New York City restaurants may one day offer lean, natural Appalachian beef.

William M. Clapham, research leader of the Agricultural Research Service's Appalachian Farming Systems Research Center in Beaver, W.Va., is collaborating on a large project with universities in West Virginia, Virginia and Georgia to make this happen.

In realistic "birth-to-plate" trials under way, a new herd of 72 Black Angus cattle is marketed every fall. Half eat forage year-round, and half are "finished," or fattened, in a feedlot. University of Georgia meat quality researchers conduct meat analysis and taste panels for comparison of the meat from the cattle.

So far, forage-fed beef has been found to be tender and very tasty. The meat is leaner than feedlot-raised beef, with half the saturated fat and higher levels of the more healthful types of fat.

Calves born at Virginia Tech University's farm near Staunton, Va., are weaned each spring and then go to Morgantown, W.Va., for winter feeding treatments by West Virginia University. In April, half the cattle in this third calf-to-market cycle will go to Willowbend, Va., for pasture finishing by ARS. The rest will go to a feedlot near Staunton, where they'll eat corn, corn silage and protein/mineral supplements.

Appalachian family farms would raise their pasture-finished cattle for the "natural beef" market niche, selling directly to retail outlets and grocery suppliers. The pasture-finished animals would be raised without supplements or hormones and not given antibiotics unless they became ill. They'd eat only high-quality forage at all times — as much as they wanted.

Cattle production could follow the Appalachian Trail south to Georgia if farmers there chose to take advantage of the milder weather to wean calves in the fall, rather than spring. Then they could supply fresh beef each spring.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.