I should first say that what I will describe is only our way of doing things. Animals can be raised humanely and/or organically using a variety of methods. The factors that play the largest role in how we, and most people, decide to manage livestock are money, space and time. We have no money, 20 hectares and since the cows represent a secondary income, only about 2 hours on an average day to commit to their care.
Our cows are Barrosas, which is a heritage breed from about 20 miles from where we are. Since farms in this area were historically small, the cows were part of a diversified system of self-sufficiency. In addition to chickens, a garden, goats, sheep or pigs, a family might also keep a cow or two to help pull the plow and to give a calf each year that could be sold or slaughtered. Because these animals were raised for a variety of uses and were not kept in anything resembling an intensive system they were never bred to be specialized like the Holsteins with freakishly large utters or the Angus cows with football player necks. They do not give an impressive amount of meat or milk, but they are incredibly hearty- easily living 20 years without health problems. Our heard stays outside all day and night and all year round unless we get a particularly heavy snow or weeks of non-stop rain. They eat anything and everything and are constantly amazing us by trying new things. Recently we discovered that they had been eating bay leaves. Filipe remembers the first time one of the cows tried a chestnut, after a week or so of watching her, others began to try them as well and now they are one of the first things they go for and a staple of their autumn diet. The cows also eat blackberry brambles, oak leaves, acorns and ivy. Because they have such a varied diet and don’t depend on grasses they are able to live all year on what they can find on the farm and in the mountains.
Right now, we have eight females and one bull as well as the calves. Everyone stays together all the time and this past year, as in many years, every cow gave a calf. The calves are sent to slaughter at about eight months to a year, depending on their size and the cows are able to get pregnant again within a few weeks. Compared to industrial dairy cows, who fetuses are often aborted as soon as they begin to develop milk so that they can get pregnant sooner, or many ‘grass fed’ cows that are sent to a feed lot to get fattened after the requisite number of weeks eating grass, our process might seem like it takes an excruciatingly long time. It does, and that’s why it’s a secondary income. That said, the cows serve other purposes for us. It’s certainly far cheaper to keep a heard of cattle than what it would cost to keep the land clean when you consider the time, equipment and labor. There is also a small subsidy for keeping heritage breed livestock, which makes the system more cost effective.
Our animals are certified organic. This means that no chemicals have been used on the land where they feed and the animals themselves are of course not treated with any type of medications. For those who don’t know much about the certification process, it is done by private groups whose standards vary but all must meet the government standards. Some organizations have very high standards, and products with these labels are preferred by ‘purists.’ Besides regulations about food and medications, most also have rules about how the animal lives- with the goal being that the animal is able to fulfill it’s natural activities as it pertains to feeding, sex and movement. Another aspect of organic certification is in how the animal is slaughtered. This is the same as all cattle but they are done before any other animals in the morning at the slaughterhouse when all the equipment is clean to avoid contamination. After that, the carcass is sent to the butcher where it is cut to our specifications. The butcher then packages it and our colleague picks up the packages in his refrigerated truck and delivers them to the final customers!
Although we raise beef cattle, Filipe and I eat very little meat- he won’t eat anything that he hasn’t raised. I’m not an animal activist, but I think that seeing just how much energy and time it takes to raise an animal the right way has given me a reverence for meat that is easy to lose when meat is something that comes shrink-wrapped at the grocery store. Many people ask me how I can spend all day around these little calves, knowing that they will be killed, and then eat them. It’s hard to explain, but I have no problem with it all, I savor the meals I make with our meat, I truly appreciate the meals, as well as the animals. What really disturbs me is not eating my own animals, but thinking about the meat that so many of these people are eating.