Herd mentality: Golan Heights cowboys form cooperative for top-quality beef

Cattle need a calm life for tender beef. But for the ranchers contending with lack of demand for local product, it’s not so easy

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Rounding up the herd on the Golan Heights (Courtesy Mire Golan)
Rounding up the herd on the Golan Heights (Courtesy Mire Golan)

On a sunny, wind-blown day in the early spring, Thierry Moens stood in a grassy pasture with one of his cows, scratching her velvety back and gently urging her to head back out to pasture.

The rest of the Moens herd of Simmental grass-fed cattle, which produces delicately marbled, tender beef, was far out of sight, presumably chowing down on the fresh green grass carpeting his 2,500 acres (10,000 dunams) of land.

“My girls know where to go,” said Moens, indicating his herd.

The lean, friendly, Belgian-born beef farmer dressed in a worn fishing jacket and knee-high boots has been raising his herd of 200 cattle in the Golan Heights since 1995.

Thierry Moens, a Belgian-born cattle rancher in the Golan Heights, who helped create a cooperative of local ranchers (Courtesy Ilan Safira)

At one point, he struggled to find customers for his carefully raised cows.

For the last year and a half, however, he’s been in business with fellow small ranchers from the Golan Heights. They formed Mire Golan, a cooperative of cattle ranchers for which Moens currently serves as CEO, and work closely with a retail front called Hai Bari, run by a former accountant in Tel Aviv, Limor Averbuch. She brands, markets and sells their locally raised beef, as well as select lamb and goat milk products, through the Hai Bari label.

In fact, said Averbuch, customers are starting to ask for Hai Bari products by name, just like the boutique wines, artisanal cheeses and organic fruits from the Golan Heights that have become part of the Israeli marketplace.

Hai Bari is Israel’s only wholesale purveyor of nearly organic beef.

“The market in Israel is starting to ask questions about what they’re eating,” said Moens. “We don’t need to feed the entire country. We’re a limited number of ranchers and butchers, but it’s enough for us.”

The participating ranchers — there are currently 20 of them — pay membership to Hai Bari, relying on Averbuch to find the points of sale, which are scattered throughout the country.

“There’s a lot of soul in Hai Bari,” said Moens. “We choose everything very carefully — which animals go to which butchers, how the butcher prepares our beef, ages it and fillets it.”

Cowboys and cowgirl

Averbuch got into this business for mostly personal reasons. She had been working for a global Swiss agricultural concern and was focusing on quality control when she began thinking about her own food sources.

Limor Averbuch, who founded Hai Bari, the label promoting grass-fed beef and lamb in Israel (Courtesy Limor Averbuch)

She became a vegetarian and then delved into veganism, more out of concern for what she was putting into her mouth than for reasons of animal welfare.

“I wasn’t clear on how the animals in Israel were being raised, and I felt like I wasn’t the only one who felt like this,” said Averbuch. “I wondered how I could create that kind of security and transparency for the consumer.”

Averbuch spent more than a year thinking about how to create a system that would inspire confidence in both consumer and grower.

“I went everywhere, to people raising goats and cows and sheep,” she said. “What was important to me was how these growers saw their future. They were also suffering from a lack of supervision and transparency. The consumer wants to buy from a farm that raised a cow that was born and raised here, not one that was shipped from Australia, and there was no ability to do that.”

Beef ‘born, bred and raised here’

In the absence of a large demand for quality beef, Israeli cattle ranchers raising their own cows have accounted for a very small portion of the local cattle market, only about 8%, said Moens.

“Imports are growing and growing, in the hands of a few monsters, and they’re losing money but they won’t back down,” he said. “They’re filling the market with the imported animals.”

That lack of demand left local cattle ranchers with little power in the market, forcing them to sell their cows at the prices the market would bear and leaving them with little in the way of profits.

“The only thing we cattle breeders have is our own integrity, because this area on the Golan is us,” said Moens. “We were sure that people would prefer local meat from the Golan, that they would wait for our beef that is born, bred and raised here.”

Simmental cows grazing in the pasture in the Golan Heights (Courtesy Mire Golan)

The venture with Averbuch and Hai Bari has expanded the ranchers’ reach to a far wider spectrum of customers.

When a rancher decides to join Hai Bari, they’re required to undergo “a marathon of changes,” said Averbuch. While many of the ranchers were close to meeting the group’s protocols, others were much farther from its requirements and had to absorb the additional costs of the process.

“Some of the growers were considered the best in the market but had to make a lot of changes for us, and I was surprised by that,” she said. “It’s not a simple decision, and it’s not immediately economically viable, either. It takes time to make money from this process, because you’re not just selling the cow and pocketing the money. You’re marketing the meat, you have to grow it, butcher it and deliver it. It’s a different world.”

The Israeli rancher

In 1995, after several years of working for other ranchers, Moens bought his spread in the Golan Heights and established Moens Cattle. His herd spends most of its time outside, divided into younger and older groups — much like humans, he likes to point out. He also has olive orchards and grows his own hay.

“I like raising hay and hell,” he said, grinning.

Moens doesn’t like to talk about himself or how he ended up in the Golan Heights. He came to Israel looking for a place to farm, as farming and ranching in Belgium is nearly impossible for those not descended from a farming family.

It’s not an easy life, but it’s the one he sought.

“I always postpone projects because I never have money to do it.” said Moens. “But I love this work, it’s the kind of job that’s difficult to leave. It’s 365 days a year, because you can get a phone call at midnight that there’s a calf outside the fence, or a suspected vehicle that’s come to steal cattle, or wolves or other predators. We’re cowboys who do the paperwork.”

Yam Goren (seated) and two of the ranch hands who work closely with him, herding cows on 24,000 dunams of land (Courtesy Ilan Sapira)

Yam Goren, a nearby rancher and friend of Moens who manages Kibbutz Mevo Chama’s herd of 800 cattle and is also part of the Mire Golan cooperative and Hai Bari, contends that working with cattle is a way of life.

“You can find yourself not getting home for several days when something’s going on,” said Goren. “You have to be there if it’s weather-related or the height of summer. It’s my responsibility and that’s why I’m here.”

Goren has been working as a ranch hand for much of his life, first as a kibbutz kid and now full-time. He and his team of cowboys spend much of their day on horseback, riding around the 8,000 acres of pasture where the cows range.

All of the Mire Golan cows spend much of their early life outside. They’re born outside, drink only their mother’s milk for the first six to eight months of their life, and are fed on the dewy, green grass that grows during the brief Israeli winter. When it starts getting warm and the fields dry up, the calves usually weigh 200 to 300 kilos, and are then separated from their mothers who can no longer feed them.

But up to that point, the heifers are very connected to their calves, said Moens. They give birth independently, often without the help of the ranchers.

“That’s very important to us,” he said. “I only have to help about five of them each year. You just wait around while they’re birthing, have a cigarette, make a call, and wait it out.”

For Thierry Moens, the Golan Heights has offered the space and ability to own his own cattle ranch (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Once grown, the calves are weaned from their mothers very gradually and gently, said Goren.

“And I say that as someone who was supposedly still nursing when I was five,” he added with a grin.

All of the Hai Bari ranches raise similar breeds, mostly Simmental, with some Angus, Brahman and Limousin mixed in. They’re big, gentle animals that idle around, munching on grass, laconically taking the measure of the calm scene around them. That makes for fresh, marbled beef when their time comes.

“I think taste is very individual,” said Goren. “Some love one kind, others like softer and fatter beef, but we can’t tell the difference between each of our herd’s meat.”

Yam Goren standing in a pasture of clover, surrounded by some of his ‘girls’ (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The feed or grass that the cattle are eating is significant, Moens notes, and the cow’s temperament also plays a role in the kind of beef she provides later on.

“If she’s stressed, all of her muscles will be tough, so they need a nice life, not a stressed one,” he said.

The cows raised for the Hai Bari label are never fed hormones, and are only given antibiotics when medically warranted. DNA samples from each calf are sent periodically to a lab in Nebraska.

“My cows don’t grow as fast, but they also don’t die,” said Moens. “I’m not an extremist; we’re not organic, but it’s impossible to raise organic in Israel. If you spray the grass over there,” he pointed to fields a few kilometers away, “it could travel to here.”

There’s research that shows that cows that live outside know what to eat and how to diversify their grasses, said Goren. The pastures are not crammed full of animals, so they’re also not completely decimated at the end of the winter, and there’s always some grass left over.

“We don’t destroy our own fields,” said Goren.

While the Golan Heights is considered Israel’s best area for raising cattle, the local climate is changing, and it’s not as cold or rainy as it once was (Courtesy Mire Golan)

But while the Golan typically has the best weather in Israel for raising cattle, the climate has changed in the last decade and that creates problems for the cows. There is less rain, and the winters aren’t as cold as they were even four or five years ago.

“I didn’t wear my long underwear all winter long,” said Goren. “I usually have to wear two pairs of pants to work because it gets so cold.”

In between rounds on horseback, Goren and his fellow cowboys sprawl in a muddy but cozy space where they hang up their leather chaps and partake of hearty lunches — scrambled eggs, fresh rolls, cottage cheese and salad.

Their work days begin at 6 a.m., and their spread, one of the largest of all the local cattle ranches, is a half-hour commute from the kibbutz. But Goren feels that cattle ranching is actually less stressful than it once was, partially because of the automation and computerization used in running the business.

Where’s the beef from?

During the last decade, the expenses grew and the remaining ranchers only just managed to survive. They’ve been squeezed by the frozen meat market, most of it low quality meat imported from several countries and “terrible to eat,” said Moens.

Most Israelis don’t ask where their beef comes from, he said. Many restaurants will say their beef comes from the Golan Heights, which  is considered the premium location for raising local beef, but actually buy their meat frozen, he charged.

Golan Heights cattle, wandering around the green pastures of the local area (Courtesy Mire Golan)

Another portion of the local beef industry imports live cattle from Australia, Portugal and Eastern Europe, parking them in feed lots before butchering them for the local market.

For many years, Moens sold his live cattle to Arab feed lots, with another portion going to the Orthodox Jewish market because of kosher certification that requires healthy lungs in any beef.

But neither one of those markets cared much about the taste and quality of the beef, he said.

All of the Mire Golan cattle are raised similarly, with a now combined number of 3,000 to 4,000 cows for the Hai Bari label.

“When we started, we didn’t know how many heads we would be able to market,” said Moens. “It’s such a risky business, so we decided on an initial amount of 1,000 head of cattle.”

They managed to sell nearly all of that in the cooperative’s first year, and this year’s 1,500 head of cattle wasn’t quite enough for the butchers selling the Hai Bari label.

“We had to tell them no meat for the next half a year,” he said.

Staying together to stay alive

That kind of demand is good news for the label, but the margins in this business have always been narrow.

A Golan Heights cattle rancher rounding up the herd (Courtesy MIre Golan)

The idea behind the cooperative is not to become rich, but for the ranchers to keep their heads above water.

“If the ranches don’t work together, then I’m not sure we’ll stay alive,” said Moens. “We have to be creative to raise cattle this way. Hai Bari has our back, and we can trust the people we’re working with.”

Goren agreed.

“We’ve only had cattle ranches for about 40 years in Israel. That’s nothing. It doesn’t compare to other countries,” said Goren. “And there’s our climate and our crowded conditions. Growing cattle in the State of Israel is not easy, so the organization of the ranches is vitally important. We’ve got great relationships and we support each other.”

The united cooperative of ranchers is a vital part of Hai Bari’s success, creating a seamless system of locally raised beef, said Averbuch. She’s hoping to bring free range chickens into Hai Bari over the next year, with the same quest for quality that the label offers to the beef industry.

“It will be same list of strict protocols, with supervision over the whole supply chain, with supervisors who go and check every detail,” she said.

In fact, said Moens, he’s hoping that the success of Hai Bari will mean that consumers will eat less meat, but better quality meat.

“The taste is very individual,” said Goren. “But it’s definitely better.”

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