Life and Death on the Ranch

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Photo by Nicolette Hahn Niman


We prefer focusing on the enjoyable parts of farming but there are tough days, too. Even painful ones. Like last Friday. The morning started well. We began our chores as the sun burned through early fog, and moisture wafted up from the earth. Then we found one of our best cows lying by the water trough. She looked peaceful, her legs folded beneath her and her head on the ground, as though she'd simply taken a drink and laid down to rest. But she wasn't sleeping; she was dead. She'd been struggling with an illness for several weeks and we had been desperately attempting to heal her. Her name was Eve and she will be deeply missed.

Eve's mother is Nicolette's favorite cow, a longtime resident of the ranch we call Girlfriend, a black cow with a white face and black band across her eyes. When Girlfriend was eight years old our vet told us that she was not pregnant that season. Cows have only one calf each year, so a ranch cannot afford to keep infertile cows. Normally, when an older cow comes up "open," she is sent to town. But because Girlfriend is such a gentle and beautiful animal, Nicolette had a special appreciation for her and pleaded the case for clemency. This happened again the following year and, for the second time, she was granted a reprieve. By this point, our ranching peers were saying that this cow would definitely never give birth to another calf.

But miracles have a way of happening on the farm. After two years of barrenness--and having reached the ripe age of ten--our vet announced that Girlfriend was pregnant. We were jubilant. A few months later she gave birth to a handsome red calf with a white patterned face. Like her previous calf, it was a male. That disappointed us a bit because we figured it would surely be Girlfriend's last calf, with no cattle on the ranch to carry forward her noble lineage.

It's probably hard for some people who haven't spent time on real farms to understand why both of us cried when we found Eve that morning.

Then Girlfriend amazed us by coming up pregnant again the following year. When she looked ready to calve, we kept her under close watch, checking her several times daily. One morning she had disappeared into the brush. She'd gone off to find a quiet, private place to give birth, something she knew well how to do. Nicolette put on a long sleeved shirt and anxiously began patrolling the large pasture, fighting her way through 10-feet-high patches of poison oak, worried that the old girl might have difficulty calving. But when she finally discovered the cow, she was calmly standing and chewing her cud, as is her habit. At her side was a beautiful calf who looked nearly identical to her, only in miniature. It was black-bodied with black and white markings like her mother's on her face. Nicolette cautiously approached and discovered, with great joy, that the calf was a female.

This pleased us enormously. Bill had recently left Niman Ranch, Inc. and, as part of the separation, had lost the cattle herd he'd spent decades developing. There were protracted negotiations to buy the herd back from the company, but they fell through. We ended up buying just two animals--Girlfriend and an orphan steer who had also made a special place in our hearts. In other words, two animals that were unlikely to ever have any offspring. So Eve was our great hope for the future. A healthy, beautiful calf, we saw her as the foundation of our new herd and our new life. It never occurred to us that just two years later she would predecease her aging mother.

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Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are ranchers in Northern California. Nicolette is also an attorney and writer, and Bill is the founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. More

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are owners and operators of BN RANCH, a seaside ranch in Bolinas, California, where they raise their son Miles, grass-fed cattle, heritage turkeys, and goats. They were featured in an August 2009 cover story in TIME about the crisis in America's food system.

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.

Bill is a cattle rancher and founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. He was a member of Pew's National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released recommendations for reform of the nation's livestock industry in April 2008. Niman has been named "Food Artisan of the Year" by Bon Appetit and has been called the "Master of Meat" by Wine Spectator, the "Guru of Happy Cows" by the Los Angeles Times, "a pioneer of the good meat movement" by the New York Times, "the Steve Jobs of Meat" by Men's Journal, and a "Pork Pioneer" by Food & Wine. The Southern Foodways Alliance named him its Scholar in Residence for 2009, stating that he was "this country's most provocative and persistent champion of sustainably and humanely raised livestock." Vanity Fair magazine has featured him in its "Green Issue," and Plenty magazine selected him as among the nation's five leading "green entrepreneurs." He has been honored with the Glynwood Harvest Good Neighbor Award. Bill co-authored The Niman Ranch Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which was selected as one of the year's best cookbooks by the New York Times, Newsweek, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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