Bob Shaffer wasn’t raised on a farm, but he grew up hearing stories from his grandfather about a time and place that sounded idyllic to a young boy raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
“Back then, all the families had five or seven acres of land and were more self-sufficient,” said Shaffer, recalling the stories his grandfather told. “The picture he painted was so intriguing to me — I wanted to have my five acres and a horse, a cow, a pig and a chicken.”
Shaffer never lost sight of that vision, and his original goal was to move out of the Washington, D.C. area to a homestead with a garden and a couple of animals. In 1979, he purchased 22 acres in Spotsylvania County, VA and spent 12 years clearing it.
The next step was to add livestock. Shaffer’s neighbor helped him obtain 15 weaned Angus calves to start a cattle operation. “The plan was to keep them over the summer and sell them in fall, and make a little profit,” Shaffer recalls. “My neighbor talked me into keeping all the heifers and one bull, so I did. Then I decided I needed to have a Hereford bull, because if you put a red bull on a black cow, you get a baldy and that’s the best calf.”
Shaffer went to his first purebred Hereford sale with a spending limit of $2,500. He started bidding on a bull he liked and recalls that the bidding moved so fast that he wasn’t keeping up with the numbers. When a bidding competitor dropped out, Shaffer ended up with a $3,500 bull. Since he was now the owner of what he considered an expensive bull, Shaffer decided to purchase some good Hereford females and start raising purebreds. He talked with purebred breeders and continued to purchase good Hereford females to build and improve his herd.
From the start of his purebred enterprise, Shaffer’s goal was to breed for moderate cattle. “I want to keep a balance in the traits,” he said. “When you start single-traiting, you get in trouble. I knew it would take a while to build a quality herd, and I wouldn’t be able to afford to purchase a lot of high-dollar cattle. So, I bought a few high-quality cows and started flushing them. I put the embryos in the commercial cows I had here.”
As he built his herd, Shaffer purchased and cleared more land and now has cattle pastured on about 100 acres. After working with NRCS in 1983 to create a pond, Shaffer has made water conservation a priority. Improvements such as stream bank fencing, erosion management and high-traffic lanes for cattle movement have earned Deer Track Farm the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Farm in 1994 and 2013.
Today, the Deer Track Farm herd includes 60 mature cows, with 19 yearling heifers from last fall and 24 heifer calves from this fall. “I try to get the highest level of selection to build a solid herd,” said Shaffer. “Then I’ll sell some and get down to about 50. I have quite a few females to choose from to build the quality of my herd.”
Deer Track Farm cows are bred for either spring or fall calves. Fall calving begins in September and goes through Oct. 31, and is the larger group. This coming spring, about 32 cows will calve starting the second week in February through the end of March. Cows are synchronized for more efficient A.I. and a 45-day calving window.
Much of Shaffer’s philosophy about how to select cattle and improve his herd comes from his background in the business world where continuous improvement was the mantra. “I apply that to the cattle,” he said. “They have to perform, and if they don’t, they have to go. It costs you less because they’ll be bred on time and they’ll raise good calves. If you spend all that time getting a calf on the ground and to market age, you might as well do it right.”
While conscientious breeders aim for structurally sound cattle, including feet and legs, Shaffer takes a much closer look at feet. “Purebred breeders don’t worry too much because foot problems don’t start showing up until cows are two or three years old,” he said. “But you can tell if an animal is going to have foot problems in the future by looking at them today. I work with my vet and we lift the feet of every weaned calf. If there’s a problem, I get rid of them right then and there so I’m not perpetuating foot problems in my herd and I’m not selling bulls that will have a foot problem.” Shaffer says he has had several promising bull calves that were outstanding in every other way, but a closer look at their feet showed they should not become herd sires.
Shaffer welcomes visitors to the farm, but rather than using it as an opportunity to sell cattle, he simply talks with them about the business. He says that one of the main points he emphasizes when it comes to talking about bulls is that Hereford bulls are ideal for using on Angus cows to create baldy calves. Baldy steers feed out well, and some cattlemen retain their best baldy heifers and breed them back to a black bull. “The beef herd in the United States is so mongrelized now,” he said. “They chased fads and went after different breeds for different reasons, but time has proven that the British breeds are best. The heterosis in an Angus–Hereford cross means an extra 40 pounds at weaning.”
Looking back at the evolution of today’s modern Hereford, Shaffer says that for a while, the trend was to breed for larger cattle, which resulted in loss of muscling and milk traits. “That was a lesson learned,” he said. “Moderate framed cattle is where we need to be, and you have to pay attention to how you’re breeding. Today’s Hereford cattle are on par with Angus cattle.”
Shaffer takes advantage of the American Hereford Association’s (AHA) improvement programs and regularly submits performance data on his calf crop, including birth weights, weaning weights and ultrasound data for carcass merit. He has been recognized by the AHA as a Gold Total Performance Reporting (TPR) breeder.
As he looks back at how he built his business, Shaffer recalls that he really didn’t intend to become a purebred breeder — he was simply chasing his childhood dream. “You can make mistakes and learn from them. And if you stick with it, you can do almost anything you want to do,” he said. “Anybody who wants to know about cattle, I’ll help them in any way I can, just like the old-timers helped me. I want to give back.”
Visit Deer Track Farm online at www.deertrackfarm.com.