ELLENSBURG, Wash. — Ellensburg-area rancher Mark Merrill staged a coup recently at the second annual American Royal Steak Competition in Kansas City.

The owner of Merril Cattle Co./Beefalo Meats walked away for the second year in a row as the grand champion in the grass-fed steak category.

And he only used a partial cow.

Instead, Merrill entered a steak from one of his beefalo — a 3/8ths bison and 5/8ths beef hybrid animal. The animal is classified as beef because it’s more beef than buffalo, Merrill says.

The American Royal Association is a nonprofit that promotes agriculture and agrarian values through education, scholarships and competition. The steak competition began last year as a way to find the best-tasting steaks in the nation.

This year’s win was even bigger than last year’s, Merrill says.

“We won by a fair amount last year, and this year we won by a much bigger margin,” he says. “We basically ran away with it.”

Merrill says he’ll likely enter again next year and defend his title.

The steaks are judged by meat alone: The rib-eyes are sent in frozen, cooked on George Foreman grills and not seasoned or flavored. What makes Merrill’s steaks so tasty? He’s not saying.

“Part of it is we use beefalo, which is a meat that, even though it doesn’t have as much fat as regular beef, it still has more flavor,” he says. “Part of it, I’m not going to tell you because it would be giving away my secret.”

And that’s a secret the competition likely wants to know. Merrill says some of the corn-fed ranchers weren’t thrilled that he won, again. And they’ll be eager to knock him off his pedestal next year.

“We feel very fortunate to won twice in a row,” Merrill says. “There’s no guarantee in what will happen next year. “