When it comes to selecting a breed of cattle to raise, most people choose what they’re attracted to. That’s the case with Peter Sheppard and his daughter Heather Lunn, who raise Highland beef cattle in Hanover, PA.
“Almost 40 years ago, my dad was looking for something to graze our pastures,” said Heather Lunn, explaining how the herd was first established. “He liked the Highlanders, and not a lot of people had them at the time.” The several cattle the family initially purchased eventually grew into the existing herd at Sheppard Farms today.
At one point, Peter experimented with some cross-breeding with Angus and Hereford, but found that the slight improvement in carcass size wasn’t worth the loss of quiet demeanor he had come to appreciate in the Highland cattle. Heather says some of the Angus crosses frequently escaped the confines of fencing, a habit they weren’t willing to tolerate.
“We experimented with crosses and decided it isn’t the way to go, mainly because of fence jumping,” said Heather. “The Highlanders stay where they’re put, so we don’t have to worry about fencing. When they start shedding, they’ll rub against the fence to get their hair off, but that’s the most they do.”
The herd today includes 53 mature breeding females, with about 14 replacement heifers and a selection of bulls which are carefully matched to each female for continual herd improvement. Cattle are registered with the ‘Apple Hill’ prefix with the American Highland Cattle Association.
Heather says Highlanders are known for longevity, and recalls one cow in the herd which was still producing at the age of 19. “If they’re treated well, they just keep breeding,” she said. “We have some gaps in age (in upcoming replacement heifers) because we’ve sold some, but we always have heifers for sale.”
Registered Highland cattle can be red, black, yellow, dun, white, brindle or silver; and Sheppard Farms has seen each of those colors. Although some buyers express interest in certain colors and horn shape, Heather and herdsman Jeff Roache prefer to focus on more important traits. One of the most important traits is temperament — any animal with a bad attitude doesn’t stay in the herd.
Jeff’s background in purebred dairy cattle has given him the experience and eye it takes to constantly evaluate cows. As he works with the herd from day to day, he is always checking body condition and determining what herd improvements should be made.
One of the biggest changes Jeff has made since becoming herdsman is preparing the herd for winter. Jeff’s goal is for cattle to go into winter in good condition so they don’t have to eat as much to maintain condition. “They don’t have to add any body weight,” he said. “They’re maintaining so I don’t have to feed as much.”
To prepare cattle for winter and cut the number of hay-feeding days, Jeff interseeded rye into the fields. This provided cattle with a late fall nutritional boost, and the rye will come up again in early spring for additional fresh grazing. “That put them in a really good place before we started winter feeding,” said Jeff. “We also gave them fresh cut orchardgrass.”
First cutting alfalfa is made as baleage, and is fed during winter. In 2016, Jeff made five cuttings of alfalfa orchardgrass hay and three cuttings of orchardgrass. All hay is stored inside to retain as much quality as possible.
During the grazing season, Jeff maintains what he calls poor man’s rotational grazing. “I mow only some sections of the pasture at one time,” he said. “The cattle don’t eat where it’s clipped. A few weeks later, when there’s regrowth, they eat that. Then I clip the next section, and they keep moving themselves across the field.” This method has helped to eliminate a lot of persistent weeds, especially Canada thistle.
Like most beef farms, calves are born in early spring. For fall calves, bulls are put in with cows from Dec. 14 to around Feb. 20. “We take them out at that point because we don’t want calves that are born in late November and December,” said Jeff. “Mother Nature has made it so most will calve in spring so the moms have lush green grass to eat to make milk and feed the calves. Then when the calves become a little older they still have that grass to eat. They don’t have that in December.”
Calves remain with cows for seven to eight months, but bull calves are pulled earlier if they’re going to be halter-broken. Bull calves which won’t be kept for development as bulls are banded at five months and raised separately. “They develop a much nicer horn if you wait longer to band them,” said Jeff. “The bulls we want to raise as bulls are pulled out at four months and we start to train them.”
One of the additions Jeff made to the farm is a creep feeder, which boosts calves’ growth at the time they have the most efficient gain. Calves are eager to go into the creep feeder for second-cut alfalfa-orchardgrass hay and a little grain. All cattle receive a mineral supplement year-round.
Jeff says the breed won’t catch on as a commercially popular breed simply because they don’t do well in a feedlot with a grain diet. “If you put hay and grain in front of them, they’ll go to the hay first,” he said. “That’s just the way they are. The hair and the horns keep them out of a feedlot, and they don’t do well on grain. They’re bred to grow slowly on grass, and you have to give them time to get there.” Heather says they adhere to the American Highland Cattle Association standards of sending cattle for processing between 24 to 38 months, which results in a nicely finished 500-pound carcass.
Since Heather has a young family, there isn’t a lot of time for showing cattle, but her daughters train several young animals for the York Fair each year. But it’s easy to show through the Highland Cattle Breeders Group on Facebook, which allows Highland owners to enter their cattle in virtual cattle shows. “Some people take their Highlander and brush it out, or you can just walk out into your herd and make some noise and take photos of your cow in the field,” she said. “It all depends on how their feet are positioned and how the wind is blowing.” Entries come from all over the world and it’s a great opportunity for Highland breeders to see what others’ herds look like.
The herd has an Instagram account and a Facebook page, and a website is coming soon. “Social media has been a great way to promote the breed and answer questions directly with potential buyers,” said Heather, adding the farm has gotten referrals and sales through social media outlets.