The question stopped my fork in mid-air. I just didn’t see it coming.
“Are your cows mean?” asked the woman. The restaurant was crowded. The woman’s clear voice and assertive stance swiveled heads.
“I have a friend in Virginia and she said that the belted cows near where she lives are mean. Are your’s mean too?”
I squinted and paused a beat. Was she pulling my leg? Her level gaze said “no.”
I answer, no, I invite, questions from my city friends and family all the time. And I get lots of them. For example:
“Do you milk your beef cows?” No. Most beef cattle are not milked.
“Where do you put the cows when it rains?” Beef cattle prefer the outdoors regardless of weather. My cows, a breed called Buelingo, are extremely hardy. Their heavy winter coats keep them comfortable when the temps sink to 20 below zero.
“Do you help the cows at calving time?” We don’t. Buelingos are known for delivering 50-70 lb. calves. That small size means the cows normally deliver on their own without human intervention. There are other, larger breeds that deliver calves weighing up to 100 lbs and may require assistance.
“Why do you feed them only grass?” There are lots of reasons: 1. Cows’ systems are designed to digest grass. When they’re fed corn or grains, their stomachs become acidic – breeding grounds for really nasty bacteria. 2. Grazing cattle harvest their own dinner and deposit fertilizer. 3. The cows’ hoof action churns up the soil and exposes long-dormant grass seeds to air, sun and water. This promotes a healthier pasture for future grazing. 4.The diet and exercise, sunshine and fresh air help cows stay healthy and calm.
“Is there really any difference between grass-fed and confinement-fed beef?” Evidence points to “yes.” EatWild posts lots of research. And according to a recent post by the Mayo Clinic, grass-fed beef offers less total fat, more healthy omega-3 fatty acids, more conjugated linoleic acids, and more antioxidants, such as vitamin E.
Cattle finished (brought to harvest weight) in confinement lots are crowded together for months during which they’re usually fed antibiotic-laced corn, grain and other mixed feeds. Cows raised in feed lots may also be given hormones to accelerate growth so that they reach harvest weight at 18 months of age, or younger. Our 100% grass-fed beef eat grasses, covers, herbs and alfalfa. We never give them feeds with antibiotics or hormones. It takes about 30 months for our steers to reach full weight and condition.
“Are your cows mean?”
I put down my fork and gathered my thoughts. It was a good question.
“Cows can behave very differently from one another,” I began. Cattle that don’t see humans regularly can be very skittish. Calves are usually curious and will walk right up to you and lick your hand. I told her about Sassy, a favorite cow because she would always saunter up the the gate as I approached a field. And there’s #30, a large steer that waits for my husband Dave to give him a special treat of alfalfa pellets and a scratch between the ears.
I also explained that cows, at least our cows, are not pets. They are livestock with a purpose. And my responsibility is to care for them well.
The lady seemed satisfied with my brief response, and made her way back to her table.
I picked up my fork and considered the evening. Here I was at the deservedly popular Minneapolis Blackbird Cafe enjoying the company of my husband and several new acquaintances. Chef Chris Stevens and his staff delivered a dining experience I won’t forget any time soon. Sustainably-grown vegetables and fruit from local farms*, craft beers, locally-produced wines, farmstead cheeses, and my grass-fed beef were translated into a multi-course menu that had all of us alternately closing our eyes in bliss and chattering about the wonderful flavors and textures. The gazpacho was bright, the beets tender, and the braised beef au jus was succulent and deeply flavored. The spiced poundcake – ah – bourbon caramel over apple compote and creme fraiche semifreddo.
I leaned back in my booth and sighed.
“You have to respect the food,” said chef Chris. He did, and then some.
It’s not often that a farmer gets to observe 75 people enjoying a meal featuring their product. I’m grateful for that experience, and for having the opportunity to respond to the many other questions that came my way that evening.
Having grown up in the tenements of the South Bronx, I know what it’s like to feel disconnected from our foods. As far as I’m concerned, every question is legitimate and deserves an answer. But sometimes talking just isn’t enough. Dave and I hope food lovers will visit the farm, walk the fields and get a feel for sustainable farming. We’d like more people to connect the dots between what we eat and how it’s grown.
“Why do your cows have belts around their middles? Will the calves have the belts, too? Good questions for another time.
* The sustainable farms and businesses which contributed the outstanding ingredients for this meal included: from Wisconsin – Bull Brook Keep, Clear Lake; Seed to Seed, Clear Lake. From Minnesota: Dragsmith Farms, Barron; Hope Creamery, Hope; Star Thrower Farm, Glencoe; Six Point Berkshire, Cottonwood; Blackbird’s Garden, St. Paul; Fulton Brewing Co., Minneapolis; Locust Lane Vineyard, Holland; Lift Bridge Brewing Co., Stillwater; Lucid Brewing Co., Minnetonka; Patisserie 46, Minneapolis; and B&W Coffee, Minneapolis.