“Your grandparents used to host impressive cow herding events here forty years ago,” said Massimo, one of the cowboys in front of me, in Italian. Given the current circumstances, I heard his words as: things here used to work and they clearly don’t anymore.
It was lunchtime, and even in early March, the Tuscan sun beat down on the group: six cowboys, two farmhands, the regional technical assistance guy, and me. Ten people to separate seven cows.
The morning task was supposed to be fairly routine for the group of cowboys: herd the cows, separate seven Limousine cows (a French breed) from the rest of the herd, and move them into a separate paddock to be sold. Here we were, four hours later, with most of the herd hidden in the underbrush of the pine forest and an empty paddock. Who knew that cowboys-for-hire could fail at the most basic of cowboy tasks.
The decision to call it a day was mine, although the cows had already decided for everyone. I had waited close to two months for this Saturday, had coordinated the schedules of ten people and the weather, and had a buyer ready to receive the seven cows. But the herd had gotten scared and would be impossible to manage in their current skittish state, hidden in the Mediterranean underbrush. The option of continuing to try to work with them was off the table for at least a few days.
Another cowboy piped up, in Italian, “We would have been able to separate the cows if the fencing were different so that…” He proceeded to list all of the ways in which the fencing could be improved to effectively manage the cows. I wanted to retort, Yeah, I’d love to work in perfect conditions, as well. This is the way it’s been with the cow herd since I arrived to the farm almost five years ago: everyone giving their opinions on how things should be and very few people capable of working with how things are to make them better.
The farm’s history with cows has been inconsistent. My grandparents had herds of the local breed, the Maremmana cow, which today is considered a heritage breed. It is a beautiful animal, with a characteristic white coat and large horns (even for the females). When I was young, there was a cowboy who lived and worked on the farm. But with my grandparents’ death, and the changes in farm management, the herd was sold off.
We started to re-introduce a few cows with the arrival of the last farm manager. The basic idea had been to keep some cows to serve as meat for guests at our agritourism restaurant. That farm manager, however, had few skills to care for and manage livestock. When I came back to the farm, I found a hodge-podge of bovines living together in a relatively small paddock and eating poor-quality hay. At the time, in a herd of barely 20 adults, there were three breeds – the heritage Maremmana cows, the French Limousine breed, and a few Holsteins (black and white milking cows). The agritourism guests, however, would consume at most two animals a season so there was a surplus of calves that every year had to be sold – and fed, raised, and managed.
Since the old farm manager left, I’ve been trying to give structure and purpose to the herd. Each step has seemed like a Herculean task. Our fencing is always inadequate and made for the logistics of cow-management 30 years ago. The animals have been managed minimally, so they are scared of people and don’t work at all with horses. The cow separation structures are always either too big or too small – never just right. We just don’t have the skills on staff to give them the attention and care needed. And the amount of paperwork required to keep the herd by the health department, the regional livestock association, the EU heritage breed program, and the EU-wide animal traceability system just adds insult to injury.
The Role of Cows in Sustainable Farming
The agrarian philosopher, Wendell Berry, once wrote that by separating crop production and animal production “American farm experts … [took] a solution and divide[d] it neatly into two problems.” The farm experts he was referring to were the evangelists for agricultural industrialization – the industrialization that has resulted in livestock being confined into feedlots and in the production of mountains of corn, soybeans, and other commodities.
The “solution” that farm experts dismantled was an integrated system of crop and livestock management. In the integrated system, cows acted like lawnmowers with a built-in fertilizing function: as cows munch on grass (or crop residues leftover after harvesting), they poop on the field and that poop serves as fertilizer for the plants. The “two problems” that the experts created by separating crops from livestock were the problems of waste management in confined stalls for livestock and nutrient deficiency in soils due to the lack of fertilization. To hold all of the cow waste resulting from modern animal confinement, industrial farms have “manure lagoons.” To make up for the lack of nutrients that crops need, farmers now use chemical fertilizers.
Sustainable Meat Production
Livestock occupy a very important role in integrated, sustainable farming systems. As mentioned above, they eat plants and in the process fertilize the soil by pooping. Their movement across fields aerates the soil as well. Cows are able to graze more marginal areas that otherwise would be not used for crop production, making those areas productive. Cows can become an important land management tool and can effectively substitute tractors and machinery on certain parts of a farm. It can be a very elegant solution.
Originally, my goal was to slowly grow the herd and graze it in a rotational pattern on pastureland. Instead of selling calves, we would raise cows for beef production. High-quality, grass-fed beef has a very niche market that could make sense for us.
The economics of sustainable meat production, however, are far less obvious. Cows need a few basic things to survive and thrive. They need food, which they can eat dried in the form of hay, or fresh in the form of pasture. But for pastures to work, there must be both strong perimeter fencing and lighter paddock fencing. Most of the fencing infrastructure already in place on the farm would need to be redone because it stopped being maintained with the sale of the herd during my grandparents’ time. We have seven kilometers of fencing to redo. And that’s just the stronger perimeter fence. All of the lighter paddock fencing would add several more kilometers to that amount.
Cows also need water. Once you put cows out on pasture, there also needs to be a regular water source for them. I have irrigation infrastructure that provides water to a part of the potential pasture area for half of the year (when the irrigation system is turned on) but it is insufficient for a year-round grazing operation.
Cows also need people. Someone has to manage the cows on a daily basis, and check on the herd and feed or move it. Knowing how to work with animals requires a specific set of skills that is not easily found in people who have other very important skills for the farm. While I live in an area that has a history of being a mini version of the American West, sustainable livestock production methods that integrate pasture and rotational grazing are not part of the cowboy training that occurs here. The skills I would need are highly specialized, hard-to-find skills.
All of these things add up to expenses that with current markets aren’t covered by the price of calves or meat. It is easy to see the elegant solution described by Berry – cows fully integrated with crop production – but it is difficult to communicate that value to a market and charge higher prices for meat raised sustainably. You aren’t just paying for the meat; you’re paying for a whole land management ethic.
We Finally Separated the Cows
In late March, the group of cowboys came back. In the two weeks between visits, we were able to coax the cows with some tastier hay to move to a different paddock far from the pine forest they had successfully hidden in. We also rigged up additional separation infrastructure with hay bales to better guide the cows. The cowboys also came without horses so as not to scare the cows and only worked on foot.
Within an hour, the cows had been rounded up, and within two hours, the seven Limousine cows were separated from the herd. The vet came to draw blood samples for analysis (which are required to move animals from one farm to another), and we moved the rest of the herd back into the forest. By lunchtime, the task was accomplished and the day’s work was done.
If the blood samples are disease-free, the seven cows will go to a new home about an hour away to join a herd of other Limousine cows. I’ll only have the heritage Maremmana cows left (I sold the last of the Holsteins last year!).
Despite their important ecological role, the cows do not have a certain future here. It is hard to justify keeping the cows and investing in the needed infrastructure without better market channels. Once the elegant solution that Wendell Berry described is broken, it is hard to put the pieces back into a solution that works for humans, for animals, for the land, and for farm financial sustainability. That perhaps is the tragedy of industrial agriculture – that once it has undone the elegant solutions of the past, we carry the problems into the future, often times without the conditions to create a new elegance.