Why indigenous breeds are the key to sustainable beef farming.
Catching up with Tom Breytenbach in North West at Brennaissance.
In the North-West region of Hartbeesfontein lies a farm that is making a compelling statement about why indigenous breeds are a critical part of any conversation about sustainable cattle farming in Africa.
Sometimes I still have to rub my eyes with our luck at being able to get beef of this caliber into our store, knowing that it’s so rare that beef of this quality gets experienced on plates.
I often feel a deep sense of sadness for people who have never had the experience of tasting good beef like this with that very distinctive full bodied rich flavor. Too many only know beef in relation to what they are getting in the mainstream – grey, grainy, young beef with little body, little taste, little texture and most definitely very little nutrition. It is too typical an experience that most people eat beef that cannot stand on its own, tastes not too different to a combination of wet compacted toilet paper and cardboard and requires an intense sauce to make something of it. That people are paying good money for beef of such poor quality frustrates me. Good beef should never be perverted by or need a rich sauce. It would be an utter perversion to adulterate the full bodied distinct taste of Boran beef this way, it simply doesn’t need it and that’s the hallmark of good beef.
There should be so much character in the taste and texture that it’s a sheer pleasure to eat it.
The Boran beef tells us what we should expect from good quality wholly veldt reared beef and this is a large part of the reason I first fell in love with it. I remember a time when I was frustrated blue with the beef people were accepting and I decided that the only way to demonstrate what true wholly veldt raised beef is meant to be was to get my hands on the best and just put it out and I wouldn’t need to say anything more.
Only then would they be able to discern good grass fed beef from compromises. That is exactly what has happened with the Boran beef and I am so grateful to Tom Breytenbach for raising the bar for us and giving people this experience.
It is the farm where Tom Breytenbach’s lives out his passion for a very specific cattle breed, the Boran. Cattle that spend out their lives grazing wholly on veldt and grass on a holistically managed farm. A farm that has never seen GM corn or soy or any grain crops for that matter.
There is little more contentious when you’re in the company of cattle farmers than to talk about the characteristics of a breed and which is better or worse. It is as futile as arguments between vegans and meat eaters. Each passionately needing to defend their world view. I have learnt over the years to never get involved with debates about cattle breeds with farmers as they can get very heated very quickly.
Good beef farmers are so emotively committed to the breeds they believe in that they take it as a grave insult and almost act wounded if you take any view that their belief in their breed is not whole truth.
I find that beautiful. When I’m in the company of farmers like that, I know I’m in the company of passionate farmers, deeply committed to their animals. I don’t find a farmer’s reaction to any criticism of the breed they support any different really to the primal response of a good Mother if anybody dare criticism her child. It’s a primal defense and seeing it in farmers warms my heart, it is demonstration of their pride in and therefore love of the animals they farm and stand for.
One thing I never do anymore is argue with a farmer about the strengths or weaknesses of their breed, especially now that I have a very definite passion for the Boran which is all Tom’s fault really.
To spend any good time with him is to meet an unswerving determination to not only make the Boran understood for what it brings to sustainable cattle farming but also to meet a rock sturdy commitment to do everything he can to keep the bloodline and genetics of the Boran pure because he believes it is a critically important breed. If you don’t leave Tom fascinated by the Boran then you weren’t listening properly really.
Unless you are buying our Boran beef, it is unlikely that you will have eaten this breed before. The reason for this is that it is too valuable an animal to be raised for beef production It has such a high value as a breeding animal – over 10 times what it would be worth sold as meat – that nobody is going to recover their investment of a Boran by selling it for beef. The reason we are lucky enough to be able to bring it to you is because of Tom’s commitment to good relationships and helping the sustainable food movement along. Tom always does the right thing. There is a degree of uncompromising quality to anything he does and a focused almost obsession with purity, standing for the utmost truth of a thing.
This is common to every single one of the most sustainable farmers I have met and stand for in this country. This could be the singularly most important attribute that runs through all of them and separates the wheat from the chafe – a commitment to the integrity and authenticity of a thing. Every single farmer I stand behind in this store – has that rare quality in common – a refusal to compromise on dealing in anything less than the utter truth, the utter purity, the utter ideal of a thing. They spend their lives setting a standard of quality in farming that makes them the pioneers of the SA food (r )evolution. It is because they are rare that this store grows slowly, I don’t ever want to pervert this mandate with compromises. I only want the best for this store, for you and only want to stand behind this kind of farmer. You can find compromises everywhere and I’ll leave that to others but not for here. I want this store to maintain its integrity to true sustainable models of farming and this can only come from farmers of this caliber, integrity to a well thought out deep seated philosophy, driven by passion. These are the farmers that best deserve the kinds of customers this store connects with.
To meet farmers of this caliber and to see how their integrity and commitment to nature and quality plays out on their farm and in how they manage the land and life they serve as custodians of, is always a very sacred experience for me. To leave the city and suburbs dominated by corporate values that aren’t much about rock sturdy integrity and to land on the soil of a farmer who makes no compromises in his pursuit of the truth of the purity in his passion, is incredibly special.
Farmers committed to sustainable farming are without doubt – always those types of people.
The reason why the Boran is such a valuable cattle and is in such demand to farmers is the reason why Tom stands so firmly behind this breed and maintaining its genetic strength and purity in the blood line. This points to why it becomes important in the conversation about the future of sustainable beef.
So why are we evolving beyond talking about what we’ve always spoken about, what the cows are eating and whether or not it is wholly grass fed, to talking about the breed?
This is what Tom brings to that dialogue, the importance of breed characteristics for considering strong animals who can adapt to African climates and live well on well managed veldt.
I say well managed because Tom is the kind of beef farmer, Keith Harvey used to refer to when he taught me that a good cattle farmer is primarily first – a good grass farmer. There isn’t any good cattle farmer that isn’t first somebody who manages the biodiversity of his veldt and grasslands first.
I always note that about good cattle farmers. When you’re with them, what they most want to firstly talk to you about and show you before you even get to the cattle is their grass and how they are managing the growth of it using rotational grazing. All good cattle farmer understands that cattle rearing is about grass and honoring the sacred relationship between cattle and grass.
With drought being a very real threat again to farmers, Tom has added another dimension to his farm this year, hedging against the risk of drought by making sure that they aren’t caught off guard. He is planting and baling additional grasses and excitedly takes you through these lush patches of green grown to bale in case it’ll be needed in Winter, Teff, Natural Food Sorghum and grasses like Smuts finger growing so tall and lush that in some areas it wasn’t easy to find the cattle amongst them! Smuts finger is a particular grass discovered by Jan Smuts himself in 1924 and according to him was a group of plants that differed to other finger grasses in the area because of its acceptability to animals. There is a gorgeous picture of a Boran grazing in a field of Smuts finger that is almost as tall as the animal. Tom’s farm is full of beautiful images like this, cattle surrounded by lush grass whichever area of the farm they’re on and very definitely spoilt for the choice of it.
The Boran developed in Eastern Africa, starting out it is claimed in the plateau in Southern Ethiopia. The three first breeds then started moving to different areas of Africa. The Boran became the dominate breed of Eastern Africa most especially in Kenya. As far as can be determined this is the only cattle breed in Africa (and therefore the world) to have a specific combination of genes that hasn’t changed since 700 AD. The Boran has been bred as a pure breed for 1300 years. What this means is that this breed is known as ‘God’s Gift To Cattlemen’ because the strong and pure genetics mean that it provides any cattle breeder that brings it into their herd with what is known as strong hybrid vigour. That means, the very strong characteristics of the breed dominate when they are cross-bred and the cross has very definite stronger characteristics that come from the Boran.
This is why it isn’t likely that you will have eaten Boran anywhere else, it is too commercially valuable to be sold to farmers wanting to invest in strengthening their herds by cross breeding with a Boran than it is to be sold as meat. It is a highly prized animal revered for its genetics and this is why you have farmers like Tom investing in ensuring that the Borans’ genetic purity and blood line is kept in pristine condition.
To illustrate the importance of the Boran lightly, when I was doing more research on the Boran after leaving North West on Tuesday, I had to burst out laughing a couple of times reading accounts of early arrogant Europeans invading Africa and Europeanizing everything. Remember it was mostly a fact of life that Europeans arrived in Africa and found it all rather backward and rated themselves as more ‘advanced’ and superior. This was the beginning of one large mess in Africa that most of our history has been defined by recovering from. Today, we are still in most quarters effected by the Europeanization of everything. Why everybody is suspicious of amasi but thinks kefir is just marvellous. Why we revere baby spinach but know little about moroggo, imbuya or amaranth.
There is a very particular dent to the esteem called ‘African’ that we are still very much in the grip of and needing to heal from. It irks me which is why I found it rather amusing reading accounts of early European settlers arriving here and thinking Africans were all backwards and rather arrogantly bringing over all their European cattle breeds which they of course decided must undoubtedly be superior to the funny looking African breeds which in most quarters would have very likely been the Boran. The Boran is a very particular looking animal that makes one huge statement of presence and whose beauty is obscure until you understand their nature and then suddenly they become exceedingly magnificent looking. This has been my experience of them anyhow. Once you understand the sheer evolutionary strength of this breed to be African and maintain longevity for our climate and who stand bold thriving under African conditions, they become more and more beautiful.
Reading the accounts, I had a rather amusing picture develop of a bunch of rather pale men with bad shorts and burnt necks getting a little ratty because their European cattle just kept wanting to laze around in the shade a lot. Which is exactly what happened. The European breeds were not doing well in African conditions and they noticed that the African breeds were different. Rather than lazing about in the shade in mid-day African heat, these cattle continued to graze. In difficult conditions like drought or grazing scarcity, the European breeds were rather lost, needing a lot of TLC and became costly because they needed input feed.
The Boran however could walk and walk for miles looking to find water and better grazing. Simply put, the Boran is an African breed suited for African conditions and grazing. Which is where Tom’s point that this is a very important breed when it comes to finding cattle that are most suited to wholly veldt reared grazing and not only surviving but doing well when conditions are less than ideal and drought hits. Like it had in the region when I first met Tom on his farm. The entire region was in the grip of drought, most farmers had become dependent on having to bring in excess maize and feed to supplement cattle but on Tom’s farm – with no crops grown at all – the Boran were fat, sleek coats, in mint condition able to forage on veldt grasses that a European breed or cross couldn’t.
So before the visit was over, Tom had made his point already. This breed is a serious contender when it comes to sustainable farming because it is adapted to African conditions and able to survive and indeed thrive in the extremes that characterize our weather.
Because the breed has a genetic line that has not altered in 2000 years – it still maintains the genetic characteristics that make it thrive on veldt and in African specific conditions.
When our golden arc on the bucket list is an animal that can be reared wholly on biodiverse veldt without needing input feed, the Boran holds the key to why the breed is a critical part of the dialogue when we talk about sustainable cattle farming.
Rearing cattle wholly on veldt isn’t an easy deal in South Africa. There are 2 threats that make this difficult in the form of stock theft, a huge problem for farmers and predator risk.
If you have cattle in an open grazing area, you make your herd wide open to stock theft as much as you do to attracting predators.
There are particular characteristics in the Boran that have allowed them to maintain an evolutionary advantage in this respect and make them a blessing for farmers who want to minimize the risks of raising cattle exclusively on veldt.
The first is their unique herding instinct. A predator of any description has to separate cattle in order to attack them. Tom proved to us how impossible it is to separate an individual cow from the herd, quite a remarkable thing to see. No matter how hard he tried to get in between one cow and the rest of the herd and no matter how distracted any member of the herd looked, they simply will not allow you to do it. They have this unique way of running one way and the next with the rest of the herd instinctively getting involved to ensure one isn’t separated. This made them less likely to be attacked by predators and gives them a distinct advantage on veldt. Herding instinct of that strength was much an advantage on African plains and has much to do with the breed’s longevity. Strength in numbers is the advantage they gain with this instinct.
It makes stock theft equally difficult for the same reasons. Tom simply was unable to separate any cow from the herd, they will not allow it and so human theft is equally difficult.
That means that farmers wanting to wholly rear cattle on veldt face less risk for stock and predator theft with the Boran than other breeds.
Then there is the fact that they are incredibly protective mothers. The Boran as a herd come across to me rather Rastafarian in their attitude, they are so relaxed and don’t threaten easily. You get the sense that they have a particular confidence borne out of their knowledge of their own competence in dealing with most issues an African climate will throw at them. In earlier anecdotes from farmers noting their strength in Africa, there are so many accounts of how adaptable they are. If conditions aren’t ideal, the Boran just gets on with it. If food is scarce they’ll walk for miles un-phased to find better grazing. If water is scarce, they can equally cope for long periods of time while walking on a very strong foot adapted for this, to find it. When they were moved to new areas, they adapted quickly. That ability to adapt is what I think is mostly responsible for a very definite confidence and perhaps the characteristic tenderness in their meat. Animals that stress more easily are generally correlated with tougher meat due to higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline in their system.
They’re not skittish, they’re trusting and just relaxed – until you threaten one of their babies that is. Then you suddenly see a different side to them. You don’t want to get too near to a Boran calf – you’ll hear from the Mother who starts to confront you with the formidable and purposeful waddle of a Mother whose child is under threat. She means it, her attitude yells not negotiable, you move. This strong maternal instinct is equally responsible for their longevity on veldt and the strength they gain from being less vulnerable to predators.
Their ability to survive well on veldt and to adapt to extreme African weather means that it is a very important breed to consider for economically raising wholly veldt reared breeds. It lowers input costs. When drought hits, less hardy breeds can only survive with input feed – this is far more expensive than investing in good veldt management strategies and means that it is difficult to raise cattle wholly on veldt without having to at some stage resort to input feed generally in the form of less than ideal feeds, corn, soy, licks, molasses, oranges, chicken litter and even sweets. I’m not kidding.
They also, when left to live naturally have an extremely strong and sturdy frame. The Boran is a very solid animal and on grass the meat marbles exceptionally well and is tender. The bones are so incredibly strong that bone broth made from this beef practically turns to gelatine in only two days. The fat has a characteristic butter tone and a very distinct quality, yellow tone and the older the animal the higher the omega 3 and CLA rich fat full of carotenoids.
Which brings to another very important characteristic of farmers who make a point of wholly veldt rearing beef. The age at which the animal is slaughtered is critical to obtain the health benefits of whole grass rearing. Longevity on veldt which is the hallmark characteristic of this breed designed to live its life faring well on African grass lands and veldt, is critical.
I can never quite understand why anybody would sell grass fed beef and the benefits of it and then slaughter the animal too early, long before it has time to live for long enough to have the strength of whole grass rearing in it.
With Tom we have a very specific arrangement and understanding of this. Tom won’t select an animal for us before it has had at least three to four years on veldt.
Our commitment with Tom is to nose to tail eating. We do not sell volumes of this, one cow at a time selected carefully and exclusively for us, transported carefully and without stress to a nearby abattoir where all effort goes into ensuring that the animal isn’t stressed. There are no long transport distances of groups of cattle. A stressed animal after all this effort would make no sense at all.
Beef of this calibre is not readily available as meat and it’s a result of Tom’s belief in us to represent the Boran to the type of customer who is going to truly understand its value that makes it available to us.
The Boran makes a very specific statement about honouring the evolutionary strengths of breeds and choosing breeds that fare well and are adapted well to wholly veldt rearing.
This is much the reason too why their value is set around being brought by farmers who want to improve the strength of their herds. When a Boran is crossed and those genetics brought into another herd, calf weight and strength goes up, calving ability of the Mother goes up, their immunity and strength goes up. The Boran genes that have had it able to maintain strength without being altered in 2000 years continue to dominate. Why it is referred to as God’s gift to cattle-men – Boran genes strengthen a herd.
It’s very bold to claim, like I do that I believe it is the best beef we have ever been able to access, and I do and the more time I spend there, the more I am in awe of how blessed we are to have it.
I have unashamedly become a Boran fan, not only because of the incredible quality of taste, texture and marbling we get from it, but also in awe of the character of this breed, a very distinct African longevity.
We are exceptionally grateful to Tom Breytenbach for his commitment to this passion and all it has taught us and for making what has been the best beef we’ve ever had a reality in this store.
For the love of Boran and thank you to Tom, Hayley and Brennaissance for their passion and commitment to this breed and evolving the conversation about sustainable cattle farming in Africa and for giving us the pleasure of this experience – a cut above the rest.