Category Archives: Cattle

Guess what’s coming to dinner

Who knew this would end up on my plate?

OK. So these are the kinds of things your mother doesn’t warn you about when you grow up in the city. I was warned about not talking to strangers, checking the back seat before opening the car when in underground parking, and not walking alone down deserted streets after dark. I was not warned about what I might be offered for dinner at a cattle branding party!

“Testicles anyone?” was not something I ever imagined I’d hear over the dinner table.  Now I will admit to being a pretty finicky eater. In fact, what I might have to eat is something that helped me choose where I would (and would not) do my fieldwork for my Anthropology Degree. Knowing I would never be able to choke down insects limited the scope of possibilities substantially. My mother will confirm this and bore anyone who will listen with stories of how for the first few years of my life she thought I would starve to death because there was very little I would eat!

Now, here I am in the middle of Alberta being offered a ‘delicacy’, the thought of which turns my stomach. “Prairie Oyster Kristeva?” asks Dennis, who has changed out of his chaps and into a clean pair of jeans, but is now shirtless and being affectionately referred to as ‘The Naked Chef’. When I politely try to decline Jeff’s ears ring from across the lawn. He leaps to his feet and charges over, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding! I tried your goat.”

Somehow, I think that is different.

Desperate to get out of this, I turn to ‘Grandma Ella’. Now in her mid-eighties, she is matriarch of this ranching family. She doesn’t eat prairie oysters, never has, never will. But I quickly realize it’s a battle I’m not going to win. Not even ‘Grandma Ella’  will come to my rescue!

By this stage in the proceedings several sets of expectant eyes are on me, and I cave. “OK, I’ll try one. Just one!” With a healthy dose of trepidation, I peer over the plate in front of me. I am shocked to see they look quite appetizing–that is, if you don’t consider from whence they came.  The tender little morsels are glistening with fat and spread out neatly on the plate amidst fried onions. A waft of warm air heavy with garlic and spices rises up before me. It’s almost enough to make me forget that I’m being offered testicles on a plate.

To help muster some courage I think about the politics of food, the ultimate sacrifice those poor little calves made only a few hours ago, and the starving millions around the world. “At least I know they are fresh!” I say as I reach for my first prairie oyster. There is an unconscious little whimper emitted as I bite down on the testicle (it’s what you don’t see in the photos).

My first bite of a prairie oyster.

I’m still whimpering as I chew and try not to think about what it is I am eating.

At this stage I can't believe I have a calf testicle in my mouth.

The look on my face betrays the fact that I’m losing the battle of keeping the flashes of the morning’s activities at bay as I ponder the texture with my tongue. Texture is big for me when it comes to food. The prairie oyster reminds me of small breakfast sausages, of which I’m not all that fond.

The texture is like a breakfast sausage.

“I see you’ve got the emergency water bottle handy just in case,” Dennis laughs while watching me eat. “Not to mention the ‘whiskey back’,” I reply, raising my red cup up to toast the occasion (I’ve had a few shots to bolster my courage).  As I chew, the delicate flavour mingles in my mouth and over-shadows my misgivings. Much to my chagrin, I have to admit that they actually taste pretty darn good and–although it may have been the whiskey talking–I actually reach for seconds. I don’t, however, let go of my whiskey!

Who knew they'd be so delicious that I'd want seconds!

Besides the prairie oysters, we do have roast beef. These folks have a grand facility replete with butchering shop that will hold about 25 cattle beasts at one time for aging. We head on in to do the de-boning. Actually, Jeff did all the work while the rest of us onlookers ensured a suitable level of general harassment was kept up.

De-boning and preparing roasts for the barbeque.

“It was a plan that was hatched at about 3:30 am one night in a state of utter debauchery,” Dennis tells me shaking his head.  Then looking up, he  swept his arm around the facility, “But we were all here the next day working on it!” The fellows are proud of this establishment, and who wouldn’t be. “You know, we can have an elk on the ground, then butchered, cut, and wrapped in a matter of hours,” Dennis continues, highlighting the various merits of the facility. “For example, this leg has been aged in the back cooler for 25 days,” he says, pointing to the leg Jeff is working on.

Suddenly Jeff looked up, “What, here? In this facility…. oh, we’re taking our chances,” he says, then winks at me. He’s already elbow deep in the work of de-boning yet manages to participate in the camaraderie around the room.

There are recipes and tall stories shared in order to work up an appetite:

“Hey Doug, can I get some of your special brine while I’m here?” someone asks.

“Sure, I’ll make you some right now.”

“Oh. Can I get the actual recipe off you, or is it a family secret?”

“Yep, but you can’t tell Jeff I gave it to you.”

“Why not?”

“Cuz it’s actually his family’s recipe and he doesn’t know I have it!”

A pretty happy pair.

Thanks to the people at the ranch and their generous, inclusive spirit, the weekend was not only enlightening but also a lot of fun. The weather was fantastic, the ranch was beautiful, the jobs were turned into entertainment. A good time was had by this little cowgirl. I got to experience some real Canadian ranch life–I even got to sleep in a horse trailer. Now how is that for an authentic cowhand experience!

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Filed under Cattle, Heritage foods, Meat and game cookery

Cattle branding 2010

I’ve just been to my first cattle branding party ever and now that I’m ready to write the post I notice there is no category for me to place this post under! Cattle it is, and calves they were. A few weeks ago I had my first farm stay guest–a cowboy from Alberta. After coming all the way to Howling Duck Ranch for a much needed holiday (and to help butcher my goats!), he kindly invited me to come to a cattle branding party.

I have always loved the idea of cowboy ranching and here was an opportunity to see it live and in person. I’ve loved western movies all my life and can practically recite the dialogue from Lonesome Dove with little encouragement. Since that first trip out to the farm of my dad’s friend when I was 5 years old, I have wanted to farm and own cows. The more recent addition to the fantasy was to work them from a horse. Having  not been born into a ranching family nor even known one, I never thought I would ever get the opportunity–and now here it was being offered on my blog!

“It’s in a place called Pine Lake, Alberta,” Jeff told me when I called to ask him if the offer was serious. “We’ll be rounding them up, branding, tagging, vaccinating, and castrating… I think you’ll really enjoy it.”

I laughed. “Well, that’s some first date,” but I was secretly thrilled.

Some of the calves waiting to be branded.

For the first while I hung back, took photos, and observed all the goings on. The people were rounding the calves up and cutting them to get them into the chute. Others were keeping the fires going for the branding tools. Some were on ear tagging duty. Jeff was in charge of vaccinations and yet another fellow was doing the castrating.

“Kristeva wants to do the cutting” Jeff announced matter-of-factly while the men were delegating tasks. Much to my horror, they nearly took him seriously. Flattered, but not quite that game, I quietly declined. The look on one man’s face told me he would have loved to be relieved of the task–maybe it hurts internally to do that job when you are a man!

Lots of folks involved in the different aspects of the job. This view from the calf pen on through to the chute.

With all that was going on around me, it was a bit overwhelming to say the least. To make matters more confusing for an inexperienced greenhorn like me there were three different men’s cattle to brand, which made the job of cutting more exciting. I was determined to get in on the action and learn how to do something. When I finally felt brave enough I asked if I could learn to cut and run the calves up the chute. The man who would be my mentor looked me up and down, “I don’t know” he said, reluctance oozing out of his every pour. “Even with my 25+ years of experience one of them little buggers nearly got me in the chops just this morning.” He looked at my clean jeans and pink trimmed jean shirt and was busy summing me up, “Are you sure you want to do this?” When I nodded, and without waiting for him to formulate the wrong conclusion, clambered over the fence into the pen.

Step one: cutting calves.

Learning to cut calves from the herd. Step two: into the chute.

Jack watches over what I’m doing and gives me guidance and pointers along the way. In the above photo I’m reaching for a calf’s tail but without much confidence. Once I get him up the chute, Jack tells me that I hesitated and the little calf had considered kicking me. “When you make your decision as to which one you’re cutting, you don’t hesitate. Get right in there behind him so he can’t get you,” he said, moving in close to the calf’s behind with his legs. “You get behind with one leg and move him against the fence with the other, like so.”

Receiving more calf handling pointers.

“Once you have them here you maintain control by keeping their heads from turning around. You do that by putting your hand in front of their eye as it come around and direct their head back.” He told me they can sometimes climb up and over the chute fencing, which I thought would make for some lively debate. “If that happens you pull back on their tails and that straightens them right out.”

Once you have them in front of the chute, you check what sex they are and if they have horn buds. When you move them into the chute you call out their gender and whether they have horns. That way the men know which procedures each calf needs. “We’re breeding most of them to be naturally dehorned, but because some of the mothers have horns or are from horned cows, they still show up every now and then.”

Step three: drugs, sex, and horny bulls (aka, branding, tagging, vaccinating, and cutting).

The little heifer hesitates so I encourage her into the chute.

“Heifer” I call out as I encourage her into the chute. The little calf moves on in and the process begins. The fact I only say ‘heifer’ means she is tagged, branded, and vaccinated only. The little bulls don’t have it so easy.

Note the branding iron just moving into the frame, top rhs.

The indignity of it all is expressed in this little guy's face.

“Horny bull,” I call out as I push on the calf’s behind. The men laugh. They are an easily entertained crew and a lot of fun to work with which made for a lot of laughs and light work of a fairly demanding job. Because of number 13’s gender status, the chute is tipped on its side so the men can rope up his hind leg to access his soon-to-be-removed testicles.

The branding irons working their magic.

Fetching the next part of the brand from the fire.

This brand is a three part brand which takes three different irons to make and Dennis’s brand is also his initials. There is a distinctive smell in the air, “Branding smoke,” Jack says as it wafts up around us in the calf pen, “I always loved the smell of branding smoke… that’s why I like to work back here.”

Castrating: Probably the least attractive aspect of today’s job is the ‘cutting’. The calf’s back leg is roped so the men doing the job don’t get kicked and can access the testicles without cutting the calf where he shouldn’t be cut. The testicles are saved in a bucket of cold water: I don’t think to ask why.

Opening the scrotum to access the testicles for removal.

Vaccinating: Amidst all the chaos, Jeff recharges the needles before administering the requisite injections.

Time to recharge the needle. Note the stainless steel bucket in the background. It contains the freshly cut testicles.

Dis-budding: The final step in the process. After everything else is complete, the calf has a basic formula placed on the areas of the skull where his horns would otherwise grow. This is a much gentler process than the traditional form of dis-budding which was akin to a large set of nail clippers that got placed over the little buds and crimped off, taking part of the skull with it. “Some calves would die of shock when we did it that way,” said one of the men, “So we prefer to do it this way if we can.”

A very basic solution (as opposed to acidic) that works on dissolving the horn buds.

With so many experienced hands on deck, by late afternoon the jobs are all done and it’s time to begin preparing for the dinner party. I’ll write about that in my next post!

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Filed under Cattle, Learning to Farm