Story and photos by Catherine Van Brunschot
What happens when a long-time vegetarian takes the reins of an historic cattle ranch? At a century-old farmhouse tucked in a fold of Alberta’s Porcupine Hills, I’m about to find out.
“I was eleven when I said ‘I think I’ll become a vegetarian’,” recalls Rachel Herbert, as we scan the grasslands shimmering under a big September sky. For the born-and-raised Calgarian, it was an emotional response, she says, based on a deep love of animals; a simple decision at the time, and life moved on. “I absolutely did not eat red meat or chicken for 18 years.” Rachel became a show-jumper and a horse groomer, and earned university degrees in literature and history.
But two events collided when she was in her twenties, and things got complicated.
She met her soul-mate: a smart, soft-spoken cowboy named Tyler. And together with her mother, Linda Loree (also vegetarian), Rachel became the third and fourth generation of women to inherit Trail’s End Ranch, their portion of a broad ranching legacy founded by Fred Ings in 1881.
Committed to both the land and the man that were to be her twin destinies, Rachel banded together with Tyler and Linda to determine how best to steward the family legacy.
On this terrain unsuitable for crop production, where wild bison once roamed in the millions, the trio learned that the best way to preserve the eco-system was to populate it with grazers, like cattle. Tyler’s practical experience and Linda’s and Rachel’s deep dive into nutritional research led them to grass-fed, grass-finished beef.
A word of explanation here for those who, like me, need a definition of grass-finished beef: while most present-day beef production sees one-year-old calves finished on grain in feedlots, Trail’s End cattle roam free-range for their entire lives (supplemented by stockpiled forage over the winter) and are harvested at 26 to 29 months. This lends distinct terroir to the beef’s flavour, and nutritional benefits to consumers that include higher vitamin content than regular beef, and healthy fatty-acids with anti-inflammatory effects (see sidebar for research sources).
As befits animal lovers, the Herberts’ top priority is the well-being of their cattle. “There’s been so much research and progress in handling practices,” says Rachel. The herd is kept small, managed with low-stress and frequent handling by its human owners, assisted by horses and dogs. The cattle receive no growth hormones and live their entire lives with a familiar herd. From breeding and calving, through to the day they leave their pastures and go through the butcher’s door, animals are treated quietly and humanely. “We can definitively say that we’ve given these animals a good life.”
While the story is romantic, the day-to-day reality is anything but. Rotational grazing – to mimic herbivore patterns in natural eco-systems – requires long, hard hours in the saddle to move the cattle, and ongoing maintenance of portable fence-lines. Tyler’s tasks include building structures to sort and load the cattle gently, and maintaining solar water systems to protect the ranch’s spring-fed streams. Rachel’s purview is “computer ranching,” focused on research, marketing, and the stringent record-keeping required by the ranch’s designation as Animal Welfare Approved.
Tight margins and a desire to connect more frequently with their customers saw the Herberts host more than a dozen different tours and events in 2019, including a long table dinner in their new barn to celebrate Food Day Canada, created by chefs from Calgary’s Hotel Arts. Typically, customers looking for Trail’s End beef must place their orders beginning in February or March for harvesting from July through October – but a new farm store on the Herberts’ home-place near Nanton sells a limited supply of select cuts that can be ordered online or bought on a farm visit
But what of Rachel’s vegetarianism? She and her mom (who passed away in 2014) “made a very conscious decision,” Rachel explains, after seeing through their first cycle of beef. With the conviction that they’d done right by these animals from birth to butcher, they committed to eating Trail’s End beef, and “the first bite was like a sacrament …Think about the appreciation that you have, when you’re that connected with your food… You can truly give gratitude.”
Click here for Rachel’s recipe for Peruvian Beef Heart Kabobs, Anticuchos.