A Breed All Their Own
Farmers and their favorite cattle
Just as many farmers have an allegiance to particular truck or tractor brands, it's also common to see a devotion to a specific breed of cattle. Some of the strongest ties are to tried-and-true breeds, some considered "heritage breeds," and others simply breeds trusted by farmers going back many generations. There are too many breeds to include all of them, but following is a look at three farms and the breeds to which they've become attached.
Following is a list of organizations with more information on some of the breeds mentioned in this article, as well as other heritage breeds of cattle.
For the MacCrea family at Locustbrae Farm in Alfred Station, N.Y., the breed of choice is Highland cattle. In part, that connection has to do with the family's Scottish heritage, explains William MacCrea. "We had seen some Highlanders in Scotland when the boys were younger and they're a beautiful breed. But beyond that, they are rugged. I thought, 'If they can live in Scotland, they would think the Allegheny Valley is the Garden of Eden.'"
When MacCrea's son Rory was married in 1978, the young couple received two Highlanders as wedding presents. "And we sort of just kept adding to that," he explains. Rory's brother, Kevin, plays an active role, and now a third generation of MacCreas is involved with the farm. The herd is up to about 60 Highlanders, and the family has become very knowledgeable about how to keep the herd happy.
"They don't require a lot of grain. In fact, you don't want to give them a lot of grain," counsels MacCrea. "It's a mistake, because with grain they put on the wrong kind of weight. We give them very little - just enough to sort of keep them dependent on us." The farm's Highlanders are almost entirely grass-fed, with hay obviously required during the winter months. The cattle also like to eat buds from trees, brush and even thistle.
"They seem to want diversity in what they eat," he explains. "The Highlander is a browser as much as it is a grazer. You can see why it's a breed that survived the ice age," says MacCrea. "They do not like to be inside. They are extremely happy if they can be outside; they just turn away from the wind and hunker down, and they'll just sit their chewing their cud as the wind is howling around. There are times where we think maybe we've lost a cow because we see a snowdrift with horns sticking out of it, but they're very well-insulated with all their hair. Often, you won't even see any snow melted where they lay on the ground."
Their winter hardiness is one reason that Locustbrae Farm chooses to have calves born in cold weather. "With their long hair, if they are born in the warm months when there are flies, it's hard for the mother to get the calf cleaned fast enough before it is fly struck," MacCrea explains. By calving in January or February that problem is avoided, and it also means the calves are ready for the first spring grass.
Kevin chiefly handles the breeding for the farm, and Williams credits his son for keeping very detailed records and making good decisions about herd bulls and the pairing of animals. "And he's been pretty careful in his culling. I don't want to brag, but I think our fold is on a par with just about anything you would find in Scotland," says MacCrea.
Aesthetically, he says the farm breeds for Highlanders that have a straight line across the back, not too long a body ("Americans seem to want to make everything bigger," says MacCrea) and are not too tall in the legs. "We like to make sure they don't exhibit the look of crop ear, or anything that's going to require too much tending, such as cows that need to have their hooves trimmed. With Highlanders, the more they can be left alone, the better," he explains. "I think for the breed to really do well, I think they need to have the freedom to be able to provide for themselves."
People often say that the Highlanders look like "a form of prehistoric cow," says MacCrea. He says this is the case with a number of northern European breeds, such as the Shetland pony: "They are shaggy, and they are built for survival." The public in general is becoming more familiar with the beef produced by Highlanders, as well. "People have gotten on to Highland beef because it's about as low in cholesterol as any beef you'll find," says MacCrea. "There's not much fat in it at all." With interest in the beef strong among area restaurants, as well as a nearby population interested in local foods, he says Locustbrae Farm is having a difficult time keeping up with demand.
MacCrae says Highlanders have proven to be an excellent fit for his family. "As far as a cattle can be, this is a pretty happy herd. They're like a clan, and they still have their tribalism intact. You can see it when you go to tag a calf. If he blats, it's not just his mother, but the whole herd is apt to come running across the field, with the bull right there," says MacCrea. He adds that the bull runs with the herd most of the time, and as a result the farm has had very few "mean" bulls.
The Scottish Highanders at Locustbrae Farm in New York are given Gaelic names. The farm's herd bull, Toiseach Mac Chailein of Locustbrae, seen here, is emblematic of the breed. "They are shaggy, and they are built for survival," explains William MacCrea.
Photo courtesy of Locustbrae Farm.
Another breed of cattle that originated in Scotland, the Belted Galloway, is the breed found at Harmony Meadows Farm in Harmony, R.I. Dan Romani says he and his wife, Kristen, went to college in Vermont and saw a herd of Belted Galloway on a farm. "We didn't even know what they were, we just called them the 'Oreo cows.' We loved them," he explains. Years later, when the couple decided to purchase livestock, they knew exactly which breed they wanted. About seven years ago they began to purchase Belted Galloway and now have a herd of about 10, with about four more calves expected shortly.
"We are an all grass-fed farm," says Romani. He says that's important to them from a farming standpoint, but it's also a critical factor for the Belted Galloway as a breed. "The breed in the 1940s and 1950s went through a lot of up-breeding, and people were dealing with Belties very similar to Angus and other large beef breeds. But that's not what these cows are, or should be, in my opinion," he explains. "They're much more of a smaller, stockier breed. They're from Scotland and didn't always have the best feeding arrangements, and certainly didn't get grain."
In the last 20 years, most Belted Galloway breeders have been trying to get back to those origins in terms of stature and feeding, says Romani. "We're trying to keep the breed clean without genetics that have been contaminated," he explains. Romani advises those interested in purchasing Belted Galloways to spend some time researching the genetics of the cows they're interested in. He acknowledges he didn't do this initially and, as a result, had to cull most of his original herd. "At the time we were more interested in the cows as lawn ornaments than in genetics, and we really didn't know what we were doing," Romani states. "It took us quite some time in the breeding process to get to the point where we're at now with a good, clean line."
He credits the guidance of many experienced farmers and breeders with helping him to learn more and more about Belted Galloway, and he says everyone he has met associated with the breed has been willing to share their experiences. (See sidebar for more information on groups devoted specifically to this and other breeds.) "It's a small community, but I think it's a very passionate community," he says.
The Romani family and their children have begun to show the Belted Galloway and have found this to be another avenue to share their passion for the breed with others.
"It's their appearance that draws people to them, but once you spend time with them, their personalities are fantastic," says Romani. "They're extremely hardy, both in heat and cold. That's why they do so well all over the country. They're just a fantastic breed to get to know." He adds that Belted Galloway don't need constant attention, which is helpful from a farm management perspective: "I think the breed in general is an easygoing, relatively easy breed to get into for someone looking to raising cattle."
Some farms work with more common breeds of cattle, but are interested in getting the genetics of their herds closer to the breeds' origins. That's the case at Lyn-Dell Farm in Pepperell, Mass., where Todd and Rebecca Russell manage a growing herd of purebred Herefords. Todd's grandfather, Burton Lynde (now 93 years old), got the farm started with Herefords more than 60 years ago, and the family has remained devoted to the breed ever since. Currently, Russell says he's on a never-ending quest to improve the genetics of the herd. For example, every detail and weight measurement from birth through processing is recorded and analyzed for future breeding purposes to produce cattle that will return the most meat in the fastest time.
For three generations, Lyn-Dell Farm in Massachusetts has raised Hereford cattle.
Photo courtesy of Lyn-Dell Farm.
In addition to its herd of Herefords, Lyn-Dell farm also has a few Angus. Russell says the difference between the two breeds is "night and day - one is trying to tear down my barn, and the other is just trying to lay down in it!" Beyond temperament, he adds that a Hereford is a much larger animal. It takes a little longer to finish a Hereford, but they hang a little bit heavier and the increased meat production makes it worthwhile, Russell explains. The two breeds do work well together, but much of the public is confused about the difference, he adds. "If you ask most people what kind of steak they ate last night, they'll say Angus. Nobody will say they had a Hereford steak. But most people don't understand that to be an Angus the cow just has to be black-hided. And 60 percent of certified Angus cattle have a white face, and the only way you get a white face is from a Hereford."
Lyn-Dell Farm shows its Hereford cattle. "That's sort of like a vacation for us, more of a family event - there's certainly no money in showing cattle," jokes Russell. The income from the herd comes from beef. Lyn-Dell Farm sells beef to four retail stores during the spring, summer and fall, and also sells at farmers' markets. "I don't know how many farms in this area still raise cattle for beef," he says. "I know a lot of people who have cattle, but I don't know how many others take them from birth to the table like we do."
The need to succeed in the beef business is one important reason why Herefords work well for Lyn-Dell Farm, says Russell. "I have friends who raise Belties, but Belties finish a lot slower. We finish cattle in 18 months, whereas they finish cattle in 30 months. We're in business to raise beef for money."
Lyn-Dell Farm currently has a herd of about 65, and Russell hopes to grow that number to about 100 within the next few years. Russell owns a few different bulls in partnership with other farms. "We do a lot of artificial breeding, also," he explains. "We're looking for red meat. We're trying to make red meat from an animal that has longevity in it. The reason we're breeding for longevity is, obviously, we want daughters that are going to go back into production. We try to keep two or three [females] each year as the others go out."
At Lyn-Dell Farm, three generations of experience is enough to have proven which breed works best for this farming family. "Herefords are a good breed for beef, and they're docile and easy to work with," says Russell. "It's a good breed for our operation. They're hardy and they work well in the cold. They're pretty low-maintenance: they forage well and they are efficient."
Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for unusual stories.