When Alec Bradford opened a gate and hollered a long, sustained "soooooooook," a hundred or so enormous, white, horned cattle stampeded toward us. They ran across a used-up grazing field, through the gate, and into a stretch of untouched, succulent grass.
We followed into the pasture, standing among the herd of Ancient White Park, one of the few remaining of this rare British breed. Some looked almost human, with thin, exaggerated black eyebrows arching into their foreheads; others had mops of wavy hair. All of them, however, had impressive horns, which endowed something mythical to their snouted faces.
The cattle call Bradford's 700 acres of hilly pastures in Alleghany Springs, Virginia, their home. What makes the breed special is that, because of a storied and regal lineage—which at one point led to it being Noah's Arked out of Europe by the British government—this stock of cow has only ever eaten foraged greens. The cows' genetics haven't been futzed with for millennia. It's like they never came off the cow version of the paleo diet. The 40-year-old Tennessee native told me this means healthier, tastier beef. With his new burger joint called Herd set to open in Charleston, South Carolina, this summer, Bradford will make the hard-to-find meat more accessible.
That night, we'd be eating Ancient White Park for dinner—short ribs—but hanging out with the cows in the field, it felt like they had the upper hand. The animals aren't considered feral in the US, but they maintain wild habits, which farmers appreciate since it means they can scare off coyotes and even grizzlies.
I was with Bradford, so they were relaxed. Some approached curiously, stared, and gave a howl-like "moo." But, Bradford told me, "If I wasn't here and you got a little aggressive, they would get aggressive." Their tactic: form a semicircle around their enemy, lower their horns to the ground, and charge slowly in unison. No thanks.
As I watched the beasts graze, I found it strange to think of them as cheeseburgers, especially considering their history. Irish and Welsh writings dating back to the first years of the Common Era noted them, as did those from the Roman invaders of Britain in the middle of the first century. Their white coats made them sacred to druids and consequently prime for pagan sacrifice. They roamed the forests of the British Isles freely until the Middle Ages, when many were penned into miles of hunting grounds—still wild, but restricted. As famine and war drove their brethren to extinction, the herds within the fences survived as the exclusive possessions of royals and nobility, hunted for sport by invitation only.
On the eve of World War II, the British government (and possibly Winston Churchill himself) worried the Nazis would blitz the cattle out of existence. "They were considered a national treasure," said Jeannette Beranger of the Livestock Conservancy, which studies Ancient White Park and other rare breeds. So a small number of them were evacuated across the pond to the Toronto Zoo and, subsequently, the Bronx Zoo. From there, they have passed to a handful of North American ranches, where they have remained separate from other breeds and grass fed with little exception.
Not long after the war, American cattle farming practices veered from grazing animals to grain feed and, eventually, to the factory farms prevalent today. Seventy years constitute, maybe, three human generations. But for cows sent to slaughter at 14 to 18 months, that is plenty of time for their genetics to start to accommodate a completely new diet. Farmers who select cattle that fatten on corn-exclusive diets have accelerated the transition. So while the Ancient White Park has never ceased to eat its original, natural diet, conventionally farmed cattle have had their diets drastically altered toward corn.
But bovine bodies are not set up to consume a lot of corn. "They can," said Beranger. "But they weren't meant to." Carbohydrates in corn can spike a cow's gut acid. Some handle it better than others, but in large quantities, it's usually painful. "These animals are two thousand years in the making, and we've only had corn since Christopher Columbus," she said. "That's not what they were designed to eat."
Bradford was less measured. "They're feeding them something they cannot digest," he said, as we sat in his soil-crusted truck parked in of one of his fields. "They would be rotten with cancer if allowed to live beyond sixteen months."
Ancient White Park cattle are heartier, he said, because while the genetics of commercially-raised breeds have shifted in favor of rapid growth on corn, these cows have remained as time capsules of millennia of foraging—machines evolved to survive in the wild, and to convert anything into muscle and fat as a matter of life and death.
Wes Henthorne, the ranch manager at the B Bar Ranch in Big Timber, Montana, and an expert on this type of cow, compares it to driving a car: "Ancient White Park cattle can sustain themselves on a lower ration of nutrition," he said. They eat low-carb grasses instead of high-calorie corn. "But it takes them longer to grow. Most people in the industry want to step on the gas. They want to open up performance, and they don't worry about the mileage." In other words, they don't worry about the life of the animal. They want lots of bigger cows, sooner. Bradford's farm doesn't move that fast. He keeps 370 head of Ancient White Park cattle, sending them to slaughter a few at a time.
We drove the couple of miles from his farm to his family's home. The stream in front of his acreage was overflowing, and his driveway was submerged in a foot of water thanks to a recent flood. Bradford splashed straight up the lane, past the 14 rescue horses in his front yard, and parked next to his house. His son, Aidan, fed the horses hay from a pint-sized tractor, while some dogs—belonging to Bradford and his neighbor—yapped and hollered around him.
It was dinnertime for us too—butternut squash soup and braised Ancient White Park short rib. The meal was delicious, but the full flavor was muted, as the meat is best served raw or very lightly cooked. Enjoyed rare, "You can taste what they're eating," said Bradford. "Spring onion, alfalfa, or clover. If you stick it in a marinade before you put it on the grill, you've basically ruined the flavor."
Three years ago, at a restaurant that has since closed in Birmingham, Alabama, I had an Ancient White Park steak from Bradford's farm that was so unusually flavorful it still haunts my dreams. Now having met its kinfolk, I have an even deeper appreciation.
The next morning, we drove back to the farm with three of Bradford's children and one of his dogs. The kids hosed water into a small pigpen and played in the hay lining the loft of the barn. We drove to the top of a hill, where cows and steer quietly munched grass in the sun.
We sat in his truck and looked down on his tidy operation. "I'm too small to be subsidized by the government," he said. But he's also too big to be sustained by farmers markets, so he keeps his business barely in the black by providing his beef to restaurants and stocking two Community Supported Agriculture programs, or CSAs.
It's not easy economics. To sell beef in the US, the cattle must be processed (meaning slaughtered and cut up) at a USDA-inspected facility. Large, certified plants can do it for cheap but don't work with orders under 1,000 animals a month and are mostly located in the Midwest, Bradford said. Smaller, local shops are happy to have his business but charge around $1,200 per head. That right there, he told me, is the main economic driver of his business. It's tough to compete with industrially farmed $2.99 per pound ground chuck when the best you can do is $8.
Some restaurants can justify the price: Manhattan's Le Bernardin consistently served Ancient White Park's lean, finely marbled meat in various dishes for seven years. Washington, DC's Rose's Luxury offered it as a carpaccio for a six-month span.
He hopes his new restaurant game plan will avoid the raw deal he gets at the slaughterhouse and give his business a firmer footing. His Ancient White Park cows will be humanely slaughtered and refrigerated at a small USDA-approved facility for $75 each. The whole beef will be sent to the restaurant, where it will be taken apart in-house—larger cuts will be offered at a meat counter, and the ground beef will go into burgers for what Bradford envisions as a truly locavore experience at a Five Guys price. "You can get a cheeseburger, a glass of wine, and some hand-cut fries for thirteen bucks," he told me.
Each beef patty will come from the same cow, and he also said, "We know that cow's name, and I know what field it was in its entire life, and when it goes through the slaughtering process, I know how it was treated." Self-conscious about seeming to jump on the enduring dining trend of hipsters, he added, "It seems like another twist on local food. As far as we're concerned, it's the only way we can see that you can continue running smaller farms."
Bradford hopes the model will fly. "If it works for us, it would work for other farms too. I'd like to get it where every little city would have some of these places that would be able to go to the local farms around the area and purvey what they want."
Over the past ten years, as "farm-to-table" dining has filtered toward the mainstream, and more mason jars have littered restaurant tables, the number of mid-sized farms has dwindled according to the USDA. "There has been a bit of growth on the small end with the rise of farmer chic, or whatever you want to call it," said Bradford. "But farms my size are crunched from both ends."
While he described to me his vision for rejuvenating mid-sized American farms, his cattle wandered outside his truck—some of only a few thousand of their ilk on the face of the planet. Over two millennia, the breed has served as many things: pagan sacrifice, royal hunting game, national treasure. Perhaps with Bradford's plan, these cows can add savior to their résumé.