It's a delicate balance from season to season, herd to herd

Complicated Choices

by Kate Tvelia Athearn

Complicated Choices

Carrie Mae Smith

"Boneless Sirloin" 22"x17" oil on mylar, by Carrie Mae Smith, private collection.  

It is harvest time in the rolling hills of Chilmark, where Jim Athearn of Morning Glory Farm keeps his beef cattle, and the landscape is frozen in shades of gray and brown. The unfiltered sunlight accentuates the contrast in the scene: A shaggy auburn steer against the silvery pond. Bare branches on white sky. Breeding cows grazing with meat cows. I’ll admit it—it’s hard to look into those big brown eyes and imagine biting into a juicy hamburger. But as much as we don’t like to think about it, death is an unavoidable step in the cow-to-steak metamorphosis.

Jim and his wife, Debbie, started raising cattle over 25 years ago. After an unsuccessful stint at dairy farming (they ended up dumping milk when people didn’t return the bottles), Jim bought a herd of Polled Herefords from Herring Creek Farm and started breeding beef. As protein farmers, the Athearns want to maximize the meatiness of their herd. So during the two years the animals take to reach full, breeding-or-eating size, they watch them carefully for characteristics worthy of reproducing. They’re obviously looking for larger animals that grow quickly. And only heifers whose mother consistently produced healthy calves are considered. The Athearns don’t keep their own bulls, but participate in the informal ”borrow-a-bull” program—feeding and housing a visiting stud while keeping him, umm… entertained for a few weeks until it’s time for him to move on to the next pasture full of willing ladies. So the male part of the equation is determined simply by which bull is available when.

While fertility and growth rate can be measured and tracked over time, traits like health and temperament are less concrete, harder to predict. Because they have to interact with these animals on a daily basis, keeping them fed, watered, and enclosed, they also want even-tempered cattle. Aggressive animals are dangerous (especially when they outweigh the farmer by several hundred pounds), but sluggishness may be indicative of heath problems. When Jim says he saves ”good looking cows” for breeding, he’s not talking about a pretty face. When describing the look that healthy cows have, he uses vague, general terms like ”straight and full-bodied and bright-looking,” making me think there’s a level of artistry involved in the science of animal husbandry.

Jim’s son, Dan, has taken over much of the day-to-day cattle care now. Yet, even as much as Morning Glory has grown in the past two decades, every farm has its limits. Keeping livestock is physically and emotionally hard work. Each sturdy beef steer that is shipped of to market was once a tiny calf, in need of protection from predators, parasites, and calf-nappers (calf-less cows occasionally try to steal babies). Harvest time occurs in the fall not only so we can fill our freezers with meat for the winter, but also because winters are tough on the farm. Barn space becomes precious in the colder months. Pastures are brown and dry, and hay is expensive. Water troughs have to be heated, or else chipped free of ice several times a day.

It’s a lot for a farmer to keep track of. But Jim takes meticulous, if not high tech, notes. He still writes everything by hand, in an old green notebook he has had ”since the beginning of time,” tracking each calf from birth to slaughter, and everything in between. Careful note-taking helps avoid mistakes like inbreeding, but farming has a way of keeping farmers on their toes. As soon as a farmer thinks he’s got it all under control, one of his animals mysteriously develops a limp, or an unsightly growth, or a talent for escaping. Veterinary bills— though a necessary expense—eat into profits, which farmers have to constantly monitor. And sick animals take more work to look after, as do naughty, destructive fence-jumpers.

But the real driving force behind the Athearn’s breeding choices seems to be the prevention of health problems, the elimination of genetic abnormalities. As much as they have embraced this way of life, no one likes to lose babies. Or watch animals suffer. Farming is a delicate balance of way of life and bottom line, business and humanity. So when I bite into my Island- grown burger, I am grateful to the farmer who makes the tough choices, allowing me the luxury of pondering options related only to cooking temperature and presentation—ketchup, mustard or pickles.