A breed apart

Golan ranchers are struggling to preserve a tradition against market forces, and an Israeli diet that doesn’t pay much attention to meat.

A trio of horses drink water at Kibbutz Merom Golan. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A trio of horses drink water at Kibbutz Merom Golan.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
There’s lots o’ songs the puncher sang in roundin’ up his herds; The music wasn’t very grand, an’ neither was the words.
No op’ry air he chanted, when at night he circled ’round A bunch of restless longhorns that was throwed on their bed-ground; But any song the cowboy on his lonely beat would bawl, Wa’n’t half as sweet as when the cook would start the grub-pile call.
– “The Grub Pile Call,” E. A. Brininstool, from Trail Dust of a Maverick, 1914
There are a lot of legends about cowboy cooking, so many that they spawned a whole lexicon of terms in English: cowboy coffee, chuckwagon cooking, cowboy beans and cowboy breakfast. We are about to sample one, Israeli-style.
Shay Zerbib laid out the plates around a plain metal table in the ranch’s sole habitable building, a converted two-room caravan. The shakshuka with sausage, eggs and green peppers is still steaming.
“It’s spicy, be careful,” the tall and lanky 41-year-old explained as he took a drag on his cigarette. Battered plastic bottles of flavored water, frozen almost stiff with ice, were passed around. Two tins of canned fish, and a colander with whole tomatoes and cucumbers, gave more sustenance.
It was 10 a.m., and the sounds of artillery and machine-gun fire rang out in the distance. “It’s not from Syria, they are doing training,” Zerbib explains.
The ranch that Erez Ashtamker manages for Kibbutz Merom Golan is a few kilometers from an engineering base in the Golan, and a training area. It is an ever-present reminder of the history of the Golan, and that Israel is perpetually preparing for the next war that may threaten it from the region. But for the cowboys, it was another day’s work.
Up at 5 or 6 a.m. to go out to the fields and check on the cattle. Back by 8 or so and then a whole day’s work of tagging cattle, looking after herds, mending fences, making sure wolves don’t eat the calves and other duties.
“This is work, work all day, with no set hours. People think it is romantic. Some come to try it out and then spend all day mending a fence,” says Omer Viner, the pudgy veteran of the group who no longer works the land but comes to give advice and regale the crew with stories. “Your hands are all wrecked and cut, and you’ve worked all day; it isn’t as romantic as people think.”
The story of the Golan cowboys gets covered every year or so in local and international media, mostly for its exoticism. An estimated 50 men are employed in traditional cowboy-style work in the Golan, riding horses to check on herds, tagging animals and driving them from pasture to pasture.
“People come up here and ask us to put on a cowboy hat because that is what they want in the photos, but that’s an American thing,” says Zerbib, who sports a big brass buckle with a cow being roped in, but wears a baseball cap. “I’m an Israeli, not an American.”
Zerbib grew up in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood. His grandfather was an immigrant from Algeria; his mother came up to the Golan in 1976. Having lived briefly in the cattle country of Texas and New Mexico, he now runs a farm with 150 cows at Had-Nes, a community at the foot of the Golan. Ashtamker’s family was from Pune in India and they settled in Merom Golan, a kibbutz of around 220 people.
At the ranch we visited next to Kidmat Zvi, the herd grazes on around 3,500 hectares (8,649 acres) of land, moving from paddock to paddock as they exhaust the food from July to February. Like the Negev, the Golan is a large, open area that is sparsely populated. It stretches over 180,000 hectares, with only about 20,000 Jews and 20,000 Druse living in 35 communities. Of the Jewish communities, most are kibbutzim and moshavim, except Katzrin.
Viner, the veteran kibbutznik who came up to the Golan in 1967 and settled in Merom Golan, is an expert on the ecosystem and the various issues facing the area’s cattle ranching economy. Because the land is rocky, it is not ideal for agriculture, but cattle do well.
In a 1995 paper published in Biolo gical Conservation, he noted that about onethird of the Golan had been turned over to the communities as grazing land for cattle ranching, with around 15,000 head of cattle on the range. Today, the number is estimated at around 12,000, of which 1,000 are managed by Erez.
“When we first came up to the Golan, the cattle were left behind by the people who had lived here, and we gathered them up,” says Viner. It is a reminder that some 100,000 Syrians, some of them Circassians who excelled at cattle-rearing, lived on the Golan before 1967. When they left during the war, the cattle remained.
After 1967 the first years were chaotic, with some shooting incidents involving former residents who came back for their cattle. These local cattle were called baladi in Arabic, and the breed is still called that today.
“Smaller animals with survivalist instincts are suited to this environment,” explains Viner. A photograph of other famous breeds adorns the wall of the kitchen, showing majestic large cows with names like Aberdeen Angus or Charolais, the latter of which can weigh up to 1,100 kg. The Golan cows, while intimidating with their horns, are not nearly as husky. Once the threat of rustling by former villagers had been stemmed in 1968, the new residents of the Golan like Viner had to figure out how to manage the herds. One of the problems they faced was predators, including jackals and wolves. In his 1995 paper, Viner estimated that almost 2 percent of the calves born in the Golan were being eaten within a few days of birth. “Some farmers claim as much at 10% of those born” were being killed, he wrote.
It was a serious threat to the industry, killing nearly NIS 159,000 worth of animals; a smaller population of wolves were also killing the cows. The problem persists today, as Erez notes that in 2012 some 40 calves were eaten by predators on his farm, with each calf lost having an estimated value of several thousand shekels.
Omer decided the solution was to introduce dogs. Middle Eastern Beduin have been managing animals since antiquity; couldn’t local dogs be used? Viner demurs: “Beduin go out with their sheep at night and sleep around them.
The Beduin sheepdogs will be eaten by wolves, and are not useful for the kind of pasturage we are doing.” Instead, he decided to import dogs from the US that were ideal for protecting livestock, training them with European methods.
As we drove around the farm earlier that morning, the dogs were everywhere.
Small in stature, coming up slightly above the knee, the white and speckled friendly canines clearly were at home among the cows. Some 40 dogs are deployed to protect the cattle, and the cowboys say several a year are killed in the line of duty by wolves.
The constant struggle against predators, as well as against other critters such as wild boar that root under fences, and cattle-rustlers and thieves who steal the herd, necessitates carrying guns – just like in the Old West. Both Ashtamker and Zerbib sport holsters and jet-black Glocks on their hips.
But the real struggle is with the Israeli public, and the middlemen who purchase the animals and butcher them for sale as kosher meat. This isn’t a simple matter, and when Viner tries to retell his story of harnessing the cattle to the economy, his friends Ashtamker and Zerbib argue about it. “We brought the Simmental breed from Europe to mix with the baladi breed here,” says Viner.
“But it is hard to be professional in this field. For instance, we could bring in breeds like Charolais, but will the public know the difference?” interrupts Zerbib.
They debate over climate, noting that Israel is a small country with dozens of climate zones. Even from the height of the Golan to the foot, there is different weather; cows raised in the Hula Valley are not pastured the same way as in the Golan. In the old days, when cattle were introduced around Lachish in the northern Negev, the project did not succeed.
Zerbib argues that the Israeli market needs to understand the differences in beef, like Americans do with Angus meat. The idea is to create a premium label for “Golan-made.” But Viner thinks they won’t receive money for these efforts.
It seems like a constant headache for those trying to survive economically.
“You are alone in this work. If there were 200 farms like us, then it would be different. The problem is there is no tradition here of raising cattle or eating beef,” says Viner.
The Angus beef comparison is an interesting one. Angus is a breed of cattle originating in Scotland. In the 19th century, Hugh Watson, a tenant at Keillor Farm, bred local cattle until the meat produced was considered of outstanding quality, as was done in Kobe, Japan.
Some of these cattle were brought to the US, and the American Angus Association was founded to promote the brand.
In 1978, they began promoting the beef under the term “Certified Angus beef,” granting it cache, and the meat is generally considered of better quality by the US Department of Agriculture.
Given the fact that it took 100 years or so for Americans to be “educated” to appreciate this breed and local brand, one can assume the Golan cattlemen have a long road ahead of them.
But they are hopeful. Zerbib is working on creating collective bargaining methods and encouraging the Golan as a brand for meat. Though they say they supply around 7% of the meat for the Israeli market, they want people to respect the work being put into the local variety.
Nothing seems to sadden them as much as the idea that when it gets to the butcher or supermarket, all varieties and grades of meat are just thrown together.
WE RIDE out to the range, not on horses but in a sage-green Polaris Ranger two-seater utility vehicle.
The plucky, rugged UTV makes short work of the rocky terrain, and we drive through several small herds of cattle lazily grazing. A flock of the appropriately named cattle egret, a tall white bird that has a symbiotic relationship with large, fat animals like cows, hops from bovine to bovine.
There are many calves with their parents in the field. Most of these will be sold in May when they reach about 150 kg., although Ashtamker explains that he keeps about 150 a year.
“It is part of the life cycle of the cows.
Most of these will live about eight years, and give birth each year until they reach that age. Every year, we have veterinarians check them. These animals are ideally suited to winter conditions, and they like the cold more.” To improve the health of the herd, they are carefully monitored, and Ashtamker tries to choose the best calves to keep every year.
He shows us how each animal is branded with a number on the side, and a gimmel towards the rear that refers to it being from the Golan. When they do their morning rounds, the cowboys note if there are any newborns.
As we head back to the ranch, Ashtamker notices a newborn that needs to be tagged. He leaps from the vehicle and approaches the calf and mother gingerly, eventually grabbing and tagging its ear. Later, it will receive another tag and its DNA information will be collected, to be used in case of theft and for record- keeping.
The cowboy smiles as he surveys some of the animals drinking from a concrete water trough. “This really is an ideal life out here to grow up in.” All of the cowboys have a pragmatic understanding that although they work closely with the animals and care deeply for them, in the end it is about producing meat for the plate.
“For each horse they have a name, and the dogs have a name. We love the cows and we don’t deal with the killing [of them]. We like them,” explains Viner.
Ashtamker agrees, describing their work as most humane. “We treat them very well, there is a lot of humanity in this work.”
They point out that the horses they use, when they reach old age, are put out to pasture in “retirement” – not killed.
“But we understand people have to eat,” Viner explains. “What can we do, this is our work,” adds Ashtamker.
In recent years, some Israelis have tried to promote a more vegan lifestyle in the country and burnish its vegetarian credentials.
In early October, Tel Aviv hosted the world’s largest vegan festival. But Israelis remain voracious meat-eaters, gobbling up some 300,000 tons of chicken annually (38 kilos per person). According to an article in the Jewish Journal, each Israeli eats about 22 kilos of beef a year (around 100,000 tons), much of it imported; the Golan produces between 30%-50% of Israel’s local red meat.
The cowboys don’t see the vegetarian trend being a threat to their industry; rather they talk about prices and middlemen. According to Haim Dayan of the Israeli Beef Cattle Breeders Association, in 2013 around 157,000 head of cattle were imported, and more are being imported every year. Only 7% of the beef consumed in Israel is grown in pastures like that in the Golan.
Meat is costly in Israel, a 2009 investigation by Barr Hayoun of Haaretz noted; imported frozen sirloin was NIS 50 a kilo while local high-quality fresh sirloin cost NIS 80 to NIS 115 a kilo. But even at that high price, the Golan cowboys argue they are seeing the smallest percentage of the profit, which goes to middlemen, kosher butchers and supermarkets.
“The people buying the meat [from us] have a lot of power over the price,” says Ashtamker.
That is why Zerbib and others are working to promote a project that would put a premium label on this locally sourced meat, and working directly with restaurants that want to feature it.
“We want to show it off as an exquisite product,” he explains.
Ashtamker collects the plates from breakfast, the gun on his hip and his dusty jeans creating an odd juxtaposition with a man doing the dishes. An ashtray with a horseshoe as a frame is filled with butts in the center of the table; it is one of many homages to cowboy culture. A poster featuring Futurity 2014, a horse show, is posted on one wall; horseshoes are nailed to a coat hanger on another.
But the men don’t forget their Zionist roots. They are shouldering a tradition that goes back to the first years of Jewish rural settlement in the Galilee. Viner describes how he learned his work from men who had worked the land of kibbutzim like Mishmar Hayarden before the state was born, and how he passed it on to those like Ashtamker and Zerbib.
“Our work comes from the Zionist tradition of protecting open areas, so there is not a vacuum in which others will come in and take [the land],” says Zerbib.
They agree that the current generation growing up on kibbutzim and rural communities is more self-interested, and has left the industry. But for Viner, who writes poems and songs about the outdoor life, this is normal. “Ideology must be able to sustain itself. Once it was the thing to do this [work], and now people want something else – that is the nature of change.
“I left my parents’ home to come here, and my children have left mine to do something else.”