There are seven Galloway cattle here, and each must tip the scales at a good 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of living, breathing mass. This particular morning, they've ambled out of their wooden shelter into the hazy light, chewing contentedly.
When the shot rings out, the cattle lift their heads briefly to see where the noise came from, but almost immediately return to being preoccupied with their own pursuits. That a three-year-old bullock within their ranks has collapsed doesn't seem to bother the other cattle unduly.
At the same time, a carefully orchestrated bit of choreography is taking place around the fenced-off pasture. A gate opens on the long side of the shelter, and at the sudden appearance of people on the field, the cattle move unhurriedly back into it. Barely 60 seconds later, the bullock that was shot is dangling upside-down from a tractor a few meters away, bleeding into a tub.
Death strikes twice today for this herd at the Bunde Wischen organic farm in the northern German town of Schleswig, felling two animals selected for slaughter. Every step in the process goes off smoothly and not a single loud word is exchanged. Not even an hour after the operation began, a trailer containing the two lifeless animals turns into the drive of a nearby slaughterhouse.
"It all goes very quickly and smoothly," says Stefanie Retz. After the two gunshots, the petite 28-year-old crouched down next to the felled animals to check that they no longer displayed reflexes or vital signs. "In this cold, damp weather, it's easy to see when they're no longer breathing, because clouds of condensation don't form in front of their nostrils," she explains.
Retz, an agricultural scientist from Kassel University, is conducting a study together with colleague Katrin Juliane Schiffer and the farmers at this organic cattle farm in northern Germany that sounds like something from the Wild West transplanted onto a farm. Here, demise comes to the cattle not through a sharp blow from a captive bolt pistol followed by bleeding to death at a slaughterhouse, but from the barrel of a hunting rifle.
A Stress-Free Death
"The idea is that the animals should die in the same place they lived, and that they should have a stress-free death -- that's the paramount goal," Retz explains. Especially for grazing cattle that aren't used to being penned up, she says, being transported to a slaughterhouse and then held in position so the blow can be struck amount to "an enormous ordeal."
As an alternative, the operators of the Schleswig farm are proposing what they describe as the "gunshot method" they have "adapted and optimized" together with the researchers from Kassel University, as business manager Gerd Kämmer puts it.
In this method, a group of cattle stand together in an area enclosed by a solid wooden fence and an earthwork wall. The maximum distance between the cattle and a marksman working from an elevated hunter's blind is 10 meters (33 feet). Previously, the cattle have sometimes received feed in this particular pasture, so they are accustomed to both the wooden shelter and the open-air enclosure around it. Their last day begins just as innocently as every day before it.
The marksman must often wait several minutes, until one of the cattle is standing in just the right position. "The marksman needs to be familiar with the anatomy of cattle and able to strike a certain spot on the forehead so that the animal is stunned instantly, and in most cases already dead," Retz explains. "This isn't something just any amateur hunter can do."
The researchers from Kassel have attended over 40 such operations at the pasture. "According to our findings so far, this method is pain-free for the cattle," Retz reports. And contrary to expectations, the others in the group don't erupt in panic when a fellow bullock falls.
Considerable Interest among Farmers
Since November, German farmers who raise pasture-fed beef cattle have been able to apply to their district veterinarian for an exemption allowing them to shoot and bleed their cattle directly on the pasture.
Interest among farmers has been considerable, but the method doesn't seem to work equally well in all cases. "What we've found is that many marksmen are not able to produce consistent results. In cases where I've been invited to attend, I've found that one in four shots was off-target," reports Martin von Wenzlawowicz, a veterinarian in the northern German town of Schwarzenbek and a member of the Veterinary Association for Animal Welfare (TVT).
Many are calling for stricter controls. "If it's not done properly, it's better not to do it at all," advises the veterinarian involved in the Schleswig research project.
Bunde Wischen head Kämmer, isn't concerned. Around 600 Galloway cattle graze on his farm's extensive pastures, with about 170 of them going to slaughter each year. And since word spread that the farm gives its cattle a stress-free death, sales at the farm's shop have increased. "Suddenly we have customers turning up who we've never seen here before," Kämmer says.
Once the study is complete, the farm plans to continue its gunshot slaughter method weekly. "We're doing this in the animals' interest," Kämmer says. "For us, this is the logical extension of raising animals in a humane way, all the way through to death."