I recently discovered that grass-fed meat costs an arm and a leg in Australia. As I don’t eat meat, I was oblivious to the various labels and grading used in our meat industry. Call me naive, but I just assumed that Aussie cows wandered around in paddocks until the man with the truck arrived to take them off to the abattoir. Not so. And as I pondered the range of options in the supermarket, thinking that I might make a slow cooked ragu for the children, I was faced with all sorts of dilemmas. A basic cut of grass-fed beef, commonly referred to as gravy beef, costs around AU$18 a kilo. The next option was something called MSA beef. I asked the check out girl what MSA stood for but she said she had no idea. A quick search will reveal that it stands for Meat Standards Australia, but having watched the video and read the nonsense attached to the site, I still feel in the dark and am siding with the check out girl. There was no mention of grass, but I discovered that the MSA stamp is “a grading system based on actual consumer research”. Really? Sounds a little Orwellian to me. Then came the meat trays with no little stamps at all- nicely wrapped in plastic on styrofoam trays and looking all red and juicy- and much cheaper. No information was attached to this meat: I guess it meets no standards at all.
I went to the local hairdresser and discovered that she also lives on a small acreage farm and breeds a few cows and sheep for the table. She has more grass than I do and, as meat eater, she is ready to slaughter her own grass-fed animals. I admire that. There’s a local butcher in Hurstbridge who will do the butchering for you. You need to hire a bobcat or tractor to dig the large hole for the carcasses. You need to separate the animals for at least a day and make sure that they fast for 24 hours or so. I guess you then have to wear earplugs while the cows moo and fret, not to mention the fear and anxiety of the rest of the herd as this process occurs. I can’t bring myself to do this.
We have five grass-fed cows and sadly two or three have to go due to lack of grass in winter. They have done a fine job supplying us with manure for our compost heaps and keeping the grass down during bushfire season. It seems such a shame that our cows who have had a happy life will end up at an abattoir and their meat will appear on a plastic wrapped supermarket tray with an idiotic MSA sticker attached or perhaps not even that.
I’m a contadina ( peasant woman) at heart, having moved to the country years ago, when self-sufficiency and the ‘back to the earth’ movement was in its heyday, long before real estate agents and marketers grabbed hold of the catchy phrase ‘tree change’ to hoodwink city folk onto small farms in the bush. Looking back on that life of vegetable growing, chook breeding, orchard planting and raising a few miniature Dexter cows, I can see that it has been a rewarding yet extremely demanding lifestyle. And now some tough decisions need to be made.
This year’s drought has been challenging. Our five Dexter cows, all named and loved, have been relying on bought hay for months. The front cleared paddocks, around 13 acres, have been bare and bleached since Christmas. The five Dexters unwittingly share their grass with mobs of hungry kangaroos and rabbits, the latter becoming more invasive during drought years.
The Dexters listen for the sound of the back door opening in the morning and begin their hungry mooing. They wait for a car to travel up the driveway and chase it like crazy circus animals, all legs flying in the dust. Stepping outside into the morning’s Autumn mist, they are waiting for me, their gentle gaze longing for another hay bale. I look back at them, our pets, Delilah, Derry, Duffy, Dougie and Oh Danny Boy and all I can think of is Little Father Time’s maudlin phrase, “becausewe are too many” from Jude the Obscure. Two or three of our Dexters have to go.
The Dexter breed originated in south-western Ireland. The breed almost disappeared in Ireland, but was still maintained as a pure breed in a number of small herds in England. The Dexter is a small breed and is naturally a miniature cow. They are usually black, a dark-red or dun, they are always single-coloured except for some very minor white marking on the udder or behind the navel. Horns are rather small and thick and grow outward with a forward curve on the male and upward on the female. The breed is suitable for beef or milk production.
We keep Dexters to mow our grass and use their manure on our gardens. They are inquisitive and very friendly.