we buy our bulls from (bulls are the Dads), you have stockers, they add weight to weaned cattle before they go to a feed lot, and finally you have a feed lot.

Then you have hobby ranches versus commercial ranches. We are a commercial ranch; we produce beef that ends up in the grocery store. The meat you buy at Whole Foods, the meat you buy at Raley’s, the meat you buy at Costco could very well be from here.

Hobby operations, usually will just produce meat for themselves, or they will raise a handful of cattle and sell it to the local auction yard. Sometimes those cattle will be bought by stockers or will go right to a feedlot.

We like to have our own genetics, so we don’t buy animals at the auction yards. We have worked very, very hard on our genetics in our herd. Over 20 years of very careful bull selection and EPD manipulation.  An EPD is expected progeny difference, one-half of the breeding value in the sire or dam. The difference in expected performance of future progeny of a sire, when compared with that expected from future progeny of bulls in the same sire summary.

More Angus cattle grazing on the rangeland.
MEAT ME: What type of animals do you have on the ranch?

Megan: Commercially we just sell cattle. The ranch has horses, chickens, dogs, we have had goats, sheep, and pot belly pigs, peacocks, guinea hens. Having animals is a lot of work, we’ve slowly been streamlining our animals, to make life easier. I work in town and my parents are getting a little older and trying to make their lives a little simpler. My dad worked hard as a young man, he has a new knee and a new shoulder. He is definitely trying to make it easier on himself. When I get older and I take over the ranch I want to diversify. Even next year I am thinking about getting some pigs, just because I love having my own pork. Plus Chico Locker and Sausage Co. LLC does the most amazing pork products.

This is Violet, she was once a bottle calf on the ranch.

MEAT ME: What is the typical day on the ranch? 

Megan: It depends on the season. In the summer you wake up early, you go out and check your calves because it can get cold at night and your baby calves can get sick and die if they catch pneumonia. It’s important to make sure the calves are happy and healthy and with their moms. After you check calves, and then probably go have breakfast, change your water, fix your corrals. If you have somebody sick, or a bottle calf they will need to be taken care of. You also make hay and calve (when the baby calves are born) in the summer. In the fall you drag meadows. That is one of the great things about my life, it is always different. Everyday is different. Everyday is an adventure. Everyday is amazing. Like yesterday we saw a bald eagle, tomorrow I might see a bobcat in the driveway. It’s crazy.

In the winter, things are generally pretty quiet. Mainly we just check on everybody, make sure they are healthy and happy. We might feed them some hay every couple of days. It’s less stress than summertime for sure.

These cattle are grazing on native grass.
MEAT ME: What do cows typically eat?

Megan: Grass. Well at our point they eat grass. Pretty much all beef in the United States starts with producers like me. The calves are born on a ranch. They eat grass until they are 800 to 900 pounds (this is just the way my ranch does it, each ranch is different each region of the US is different). 

Then they go to the feedlot where they have a ration where it can be corn, almond hulls; silage, again it depends on the region. Here we have fed them almond hulls because we have almonds everywhere. The cattle get better nutrition than I do, I am not joking. These cows lack for nothing. They get minerals, supplements, we bleed them every year to make sure they are getting the proper nutrition so they are happy and healthy. 

We head out to check out the mountain side of the ranch.
MEAT ME: What is bleeding out?

Megan: A vet will take a blood sample from the vein, a veterinarian is always here they oversee everything. Then they will send that sample to the lab. For example on this ranch we have a deficiency in selenium and copper and they will make us a special blend of minerals. We put the minerals out for the cattle so they get their nutrients met. 

When it rains in the winter, sometimes the grass doesn’t have all of the nutrients that the cattle need because the grass can’t photosynthesize. If that happens we will feed them hay (that we made) and that will prevent them from having health problems. Preventative care is way better than having a sick cow, we want our cattle be fat and happy.

Here Megan is demonstrating how the chute works for working the cattle.
MEAT ME: There are grass feed, grain fed, hay fed what type are you guys and which one is better than the other?

Megan: I don’t think any are better than the other. It really depends on what you are after. The only reason I do grass fed is because I can. It is my little side business. I can do it because I have the grass available. We have a lot of rangeland and our grass has a high protein content in the spring. The meat can marble well, it will have good fat in it, and it is really tasty. People really love the grass fed and they think there might be more health benefits. That has yet to be proven because all grass operations are different. There are pros and cons to grass fed just as there are pros and cons to the grain finished. I actually have friends that do not like my beef. It is just too gamey or grassy for them; they won’t eat it even if I give it to them.

Megan clears her hair out of her face from all of the wind.
MEAT ME: What is the difference between gamey and grassy?

Megan: Beef is like wine… Really. Every ranch, every genetic, has a different taste. It is like Napoleon Dynamite when they were doing the milk tasting, “Oh this cow has been in an onion patch!” You can tell that with the meat. We strive to have a really high quality product constantly. We have worked so hard on our genetics. Year after year you can buy beef from me and rest assured your gonna get the same quality product you got the year before. It is gonna have a really similar taste. If anything, the meat is going to get better and better because that is our goal.

A tired Hoot on the way back to the house.
MEAT ME: What classifies a ranch to produce commercial cattle?

Megan: For me, the word commercial means what we sell to the public. So commercial cattle is what we sell to the public, its different from the custom exempt cattle we keep for ourselves. The commercial cattle we sell through Western Video Market. 

We’ve worked hard to establish a name for ourselves. We are a part of a lot of different programs to make sure we are producing quality beef. If we get audited by a buyer we can produce records for anything they want to see. We’ve been through the quality assurance program, we know how to give a shot properly. It is really important to us and it really contributes to the health of our herd that we are following all of the requirements of these programs. We have the same buyers for our commercial cattle coming back year after year because they know we work hard to maintain a quality herd.

MEAT ME: Are there inspectors from these organizations that come out and check in on you?

Megan: Yes there are. A feedlot will buy a truck load of cattle and then the feedlot will contact us and say we need this record, this record and this record and we’re gonna have our person come out and check out your facilities and make sure everything is what you say it is. We have records that are very specific and down to the detail for these people.

The dogs wait for us to take off in the Polaris.
MEAT ME: What happens to a ranch that does not follow or fails to comply with these standards?

Megan: You would not get as much money for your cattle, you won’t be eligible for the value added programs. That is how we have survived, we have evolved into what the consumers have demanded of us. That is why we get good prices for our cattle and that is why we have return buyers. If you don’t follow the standards you will not have a good product, you will not have a good-looking cow. The buyers are going to know that. They can tell you what percentage of your cattle is graded as prime choice and if your cattle didn’t perform they are not going to buy from you. If people aren’t buying your product you are not going to have a ranch.

This is the field they call "Above the Tracks".
MEAT ME: How would a Safeway or a Vons know that it is not receiving someone’s sub-standard meat?

Megan: All meat is graded. Prime, select, choice, etc. If your beef grades poorly, these supermarkets aren’t going to buy it. It is all USDA, they have inspectors in these packing plants and they are not going to grade bad cattle prime, it’s just not going to happen. So if your cattle doesn’t grade it is not going to end up in our food supply. USDA over sees all of these plants. 

RUN! Get out of the way we are coming on the Polaris!
MEAT ME: How many certifications do you have to have?

Megan: You don’t have to have any certifications. It is just a value add. I know people that are not the best cattle producers. They are producing but they probably won’t be for very much longer. Most of the cattle producers that I know, and this is paramount, are producing the best cattle we can, listening to the consumers, and we’re doing what you guys tell us to do. It does take us a while, it takes a good 2 years to get a beef from pasture to plate. The trends do take a while, but we do listen.  

MEAT ME: What would make a ranch natural or certified organic?

Megan: Well certified organic is through the USDA.  An agent from the USDA would come out and certify that you are following the USDA guidelines. We are not organic, so this is something I’m not an expert in and don’t know much about.

Natural is more of a marketing term. We do have guidelines, but there is no government involved. We are certified natural though the auction we sell our cattle through. To be considered natural through our third party certifier our cattle have to follow a certain set of guidelines. We have so show our records, have a person come out to the ranch to verify we are doing what we say.

MEAT ME: So in May/June and the cows are ready to be processed?

Megan: Slaughtered! Just come right out and say it Slaughtered!

This is facing West where we can see bald eagles in the distance.
MEAT ME: This is for custom exempt slaughter?

Megan: Yes. Our commercial cattle in May go to the summer ranch to go have calves and be cows. The heifers or the steers that my Parents give to me get slaughtered in May or June. We call Jenny Dewey to make your appointment and Dave Dewey will come out. We generally do the slaughter in May or June because of the grass, because it has high protein. The cows will have a really great flavor, healthy fat and the carcasses are just beautiful… Beautiful! So Dave will come out and slaughter. Its custom exempt, so that means it is only for my consumption, or my families, or I will trade with it. I love having freezers full of meat. It is very heart warming. Dave is an artist, the death is very quick, it is painless. He takes the carcasses back to his locker, he hangs them for 21 days, I call him and tell him my order, how I want it cut and wrapped. Then I go get my boxes and put them in my freezer and I am good for a whole year.

The exit right under the railroad tracks.
MEAT ME: What is the process of commercial production?

Megan: The commercial production focuses on our calf crop. The calf crop is sold in June or July, depending on their size and what type of feed year it is (if we have a lot of grass or not). We sell them via video auction, the calves never leave the ranches until they go to a feedlot. There they will be finished until they reach 1,100-1,300 pounds, usually under 100 days. 

A full day of rain can leave tons of standing water.
MEAT ME: So I am guessing the cattle industry is a very male dominated industry?

Megan: It is. One of the jokes in our industry is ‘every successful cattlemen has a wife that works in town.’ This is usually true. The wives usually have the health benefits, and a steady income.

The 4 tier waterfall at the edge of the Mountain tops.
On our Ranch my Dad has always liked to have girls out here. We are easier on the cattle, we are smaller, we are more empathetic, and we are easier to train there is no attitude. I get the cowboy attitude a lot… I grew up with it. It’s the “I’m gonna grab my crotch, spit, and have my little lady go make me dinner!” That was one of the issues I had with my Dad. I would work all day like a man and then I was expected to go make lunch or cook dinner, and serve everybody. Then I had to go back out there and work like a man and then go do the dishes. It wasn’t cool for me, doing two times the work. 

I am the only child. I’m a girl. I grew up on a commercial ranch. I pulled my weight. It really drives me crazy when someone not familiar with me, acts like I am inept because of my gender. “I can do anything a man can do,” I might do it a different way but it’ll get done. My Mom works right along side my dad. She is just as tough as he is, actually she is a lot tougher. I was really lucky to have positive women role models in my life so the fact that it is male dominated didn’t factor into my world until I got a little older. Even now, we still get some salesmen that won’t talk to you unless you have a penis. 

Heading over the irrigation ditch back to base camp.
MEAT ME: So you do feel that you get treated differently?

Megan: Ohhh, Yea! The “little lady” syndrome pops up occasionally. For example there are salesmen that will disregard me. Or truckers that will try and force me out of a corral full of cattle to ‘protect’ me. I’m part of the business. I am the only child, and they have been grooming me since birth to take over. I am here and it pisses me off when I get the “little lady” syndrome. Don’t like it.

Megan checks on her cat Jack in the old abandon school house.
MEAT ME: How would you recommend other women, who are interested in being a cattle producer, get involved?

Megan: It is really unfortunate because this is a really hard industry to break into. Most of us are here because we have been grandfathered in, it’s multi-generational. Buying land is expensive. Getting this knowledge is hard. Some things they didn’t teach me in college, they didn’t teach me in beef production. I learned from my Dad, he learned from his Dad. The best way to learn about cattle is to find somebody and just work. You can get an AG degree and that definitely helped me, it definitely gave me a new perspective. I needed it. It is something I use daily.

I think if a non aggie person wanted to break into ranching, going to school for that ag degree is going to be the best way. You are gonna meet people like me in those classes that have these connections to production ag. You are going to be able to network, that is a huge part in finding a job in ag. I am really realizing the value of being able to network and talk to consumers and producers, that is the beauty of social media and networking.

Left: the skull of a bull that has been slaughtered. Right: The old slaughter house her Grand Father built.
MEAT ME: Where do you see the future of cattle producing?

Megan: There is part of me that is terrified. Especially in California with all of the legislation and the people that think that they have our best interest at heart but don’t talk to us. They just talk AT us. They don’t ask us what we need. They are tying to pass more laws, it is actually really scary and something that I pay attention to. You have this new movement where everybody is interested in where their food comes from, and people like you that are talking to us and its amazing, and it gives a lot of hope. I think…Yea, (Fist held high) Yeaaaahhh!!! I think ranching is something where I am going to have to be very innovative. I have to have a really good team of people around me. If I need help I can trust them to ask, and get their opinion, that I can value. I want this ranch to continue. I want my great, great, great, grand kids to be sitting here talking to someone just like you saying the same exact things. Hopefully, I will be innovative enough, I will be smart enough, I will learn enough to keep this place going not matter what it costs. If I have to get a job in town to support it… So be it. That is paramount to keep this place going. I would die if I was the 6th and final generation. If I was the one that lost it! Could you imagine the guilt? Oh my God! No. That has never been an option. I was born to do this, I was raised to do this, I was told I was gonna do this. This is what I am going to do!

The swing Megan used as a little girl.
MEAT ME: Would you consider yourself a true COWGIRL?

Megan: Yea, I guess you could use that term. Dale Evans has a really good quote, “Cowgirl is an attitude, really. A pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage. The cowgirl faces life head on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses. Cowgirls take stands, they speak up. They defend things they hold dear." My definition of a cowgirl has changed a lot as I have grown up. I used to think it was just horses and cows, but with technology changing like it is, being a cowgirl is so much more than cows and horses. 
Yea I guess I am a Cowgirl… I like Cattle Producer. A Cattle Person, Yeah! I am a Cattle Person. Yea I like that gender neutral.

Her Grandfather laid the board down so she would be able to cross as a child.
MEAT ME: What are some of your favorite Cowboyisims?

Megan: Most of them aren’t’ appropriate.

When Megan rides her cattle she carries a gun to protect herself from bears and other animals.
The symbol on the belt buckle is the brand of Table Mountain Ranch.
MEAT ME: They better not be!

Megan: “Slicker than two snails fucking in a bucket of snot.” - "Tougher than a $2 steak.” - “If all his brains were dynamite, there wouldn’t be enough to blow his nose.” - “Sucking the hind tit’” - “Colder than a witch’s tit in January.” - “Don’t be a woman that needs a man, be the woman a man needs.” - “More hat than cowboy.” - “Happy as a pig in shit.”
Here are some more of her quotes…

Hahaha. I have a very foul mouth I grew up with truck drivers and that was the other thing. There was a constant battle with the truck drivers. They would get the “Little Miss” syndrome “Here let me protect you!” and they would get in with my cattle and hot shot them and really get them going and that is when it is dangerous.

All the spices Megan might use to prepare her MEAT.
MEAT ME: What’s Hot Shotting?

Megan: Hot shot is like a cattle prod. I don’t like that. That is not called for, and that is not ok. We have since changed truck drivers but I would get in there with the truck drivers and just start yelling at them and send them the cab because you can’t upset the cattle. That’s when I get hurt. I have a way with the cattle, I like to be very calm. (talkin’ about the cattle) Come on girls let’s get on the bus, let’s do our thing. If you are calm and you work slow and you work with the cattle you’re not going to get hurt. I have had your average cow kicks and accidents, but I have not had to go to the hospital for getting run over, or anything serious… I think that is really rare. I am very cautious.  I try and listen to the animals. Temple Grandin wrote a lot about that, she is one of my idols. Hand’s down she has changed how I look at animals.

Megan's home is filled with images and icons of Cowboys.
Her rifle is kept bed side with 4 nail polish marks at the base indicating her deer kills.
MEAT ME: Who is she?

Megan: She is an animal scientist at Colorado State she lives with autism. She uses her autism to look through the cattle’s eyes. I get to go see her speak next month and I am just, like, losing my shit over it. 

Megan doing what she does best... Being Cattle Producer Megan Brown.
MEAT ME: Last but not least what is it that you love about being a Cattle Producer?

Megan: It’s a way of life. It’s a culture. It isn’t really one thing that I can point to. It is just who I am, it is who my family was and is. It is this way of life that is amazing. You get this freedom and you get… You get… I don’t even have words. It’s awesome! I suck at being poetic. Everyday is different. I get to go see birth’s and death’s and help with those birth’s and help with those death’s. I get to help feed the world! I get to always learn, always change and always do my own thing. I get to work and be with my family, my animals, and my land.

Megan: You can check me out on my blog, I also have a scholarship fund that you can donate too….

You can also follow Megan Brown on Twitter @Megraeb

I would like to Thank Megan Brown for sharing her wonderful life with me and you. I am so grateful for all the hard work and effort that goes into being a Cattle Producer. I only hope that you too can appreciate and understand what goes into a piece of Meat.

Please check back next Tuesday, February 21, 2012 for Part 2 featuring,
Butcher, Jenny Dewey of Chico Locker and Sausage Co. LLC, Chico, CA

Happy Saint Valentines Day,
Sean Rice
aka, MEAT ME