McCall cows aren’t your typical American breed

Charolais cattle at McCall Vineyards and Ranch in Cutchogue. (Credit: Connor Harrigan/McCall courtesy photo)

The white Charolais cows that roam McCall Ranch’s 40 acres are unlike traditional American cows. They are leaner, devoid of spots and stark white. According to the men and women who work with them, the cows nuzzle up against people, the way dogs do.

Russ McCall, who owns the ranch and the adjacent McCall Winery, did not buy these cows based on looks alone. Once he decided to raise cattle, a decade ago, he and his wife took a trip around the country, during which they encountered, and subsequently fell in love with, the Charolais breed. “We wanted a minor breed,” he told me. “One that was sort of forgotten.” As in northern France, where the Charolais originally hails from, this breed succeeds in the cool weather of Long Island.

Cattle-raising has been a distinct learning curve for the McCalls, who originally sourced 10 mother cows from a farm in western Pennsylvania. At first, in order to bypass having a bull on their property, they attempted artificial insemination. When that experiment failed to yield the genetic results they wanted, they acquired two bulls. Now, in order to maintain diversity in the population, the McCalls recruit a new bull every other year.

Cows are treated to natural, organic feed and are not grain finished, except when restaurants have specifically requested it. The Charolais are raised without antibiotics. Cows have an acre apiece in which to roam, eat and chew their cud, which feels like the ultimate in cattle luxury. In winter, they retreat to a three-sided lean-to that faces south to avoid a cold northern wind. During these months, they eat 40 bales of McCall-grown hay to sustain their body weight.

From May through September, McCall slaughters two cows every three weeks. Meat is aged in a ventilated, refrigerated room for two weeks, then broken down into cuts, frozen at 3 degrees and it is held on the property until it is used or sold. “We don’t want it too gamey,” Russ McCall says, “but we want some flavor in the meat.”

Every Friday from late spring through early fall, between 5 and 7:30 p.m., McCall hosts Burger Night with the North Fork Food Truck, which sells Charolais burgers on Blue Duck buns. On a busy night, 180 burgers will sell in just over two hours.

And what of the other cuts? McCall breaks its beef down into ground beef, top round, bottom round, short ribs, liver, kidney, heart, oxtail, tongue and brisket ($12/pound); sirloin, sirloin tip, boneless sirloin and chuck steak ($18/pound); and ribeye, porterhouse, New York strip, filet mignon, flank steak, flatiron steak, hanger steak, and skirt steak ($29/pound). Meat lovers can buy the cuts of their choice (as well as bones for roasting or marrow) through the McCall Winery tasting room, where a blackboard advertises the available cuts. Nothing ever goes to waste. Winery manager Katie Green makes phone calls when there’s an excess of beef, and local restaurants like Stirling Saké, Noah’s, North Fork Table and Inn and others are quick to snap up whatever is available.

For cooks unaccustomed to grass-fed beef, which is leaner than corn-fed, McCall Ranch includes a list of cooking tips with each purchase. Cook it rare to medium, they advise; with a lower fat content, cooked-through grass-fed meat will be tougher and less pleasant.

This story was originally published in the fall 2017 edition of Long Island Wine Press