Much of Austria is covered in pastoral mountainside fields — beautifully scenic but largely unsuited for agriculture.
But in the mountainous northern regions of the Austrian province of Styria, called the Almenland, some entrepreneurial beef farmers are not only farming on the alpine pastures, they’re also revitalizing rural communities and keeping ancient traditions alive.
Farmer Ernst Hofer raises his Simmental herd of 18 cow-calf pairs on mountain pastures from May to October. He was the first mountain farmer in the region — the steep mountain slopes don’t produce enough high-quality grass for dairy cows, but it is ideal for his organic beef animals.
Hofer markets meat from his female animals under the “Styria Beef” brand directly to the public. Demand is growing steadily as consumers love the tender flavour of the meat — the animals are sent to slaughter shortly after they are weaned at 10-12 months of age, which means they are fed little to no grain during their lives. Male calves are castrated and sold to other nearby farmers for finishing and marketing under another, non-organic regional beef brand called Almo.
Maximilian Haberl and his family are part of a co-operative of 520 farmers that produce and promote the successful Almo beef in Austria, a country where beef demand is high, focusing on local beef raised by local farmers.
“Consumers love Almo beef. Demand currently exceeds our supply by more than 20 per cent,” says Haberl. One of the reasons for that is that each farmer on the Almo program only markets an average of about eight or nine steers per year. Haberl’s herd of 58 animals is one of the larger ones in the area.
And not only is demand high, so is the price. Haberl estimates that the average price for Almo beef is about C$6.60 per kilogram higher than the prices farmers are getting for non-branded beef. But things weren’t always so positive for Austria’s beef farmers.
Until about 20 years ago, there was a large export market for beef animals to countries like Egypt, Libya and Burma, a trade that was subsidized by the Austrian government. But the animal welfare problems associated with keeping animals in transit for up to three weeks eventually meant an end for those markets, and the government re-focused its subsidy dollars on building and maintaining local markets through the development of branded programs like Almo.
In addition to their standard beef breeds, the Haberls also raise a rare breed of steers called Murbodner, as part of a regional government project to preserve genetic diversity in the beef industry. Murbodners are muscular animals, an alpine heritage breed that is raised almost exclusively in this area.
Although they almost disappeared completely after the Second World War, this project has helped revitalize the breed. The Austrian government provides grants to farmers wishing to start their own herd of Murbodners and has pledged to continue to do so until the national herd numbers 4,000 head, which is regarded as the key threshold for the continuation of a breed. According to the Styrian Beef Association, 240 farms in the regional currently have Murbodners, with a total of just under 1,600 cows.
But despite all these efforts, area