Behind the Scenes: A Conversation with Dan O'Brien & Allie Byrd
Meet the remarkable individuals behind Wild Idea as founder Dan O'Brien and newest field-harvest specialist Allie Byrd share their unique stories. Dan and Allie are from different backgrounds but have a common mission: To make a difference in the meat industry through compassionate animal welfare practices and humane field harvests.
D: You know, humane field harvest is very, very important to me personally. I was the first one to skin a buffalo in the box, the first one to drive the truck, the first one to shoot a buffalo, and I can hardly get my head around having you here, all the way from Texas and a woman—I never ever expected anything like that.
A: It has to be really cool to have seen that grow.
D: When we were doing [humane field harvest] at the beginning, we really had no idea what we were doing. You know, the first buffalo we skinned, we put it in the truck the wrong way. But luckily, we had some inspectors—really good people who see a lot and know what isn’t working well in the other plants, and they were really supportive of what we were trying to do and the reasons we were trying to do it.
A: Having support—especially on the inspector side, because those are the people who have the authority in the industry, when it really comes down to it; they make or break you being able to do stuff—is such a huge deal.
D: And at the time, it was absolutely new to them. They’d never seen anything like it, but they really wanted us to succeed. One of the inspectors just jumped right in and showed me how to skin a buffalo and all that stuff because I didn’t know anything about butchering. It took us about, oh, I don’t know, an hour and a half to do the first one, and you guys are doing it in 20 minutes now?
A: Twenty, twenty-five minutes.
D: Which is amazing.
D: You know, originally I went to see a feedlot with buffalo in it, and then I went to a slaughter plant, and I was so appalled by what was happening that I said, “If we have to do this, I’m not going to get in the buffalo business because this is cruel. It’s gross. And it’s not that hard to do it right.”
A: I came from a small plant at a teaching facility. We might have eight cattle in a day. But still, seeing animals in the pens—they don’t know where they are, they aren’t with their herd, they just got dropped off, they haven’t eaten in 24 hours—being run into a box in a room that smells bad, that is very loud...
D: And there’s always someone who’s poking them.
A: Yes! And they have 3 inches of clearance on either side.
D: And they’re freaking out.
A: And they can’t turn around. And if they move, they hear metal rattling. That, and then working on a farm, really solidified for me that there has to be a better way to do this. This can’t be the answer. But what was it like for you, telling people, “Yeah, I’m raising buffalo, but I’m not doing it like this”?
D: I’ve been around agriculture my whole life, but I was never a farmer. I’m a bird guy. What I wanted to do was regenerate the grass. How do you do that? Well, if you just start digging around a little bit, you find out pretty quick that everything is tied to everything else. And grass led me immediately to buffalo because they’re symbiotic. I’m not a meat guy, I’m not really an ag guy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do the right thing.
A: Just hearing you talk about “I’m not really an ag guy”—that’s always been something I really care about. A big thing in the ag world in general is that there’s a really high barrier to entry. If your dad’s dad’s dad’s dad didn’t do this, there’s no shot. “You’re not getting land, you don’t know anything, don’t even try. Just go back to the city, get an office job.” You don’t have to be an ag person to care or to do stuff.
I think knowledge in specific areas—in this case, skinning buffalo—is such a gift to have that it should be given freely to others. It shouldn't be hoarded.
D: In some of the plants you were in, people would refuse to share their knowledge?
A: Yeah, it would be almost a rite of passage. “You have to do the ground beef, then you can learn how to cut the steaks.” That’s so dumb. My first week here, we were offloading, and I went and just helped quarter out some buffalo. And I said to Alex [member of the harvest crew], “Hey, I’m so sorry if I took your job. I don’t want to step on your toes.” And he was like, “The job needs to be done. Don’t apologize.” And I thought, “Oh! Okay.” Yes, please learn everything. Please be involved.
D: We really try to push the idea of teamwork. And of course all the guys you’re working with have been on teams, and they know how much more you can get done if you do it that way.
A: And it’s such a privilege to be able to give the buffalo dignity even in death.
D: Have you gone out with them [the sharpshooter] when they shoot?
D: That to me is something that, when I talk to people, they don’t believe. I say, you know, if you do this right, nobody even moves. Ninety percent of the buffalo that we shoot still have grass in their mouths.
A: And even if you want to humanize them and say, okay, they’re going to connect the sound of the truck with one of them dropping . . . no, they’re not. The truck rolls back up and they’re not even paying attention.
D: A lot of times, they’ll be laying down.
A: And those two-year-old bulls will still be jumping on each other, butting heads, like nothing is wrong.
D: How is it for you being a vegetarian?
A: I call it my little party trick when people find that out. Yes, I’m a butcher, yes, I’m a girl, yes, I’m 23, yes, I’m also a vegetarian. And, and, and, and, and. A big problem I see in the meat industry is its closed doors. “We’re kind of ethical and we still want you to buy our product, so we’re not going to be fully transparent about, yeah, these cattle are standing hock-deep in shit until we get to them.” As a vegetarian, if I’m going to say I care about how animals are treated, I want to be able to put my money where my mouth is, for lack of a better term. But it’s not my right to be preachy about it. I’m not going to tell people they are bad for their decisions because we live in a culture that enables those decisions—
D: Forces those decisions!
A: Especially from a cost perspective. If I’m from a low-income family, I’m going to focus on feeding my children, not, “Did the farmer who raised this cow know how it died?” But I am in this not to be holier-than-thou but to be able to look at it as a process and to be able to say to someone else, I want you to learn, should you want to.
D: What’s it like being the only woman out there?
A: When you first show up on a crew, there’s always this apprehension: Is she going to want to get her hands dirty, is she going to be a problem, is she strong enough. I try my best to not be held back by that, and I’m not going to try to convince you of something before you see my work. If you still want to discount me because I am a woman after you see my work, that’s a decision you have to make.
D: How did a vegetarian woman from Texas end up here?
A: I grew up in San Antonio, and I actually grew up not necessarily a city kid. My mom is a vet, went to an ag school—A&M—my dad, too. I remember my mom taking me to work with her and being, like, “Okay, kid, we didn’t bring toys for you but I’m in the middle of spaying this dog. Here are some ovaries you can play with.” So I grew up in that environment.
I went to A&M and graduated with a degree in Parks & Rec and Entomology. The summer before I graduated I needed an internship, and my mom sent me a Facebook post about a dairy goat farm in Needville, Texas, that needed an intern. I’m a big believer that when life opens these weird doors, you should take them. So I went to Needville.
It’s a very rural town, they farm rice, cotton; they manufacture septic tanks. And I lived with this amazing family—the Roussels—they run All We Need Farm. I learned everything about farming from them and truly learned that working with your hands is some of the most fulfilling stuff you’ll ever do. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how educated you are or what you think of yourself, you still have to wake up, feed the animals, and you are not too good for any kind of work.
It was the best summer of my life. But I was about to leave to go back to school and I still didn’t know what I should do.
D: That never goes away, by the way.
A: I asked Stacey [of All We Need Farm] “What do you as a farmer need right now? She said, “You know, I have these Large Black pigs. I raised them to help control the sedge grass, but I also sell them to supplement farm income and our town doesn’t have a butcher shop anymore, so I have to drive them 3 hours to Brookshire to a big slaughterhouse and then they get transferred to a different butcher that I do not know.” She loses a whole day of production transporting two pigs, paying the per-head fee that’s really reasonable for a feedlot but not reasonable for a small farmer. And she was like, “I really wish I could slaughter them here and have their blood be on the land and go back into the soil.” And I thought, “Wait! I can do something about this!”
So I went back to school that fall with this idea of a mobile butchery. But I needed more school, so I graduated and took undergrad classes and just learned for a semester about meat, animal reproduction, nutrition, livestock evaluation. Then I got a master of science in business. While I did that, I also started working at the slaughterhouse on campus and working with the undergrad meat science classes. As I got close to another graduation. I thought, I’m just going to go work in a small shop in Texas and start saving money for this mobile idea. And then Phil reached out to me.
I never thought I would leave Texas. But then I came to visit, and it was having dinner at Jill’s, and you weren’t throwing around industry buzzwords and it seemed like y’all are true to your mission and you really care about it. That’s what really sold me. And now here I am.
D: Well, we’re glad to have you, I can tell you that. It’s only the beginning.