Photograph by Ryan Bell
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In Montana, a team of Bud Williams-trained cowboys move cattle according to one of the tenants of stockmanship: work cattle in small groups.
Photograph by Ryan Bell
The Plate

Humane Animal Treatment Fields a New Generation

While the headlines and gotcha videos focus on the inhumane treatment of animals, Temple Grandin has focused her career on improving treatment for cattle in factories. But there are a slew of other experts advancing animal welfare on the range and beyond.

“Horse whisperers” like Buck Brannaman practice a non-violent form of training called natural horsemanship. Instead of treating a horse abusively, cowboys use gentle exercises that mimic how horses interact with each other in a herd. A naturally-trained horse won’t even buck when it carries a saddle and rider for the first time.

Treating horses gently became a gateway for cowboys to think about their treatment of cattle.

Bud Williams, an Oregon cowboy, developed a low-stress approach to handling cattle that he called simply “stockmanship.” It’s based on the idea that cattle have a flight zone—their personal space—that when infringed upon, they’ll walk away. Ride up on cattle aggressively, like cowboys do in the movies, and the herd will run. But ride quietly, on the cusp of the flight zone, and cattle will walk gently in the direction a cowboy wants them to go.

Williams passed away in 2012, but a drove of cowboys carry on his work. One of them, Montana cowboy Curt Pate, teaches stockmanship classes for Beef Quality Assurance program. Like Certified Organic, BQA labeling tells consumers that a package of beef was raised according to a set of best practices. These standards include the humane treatment of livestock.

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Curt Pate, a stockman ship clinician, shows how to use a “flight zone” for stress-free cattle handling. Photograph courtesy Curt Pate

“Cowboys have always cared about their cattle and horses,” Pate says. “Stockmanship starts when a calf is born. The first time a human has contact with a calf, they are imprinting it for the future. If I do a good job, he’ll trust humans.”

The humane treatment of livestock appeals to more than just the heart and mind. Taste buds benefit, too.

“There’s one problem that haunts us in the beef industry: it’s called a dark cutter. That happens when fear makes adrenaline pump through the animal. It’s like hunting deer. If you shoot at one that’s been scared and running hard, it has a tough, wild flavor to the meat. But if you shoot a deer or elk just sitting there, and their heart rate hasn’t increased, it’s a good-flavored meat. There’s not that iron taste in there, and the meat is tender. Same thing with beef. If cattle have always been content, when they’re harvested the way Temple Grandin suggests, it creates a flavorful, tender meat,” says Pate.

Other factors affect meat quality.

During a cow’s life, it gets in line for a number of injections: disease vaccines, medicine to treat infections, and antibiotics (to fight disease and, controversially, increase weight gain). Repeated needle punctures cause bruising and tough meat to form. Standard practice was to inject livestock on the hind quarters. It’s safer and easier for a handler to reach. But the rump is also home to choice meat cuts. Butchers lop out bruised sections, discarding chunks that add up into piles of what should’ve been edible meat. So ranchers now give injections in the neck.

Stress, whether environmental or from illness, affects how cattle graze. Now that experts are calling for fat to be recognized as a primary flavor, there’s evidence to support why the amount of marbling in beef determines the quality of flavor. A well-marbled steak looks like granite, with striations of white within red. On the tongue, they are savory bursts of flavor.  Weight gain is the most important measure of how good cattle’s meat will taste. But when a cow is sick, or stressed, it stops putting on marbling fat.

A new generation of rancher is putting all these components together.

Garl Germann lives on a third-generation ranch in southwest Montana. He started the Rodear Initiative, an Allan Savory-inspired project that uses cattle to mimic the large herds of bison that once roamed the American West. Germann and his cowboys move the cattle along in tight bunches, allowing them to bite grass once before moving on. Rodear cowboys don’t go over the same swath of ground twice in a summer, giving allowing the plants to regenerate and develop strong root structures.

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Whit Hubbard of Sieben Livestock partners with the Rodear Initiative, which uses low-stress cattle handling to produce grass-fed beef. Photograph by Ryan Bell

Germann processes the meat himself at his family’s slaughterhouse, then sells the beef under the label Montana Meat Company. Boutique suppliers like him give consumers an alternative to mass produced beef.

A recent op-ed in The New York Times rightly criticizes states that have ag-gag laws. But in making its argument, the editors fall into the rut of characterizing the slaughter industry as “sadistic.”

As evidenced by Temple Grandin and those who have taken her lead and moved it out of the slaughterhouse and into the field, animal welfare has taken root in the cattle industry. You can taste the difference. It’s the flavor of kindness.

Ryan Bell is a 2015 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. For his project Comrade Cowboys, he’ll travel through Russia and Kazakhstan where American cowboys are helping build cattle ranches and report for The Plate along the way. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.