It’s been one year since Reed Burns gave me one cow to figure out how to produce grass-fed beef in San Miguel, and what a tremendous year of learning it’s been — and hopefully far from over. I find it all so very fascinating, interesting, satisfying and completely heartbreaking.
One year later still, the most difficult cow is Reed Burns, but that’s the price of this front line education on cattle ranching and making meat. Reed and I have evolved together in this partnership because we both have great regard and determination to make an agricultural contribution, but Lordy the road has been bumpy and difficult.
When I walked into that meeting with Via Organica last year, I wasn’t sure of the name of the ranch, how many cows there were, what they did all day, and I barely knew of the breed “Limousin”. I googled it that morning to discover they’re a hearty French cow, good in this terrain, known for easy birth and similar in meat quality to the Angus. Reed Burns knew what he was doing when he choose the breed for his Guanajuato ranch over a decade ago. And I knew that we needed a better quality of meat in our community.
I didn’t know many of the things I know today, and looking back, I may have thought twice if I knew what I was in for… but then again, no. I have loved all the challenges of learning about cows, ranching in Mexico, butchering — soup-to-nuts, as they say. I’d never have privy to the things I’ve experienced if I were in the States, that’s one of the beautiful things about an unregulated life in Mexico; I’ve had face-to-face access to the blood, sweat and tears of raising cows.
I am not hardened or immune to any of it and sometimes all this blood, sweat and tears takes my breathe away. It has brought me to my knees more than a few times. Ranch life is very close to the bone and I am surrounded by men who seem to be unaffected by the death or killing of cows, whereas I’m affected by it all and still want to be involved. I prefer to be affected, but it requires me to take care of myself so I can continue to tend to the job at hand with a clear mind. It requires me to elevate my thinking and continue to strive to be a better person in all that I do.
Yes, I do take it very personally and work diligently with the folks I am working with to provide a good life to the cows, before we take their final sacrifice. Who are we to ask for the life of a cow if we are not clear in our own lives?
My heart has grown with the cows and I get accused of being too emotionally attached to them. It’s true I love them. One of my most favorite places on earth is sunrise in the corral, when I can hear all the cows breathing and chewing and snorting. I breathe with them. I stare. They stare. They get up slowly and stretch their front legs much like dogs. An avalanche of poop and whiz begins to splat on the dirt. Sun up, time to eat, time to move out into the fields. It’s strenuous work getting out to the fields and these cows work hard and are quite lean, yet very well-natured. I bless them with reiki as they march out into the rocky pasture. Another day of hiking across the hills of Rancho Santo Niño in search of food.
I continue to work with Reed Burns because I want them to have a better life and their lives have improved over the past year. They eat better food, their housing structures have been expanded, and greater attention has been given to their health. If I were to walk away right now, I would be content to know their lives are better now than when they were a hobby ranch a year ago. But I haven’t walked away; I am also in on the butchering of these animals when it is time, because it is my commitment to make sure they have a good death, as well as a good life. None of it is easy, however.
We have been fortunate to have found a butcher in Dolores who has a tremendous heart and has taken time and consideration to teach me so many things about cows and meat. He has taught me how to smell a carcass and what to “look” for when smelling that carcass. So many cows are fed horrible diets and no matter what’s said when the animal is sold, the smell of the meat never lies.
My butcher has taught me the importance of a veterinarian who is not afraid to bend over. What, bend over??! Yes, when cows need shots, and they all do at some point, you want to work with a vet who will bend down to administer the shot in the lower leg quarter and not in the prime rump, because that affects the quality of the meat. Our butcher has also taken time to work with our ranch boys to teach them how unnecessary it is to hit or beat the cows. He takes care to photograph the results of a bruised cow — or rather, bruised meat, to show them the consequence of not taking care. It has worked! The ranch family now flail their arms and yelp to move the cows. It literally made me cry when I saw this the first time.
A good life and a good death, right?
I am emotionally attached, but I also butcher, deliver and devour con gusto. It’s the most profound and soulful work I’ve ever done. It also completely kicks my ass.
Recently, two bulls got into an argument as bulls do, and one bull took a horn under his jaw, which caused an existing tumor to very quickly grow and swell up the bull’s head. He stopped eating, became listless and motionless. We had to end his misery. I went to see our butcher to talk about it and he took from a very large bucket the head of this bull that I have enjoyed breathing with on occasion, and plopped it on the table in front of me. We looked at the jaw, we analyzed everything, as the dead eyes looked at nothing. I knew that cow and I liked him a lot. “This is what happens Meag, just deal with it,” I kept telling myself. This is what happens, cows die, deal with it.
Guess what? I have no clue how to deal with it. I don’t want any of these cows to die and how in the world did I arrive at a place in my life that I’m in on the killing of cows?? How did this happen and will I ever be forgiven???
This has cracked my soul wide open to a very strange place and I find myself considering life and death, love and hate, sex and dying, as well as wondering how far away am I from having my head on a table being examined and considered if there was anything more that could’ve been done? Is this who I am, a murderer of cows, a happy carnivore, or is it forcing me to see and experience life from a place of extreme gratitude for all that I have?
The other day I began to sob about my part in the killing of these cows to the point where no sound came out and my rib cage trembled and ached. I asked for forgiveness, I asked if maybe I should go instead of the next cow. I looked to the sun and wondered am I good enough to be doing this work and to please help me become a better person.
There is more work to do. But first I will draw Negro el Toro because he is so handsome and strong…