Located between the busy cities of Hsinchu and Taichung, Miaoli is a charming rural county with rolling hills and a distinct slower pace of life. This is the setting for one of Taiwan’s most attractive leisure farms, an idyllic haven with grazing cows, cheeky goats, and easily excited ducks.
Text: Joe Henley; Photos: Maggie Song
It might seem a bit strange to look into the wide dark-brown eyes of a bottle-feeding two-month-old Jersey calf one minute, and the next be sitting down to a meal wherein the star attraction is a plate of braised beef. But if you think that the plastic-wrapped packages of veal cutlets in the supermarket simply materialize as is on the chilled shelf, perhaps this is an experience worth having. To get a glimpse of commercial farm life and the ways in which meat and dairy products get from farm to table in Taiwan, head for the Flying Cow Ranch in Miaoli County.
The Flying Cow Ranch (est. 1975 as the Central Youth Dairy Village) sits in a picturesque valley at an elevation of around 200 meters above sea level. On clear days, you can enjoy fine views of the area of rural Tongxiao Township that lies below, and the Taiwan Strait beyond.
The property is vast, comprising some 50 hectares of pristine land with rolling green grazing areas for the farm’s Jersey and Holstein cattle, the boundary of the ranch marked by rocky crags.
With such splendid scenery to inspire the owners, the name given to the ranch may seem a bit of a mystery. The moniker, staff explained during a recent visit to the working farm, which employs around 150 people year round, was bestowed upon the place as an expression of the owners’ lofty philosophy – the promotion of sustainable living, organic practices, and knowledge of where our food comes from.
So expansive is the farm that it has paved roads, which guests can follow either by walking or by taking a tractor-drawn wagon tour. The guided tour takes visitors past all the highlights, including barns that wouldn’t look out of place on a Montana cattle ranch, grazing areas, and the warehouse, wherein a portion of the approximately 1,000 liters of milk collected per day is made into cheese, cheesecake, pudding, and other dairy products.
The tour also includes a stop at the enclosed Butterfly Area – a meshed structure featuring various species of butterfly, some of which so closely resemble brown, dead leaves that it can come as somewhat of a shock when they take flight.
The wagon tour gives you a great overview of the farm, but if you want to get a better look at the animals, take the path past the fenced-in Dairy Cattle Area, where cows feed on the lush, rolling green, to reach the barns and pens. There, ranch hands give you a chance to get up close and personal with the various animals on hand. Calves need four liters of milk per day during their first few months of life, meaning there’s more than enough feeding to go around among would-be ranchers if the crowds are light.
Walking past the white barn located at the end of the grazing grounds, located on a slope, it’s more than likely you’ll be asked if you would like to bottle-feed one of the young calves. After receiving some instructions (be sure to have two fingers pressed firmly over the rubber seal, lest the eager calf wrenches it away, and hold the bottle at an angle of about 45 degrees), you are ready to go. Four liters seem like a lot – until you watch a calf suck down a quarter of that in just a few seconds.
Next to the white barn housing the calves is the Sheep Area, which has a small pen of baby goats and an enclosure for Barbados Blackbelly sheep. There, you can gather up a handful of corn stalks and try your hand at feeding the vocal creatures, who stroll down the well-worn trails from their pens to stand up on the fence and stretch tooth and tongue out for a tasty handout.
Afterward, follow the path to visit the Black Goat Area, featuring goats native to the higher elevations of Taiwan, noted for their climbing abilities. The ranch has constructed a kind of goat skyway for the animals, allowing them to ascend up and over their enclosure for a goat’s-eye view of the tourists walking on the path below. The goats will eat food pellets from your hands, taking them gently. Just be sure to hold your palms flat to avoid any incidental bites.
A little ways further along the path is the Rabbit Area, home to New Zealand rabbits that can also be hand-fed and observed hopping about their small habitat.
If you’re up early enough (and it’s a farm, so if you want to get into the true spirit of things, you should be), you’ll get to witness the herding of the ducks. Next to the grazing grounds, between the enclosures for the Blackbelly sheep and black goats, is a fenced-in area for the farm’s ducks. Listen for the 10am ringing of the bell, and watch the somewhat humorous display as scores of the birds rush toward the source of the sound through an opened gate.
The ducks have a Pavlovian response to the bell, knowing it’s feeding time whenever it rings. They rush between a pair of ranch hands positioned around 15 meters apart, one ringing the bell, the other spreading feed around on the ground for the birds to greedily gobble up – a performance that seems especially delightful and hilarious in the eyes of children.
Watching all those animals eat is more than likely to leave guests feeling a little peckish as well. For Western-style country cuisine (and country music on the radio as well), there’s the Red Barn restaurant, serving up roast chicken, steak, pork, and a variety of pasta dishes, and the Ben Niu Niu Hot Pot Restaurant, featuring fresh-milk hotpot with meat. The food is moderately priced, with set meals ranging from NT$330 to NT$420.
There is also the Lohas Restaurant (serving the braised beef mentioned earlier), which specializes in dishes utilizing fresh locally sourced ingredients and organically-grown vegetables. If a burger is what you are looking for, there is also a fast food restaurant, and a supermarket-style store next door selling all the dairy products the farm produces. For your dessert, the milk pudding and ice cream sold here are both excellent choices.
Various DIY activities are available to guests at the farm during the day, such as cookie-, cake-, ice cream-, and pizza-making classes for the whole family, along with art classes during which prospective Picassos can try their hand at drawing a one-of-a-kind cow.
Ranch life might conjure visions of sleeping rough under the stars, falling asleep to the lowing of the livestock and rising with the crow of the rooster, but here there is a warm and inviting lodge-style hotel with wooden floors and furnishings and first-rate fixtures. There are also garden- and Japanese-style cabins available for rent, with prices ranging from NT$3,300 per night for a single-bed room to NT$6,200 a night for a family suite with room for up to five people. Whereas the days might be rustic, the nights can be spent in comparative luxury with a fast Wi-Fi connection and cable TV.