Monday, February 7, 2011

The Cow Whisperer

Every so often, someone comes along that has the power to radically change the way we view cows. In ancient times it was the tribal leaders and shamans who toiled endlessly in the earliest efforts of domestication. Today, bovine leadership is more dispersed and democratic, but no less mystical. Recently, a German friend told me about just such a humble pioneer in the south-western state of Baden-W├╝rttemberg, just miles from the home of my great, great, great, grandmother. 

Ernst Hermann Maier is "The Cow Whisperer" - and as the title implies - he has remarkable insight into the omnipresent mist that the cow mind inhabits. Maier is part of the rapidly growing, yet poorly understood trend toward "behavior based management" ( which recognizes cattle as not just social creatures in a basic sense - but as creatures with rich traditions and transferable culture beyond anything we could have imagined in the past. What separates Maier from many others in the behavioral management camp is his focus on slaughter practice as the final component for behavior-based management systems. Maier, and his association Uria, are the unequivocal leaders in on-farm slaughter for beef cattle in Germany. 

On-farm slaughter is not new, fact it is easily argued to be among the oldest of "farm" practices - but Maier and others are clearly not proposing a return to the past. This isn't about some sort of antiquated romance of simpler times - it's about moving thoughtfully and carefully into the future. 

In the US - the clear leader in this field is in the Pacific Northwest - primarily on Lopez island in the puget sound of Washington State - where a farmer owned cooperative has created a mobile processing unit to go from farm to farm allowing cows to die where they live. Where the German's have outpaced us is in their poetically accurate recognition of the critical social element that these on-farm slaughter systems yield to our cattle. 

Cows are creatures of habit and home - they explore new environments with something Dr. Temple Grandin calls "Cautious Curiosity". They have a zeal for life like the best of us, but they also need time to get used to new surroundings. To push them onto a trailer and then into a dark sterile hallway before their ultimate demise is clearly unnecessarily cruel in the face of viable alternatives. 

Surprisingly, it took me a trip across the country - to Berlin - to network my way back home, here in Witzenhausen, where I had the pleasure to meet perhaps the youngest and most promising researcher in this field. PhD candidate, Katrin Julianne Schiffer. This remarkable women conducted her Masters thesis here on the social behavior of poultry - and she is now focused on several aspects of on-farm slaughter for cattle. 

Ms. Schiffer has already discovered a variety of meat quality aspects that can be improved through Maier's "gentle killing" methods, and is now focusing on refining the procedures so that we can be certain that more farmers can explore this option with the cutting edge of scientific knowledge behind their craft.

When I titled this blog "mythic meats" the idea was that we can explore exactly the meat production systems we would like to see in the future. It is people like Ernst Hermann Maier and Katrin Julianne Schiffer that help me to continue to believe we can get there. On-farm slaughter is still a long way off for many small-farmers - don't turn your back on your farmer because they can't do it just yet. 

The meat of the future is 100% grass-fed and slaughtered on-farm - we know it's true, yet it is almost impossible to find in most markets today!

Keep the conversation alive, tell your state representatives to support innovative farmers, and literally put your money where your mouth is....

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