Jean-Louis Favre, for the love of the queens of Hérens

The large French-registered German sedan slows down and squeezes as tightly as possible against the embankment of this narrow side street overlooking Sion. The driver looks a bit surprised. Certainly he expected everything except having to let a cow and its owner go for a ride that Tuesday evening in late April. These exits on this steep path, Jean-Louis Favre imposed them in Cérès several times a week, for months. The beast must be in good shape. It is she who is leading, this weekend, to the national final of the fights of the queens, which is held, as usual, in the arena of Pra Bardy, located at the western end of the territory of the Valais capital.

The black coat of the cow, characteristic of the Hérens breed, shines at sunset. The beast dictates. However, Jean-Louis assures us that it is one of the small sizes. On the scale, Ceres shows a weight of 556 kilos. “In the Sion qualifiers, he was the second smallest. Some animals have exceeded 800 kilos, “says the 30-year-old. His morphology did not prevent Jean-Louis’ pupil from winning the second place in his category, the third, and therefore his qualification for the national final.

During each fight, the animals are separated according to their weight, at a rate of one third per category. There is also the fourth category, reserved for the first calves – cows that have had only one calf – and the fifth, that of heifers – young animals that have not yet had a calf.

Blue cap screwed on his head, gray work suit and rubber boots, Jean-Louis has no illusions. In the final Ceres will be in the third category and she should not be fighting for the coveted title of queen of queens. Difficult for our profane eye to detect at first sight. But when you get to the barn located between Sion and the village of Bramois, once the tour is over, everything becomes clear. “Ceres is short and short,” explains Jean-Louis. To support his words, she just has to turn around. She touches the side of the beast that is right behind him. He is the same age as Ceres, who, next to her, immediately appears smaller than her. “If she certainly has the same level of fat mass, she is taller, longer and weighs at least 100 kilos more”, indicates the professional winemaker, who works 100% for the domain of the Valais state.

winter in the stable

About twenty animals are tied up in the stable. They have been there since early December and will be back outdoors these days. During these five winter months, Jean-Louis took them to the field near the building several times a week. Located on the left bank of the Rhone, glued to the mountainside, the land is in the shade all winter. “In January it is very cold. When you take the cows out, the first thing they want is for them to come back inside, ”smiles the farmer.

Behind him, Marc, his 5-year-old son, feeds the calves born last fall. There are five of them in an enclosure at the entrance to the barn. A sixth, smaller, more frail, is alone in another enclosure. “It’s a February calf, the cow gave birth later. We put it aside so that others don’t bother him ”, explains Jean-Louis.

With their budding horns, the calves all look alike. But Jean-Louis doesn’t hesitate a second when he points the finger at Ceres’ baby. This is his third calf. “The first is there, the second over there,” says the farmer, pointing to two animals in the stable. If Jean-Louis was able to support all of Cérès’ calves, he cannot do the same with all of the calves. And for good reason: “The walls of the farm’s two barns and the number of hours in a day cannot be stretched.”

Of the twenty or so young animals he takes care of each year – those of his farrowing cows and those he buys to fatten them – a dozen go to the butcher. This money, added to the subsidies he receives for the maintenance of the landscape, carried out by his cows in the summer on the mountain pastures, allows Jean-Louis to finance the exploitation. “The goal is not to earn money, but not to lose it either…” The sum raised is used in particular to pay Charlène, whom he hires part-time and who is of great help to him. The young woman passes her federal farmer certificate and, in this context, she must have at least a 50% job in the field.

Read also: The Hérens breed, an allegory of Valais

A family history

The Entremontante is in a sense the added part of this story that is part of the family line. Jean-Louis took over the farm from his father, who had inherited the animals from his father-in-law. And this story can be read in the name given to the cows on the farm. If they are descended from the line of cows of Jean-Louis’s grandfather, the animals have a name that begins with the letters C or V. If they are descendants of Rougeot, the cow that the father of Jean-Louis, former director of the schools of Sion , purchased at the time of his retirement, the first letter of their name will be an R. Jean-Louis caressing Rétine, one of Rougeot’s now deceased daughters. “She’s 10, but I can’t part with her,” admits the farmer.

The family story continues today. Jacky, the stepfather, comes to help out from time to time. “I do it with pleasure, but it’s a job. There are no holidays. They eat morning and evening, including weekends, ”he laughs, keeping an eye on his grandson. Marc also inherited the love for queens. He already has one that belongs to him. But he doesn’t really know which one. The boy, in his blue overalls, paces back and forth between the calf pen and the stash of dry bread located outside the barn.

“He is an acquaintance who goes around the Sédune bakeries and collects the unsold items, which we then give to our animals”, underlines Jean-Louis. A few days earlier, during our first meeting with Ceres and her owner, pain au chocolat was among the pieces recovered. Jean-Louis had stuffed a few ends into his pocket as he pulled the beast out to stretch his legs and allow him to run a little. Training necessary to keep fit for the national final.

But after a few steps and a few leaps, it was the food that interested the animal most. A first piece given by Jean-Louis. Then a second. But Ceres wants more. “I have nothing left,” says the farmer. With her tongue, the cow continues to want to rummage in her pocket, convinced that there is still a piece of pain au chocolat. And we’re not fooling her. “Ah yes … I might still have something.” Third and last piece of viennoiserie for Cérès.

“The secret? Is that it’s not there”

Chocolate sandwiches. Is this the secret for a cow to become a champion? Jean-Louis laughs. “The secret? Is that it’s not there. Some ranchers say you have to fill the cows with oats before the games. We’ve never done that and we’ve had a lot of results, so it doesn’t seem like a miracle cure.” And the myth of the coup? The Valaisan smiles. “That doesn’t work either. A glass of white wine for a cow that weighs more than 500 kilos is the equivalent of a sip for us. Suffice it to say that it has no effect. “In any case, this is prohibited during fights, the regulation specifies that” only animals without substances or products that affect their performance can participate. “

The fact remains that alcohol can come in handy on other occasions. Jean-Louis remembers a cow that kept growing when he just gave birth. The risk of removing the uterus in this way was great and the medications administered by the vet had no effect. “Then he asked us to get some gout to get the cow drunk. After two liters of abricote, at 45 degrees of alcohol, it was good.

On video: Jean-Marc, breeder, passion for animals for 60 years

Each cow has its own character

But let’s go back to “queen matches”, to use the expression used by Jean-Louis and by most of the fans of the Hérens breed. What are the characteristics that make a cow more than another a champion? “There are many parameters that the farmer cannot calculate, such as desire, but also the cow technique. Some point their horns a lot, others rely on their physique. We wish we could take the bull, father of a super queen, to inseminate our cows and obtain samples. But that’s not how it works. And luckily! Otherwise everyone would have super queens. “

Each cow has its own temperament. No couple is the same. “As breeders, we are a bit like psychologists. We need to know the character traits of our animals and get used to them. It’s a bit like children. They also know how to seek and find the limit ”, she confronts her bursting out laughing.

However, there are elements that cannot be left to chance. Jean-Louis has already chosen in December the beasts that he would take in the qualifying fights. Because they require special attention. “We take them out more often than others, so they run. It is important to put them in motion, for their physique. If we don’t, they will quickly stick their tongues out in fights and have no chance of winning. ”It is for this specific purpose that the Sédunois travels the sloping street that borders its stable with its Hérensarde.

A passion that runs through the veins

The passion for running is not fake. She runs through the breeder’s veins, who has a contagious smile. But could he have other cows? “I’m one of the people who can find other beautiful cows. But you will never force me to keep a Holstein. “Unconditional love for the Hérens breed also mixes with tradition.” My father and grandfather worked hard for us to have these cows. There is great pride in continuing theirs. work and in preserving this heritage that they have passed on to us “.

Jean-Louis’ passion takes time. A lot of time, morning and evening. To the point of worrying his employer a bit when he was hired. “For me it is part of the quality of my life. To decompress, some people go to play tennis or ride a bike, I come to take care of my cows. This summer he will also go, on certain evenings of the week, to see them on their mountain pastures, in Thyon or Mandelon.

In view of the Alps and the battles that will lead to establishing a hierarchy in the herd, Jean-Louis and Charlène prepare the animals. Their horns are fragile, they need to be consolidated to prevent them from breaking. Ceres, he has already had the right to this operation, a few days before the qualifying match at the end of March. “We use plaster bandages, the same ones you use in the hospital if you break your leg. My sister is a pharmacist, so I always have some in stock, “says the 30-year-old.

“You look like a Parisian like that”

Charlene must use all her strength to hold the cow’s head, which she would rather leave. Using a hammer and a small pickaxe, Jean-Louis removes last year’s plaster and passes a file over the horns. The tip shouldn’t be too small. Minimum 8mm to prevent the cow from hurting its opponents. He can then do the plaster. Once finished, Charlène takes a good handful of earth and rubs the horns. “This is how the plaster is less white,” she insists. Before whispering in the cow’s ear: “You look like a Parisian like that.”

The sun sets on the peaks of the Valais. When it comes to asking him for a prediction for this weekend’s national final, Jean-Louis is not advancing. “If you have Herens, you have to know how to lose, because they lose more often than they win.” The 30-year-old has learned to put defeats into perspective, just like victories. This weekend he will not travel to Pra Bardy with the aim of getting a result and winning a bell. “The goal is to have a nice day with the family. And if in the end there is a result, we will drink another bottle.

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