Reviving an Ancient Breed

cattle

We could hear the bellowing long before we could see the bovine perpetrator, a new mother cow who had somehow managed to get on the wrong side of the barbed wire fence from the herd – and therefore her calf. She was not pleased.

While I opened one gate (and hid behind it), Aaron Whealey, vice president and chief cowboy of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, opened the other and encouraged the wayward mom to pass through both gates and rejoin the herd and her calf. With one last bellow at me as she passed, the family was reunited. The erstwhile orphan was one of 50 new calves expected this season from the Seed Savers Exchange herd of Ancient White Park Cattle. A tiny number in a state that regularly sees herds of thousands in their feedlots, but this is no ordinary herd, nor ordinary cow.

The Ancient White Park, also sometimes called “White Forest,” “White Horned,” “Wild White,” or simply “Park,” has a recorded history that goes back more than 800 years. Their first literary mention comes from a 13th century Irish epic called Táin Bó Cúalnge or The Cattle Raid of Cooley:

It was at that time that the Morrígan daughter of Ernmas
from the fairy-mounds came to destroy Cú Chulainn, for she
had vowed on the Foray of Regamain that she would come
and destroy Cú Chulainn when he was fighting with a
mighty warrior on the Foray of Cúailnge. So the Morrígan
came there in the guise of a white, red-eared heifer accompanied
by fifty heifers, each pair linked together with a chain of
white bronze.

The author’s name is lost to history, and this noble breed nearly was too. In fact even today the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy lists the White Park as “critical,” a term that means that there are “Fewer than 200 annual registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 2,000.” So the pair we had just helped reunite were important indeed. The 50 new calves at Seed Savers could be counted among the 500 expected at ranches in Virginia, Nebraska, and Montana. If they all get registered, they just might help the White Park move up a notch on the ALBC list of parameters from critical to the not-exactly-reassuring “threatened.” But nothing is sure when it comes to farming.

These noble cattle, with their distinctive white coats, reddish ears and long, imposing horns first came to North America as a single breeding pair sent to the Toronto Zoo from England in 1939 to protect the breed due to fears of Nazi invasion. From there they went to the Bronx Zoo, and later to a ranch in Texas. The small herd, descended

from that pair, was brought to Iowa in 1981 by the Moeckly Farm of Polk City. A couple of the heifer calves were then bought by Seed Savers just before the rest of the herd was bought by B Bar Ranch in Emigrant, Montana, where today 80 percent of this year’s calves are expected.

Now I am a city boy born-and-bred and know precious little about how to care for these creatures before they reach my kitchen. With each heifer averaging three-quarters-of-a-ton it took some encouragement to get me to enter the pasture to snap a few photos. These are not the docile, de-horned creatures of Old MacDonald’s Farm, but rather a social herd of very protective mothers, some with horns longer than my arm. I cautiously entered, and the bellowing began again – “moo” does not describe it.

This behavior is part of the reason some ranchers are starting to awaken to the benefits of the breed. They calve easily and on their own (Aaron says he’s never pulled a calf from a Park), are fiercely protective of their young, live and grow quite happily on pasture, and deliver exceptional quality meat. None of Seed Savers’ herd has ever seen a veterinarian.

Happily the herd’s behavior was more wary than aggressive. They did not, as I had feared, smell my urban upbringing and thus realize that they had the upper hoof. Or maybe they just wanted to lull me into getting just a little too close and then hook the strap of my Nikon with what appeared to be needle-sharp horns. Whether I was reading too much into the situation or not, all this from what turned out to be the smaller of the two herds kept on Seed Savers’ rolling acreage.

Whealey and his counterparts on the B Bar Ranch in Montana, in addition to Alec Bradford in Virginia and Lance Kuck in Nebraska, who each keep smaller herds, are keeping separate groups on their lands to strengthen the genetic variety within the breed. Scrupulous attention to which calf came from which heifer and which bull prevents inbreeding and thus reinforces the herd. This is important not only to the genetic code, but also to the marketability of the cattle. In this eat-it-to-save-it model, encouraging more ranchers to take on the breed is vital. A strong herd makes that more likely.

Nature is not monolithic. It can only thrive with diversity, so protecting a wide variety of breeds strengthens each species. In order to encourage that to happen in the modern world, one effective method is to create markets for the product. Recent successes in this model have been seen with the American Bison, and with the four formerly endangered breeds of turkeys that Slow Food USA’s Ark project brought back from the brink – The American Bronze, the Bourbon Red, the Jersey Buff and the Narragansett. Now not only is Seed Savers helping to rescue the Ancient White Park, but it has begun working with several heritage breeds of poultry as well.

As I gingerly approach a calf, it seems curious at first, but one stern warning from its nearby mother sends the youngster scurrying behind her for protection. I think I’m gaining ground, getting some decent images. Just then Whealey points out to me that while I’ve been focusing on what was in front of me, the herd was not retreating – it was surrounding. Best to retreat myself before they realized I’d be preparing one of their kin for dinner.

Thai Beef Salad

2 pounds beef flank steak (or substitute skirt)

For the Marinade:

2 teaspoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 lime, juiced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ginger, minced
1/2 each red onion, minced
1/3 cup peanut oil
1/2 teaspoon tuong ot toi (a Vietnamese chili paste, available in most Asian markets)

For the Dressing:

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon ginger
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon tuong ot toi
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1/2 cup peanut oil
1 sweet red bell pepper, julienned
3 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

  1. Marinate the beef in the next 9 ingredients 1 hour to overnight. Remove the beef from the marinade, scrape off excess. Grill or broil on high heat just a couple minutes on each side, to medium rare.
  2. Slice the beef thin and on a bias, as if for fajitas, and toss with the remaining ingredients. Chill thoroughly before serving.

Serves 4 as an entrée. 8 as a salad. Keeps refrigerated for 2-3 days.

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