Usually it is only the parents of children getting on and off school buses who keep a close eye on them. But at Roaming Farm in South Deerfield, MA, resident Highlanders also stand close by, watching school bus proceedings from the edge of their field. Their innate curiousness is as much a part of them as their long shaggy coats, long horns and short stature. Highlanders also keep a close eye on their own calves.
“They work together to protect the calves. With a bunch of calves, one is babysitting, and the other cows off doing something,” said Julie Chalfant, who owns the 80-acre farm with her husband. When the cows are called in, other cows come in from other directions, but the babysitting cow comes in with the calves.
“They are really good moms, birth easily, take really good care of the calves. Haven’t had a vet out for any of their birthings,” she said, out of 40 calves born so far. They had a Galloway that required calling a vet out for her births, but they no longer have her, just her progeny.
It is these characteristics, plus the animals’ ability to forage, that clinched the couple’s decision to raise Highlanders, the first of which were purchased in Connecticut and northern Vermont. “They are insulated with their fuzzy fur, and don’t have that layer of fat that other cows have,” said Chalfant. This results in lean meat. “They are also slow-growing, sent for processing at 30 months rather than the usual 18 months, which “makes the meat tender, makes it tasty and very good for you.”
The Highlanders are given practice entering a curved corral and head-gate and are fed in the corral during practice sessions to accustom them to it. This way, when the time comes, loading will be easy. Two are transported every other month to Athol-based Adams Farm facility, based on Dr. Temple Grandin’s humane design for processing, to supply the 300 pounds a month of hormone-free meat that the farm sells. “They like having a friend in the transfer process, like having a buddy with them,” said Chalfant. Since the two biggest tend to jostle to the front, selecting them, getting them into the corral, and loading them, “goes pretty quick.”
With access to 50 to 60 acres, the foraging ability of the 13 cows, bull and their offspring has opened up a lot of pasture. “Bought a piece from a neighbor, couldn’t even walk through it. It was a field when he was a kid. Now they can walk through it,” she said. They like maple leaves and hemlock in particular, but eat poison ivy, twigs and bushes. They distain pine or anything prickly, yet nibble leaves off young, tender multiflora roses.
This is her second year selling beef. Chalfant bought the land in 2002, built the house in August 2004, added barn in 2005 or 2006 and secured cows in 2009. The barn is fit with solar panels from Greenfield-based Pioneer Valley Photovoltaics (PV2).
Chalfant is a member of Community Involved with Sustainable Agriculture (CISA), that promotes local farms and farmers, advertising them as local heroes on their website. Almost half Roaming Farm’s customer base found them on CISA’s website. Customers order through www.roamingfarm.com or phone. She donates 150 pounds of beef a year to Hatfield-based Food Bank of western Massachusetts.
Chalfant finds Highlanders easy to work with. “They know us. They are less friendly to people they don’t know.” They don’t like the heat, and are much happier in winter then in summer. They shed out, walk in the streams and play in mud.
They hay one field with the rest needed purchased from a dairy farmer across the street. They supplement with grain. “Twenty percent of their nutrients are from grain, consistent year-round once they’re weaned,” she said — not just “a push at the end.”
The Highlanders feature largely in school reports done by their two sons, who help when calves escape. “They are very curious creatures, always checking out what we’re doing. On one field by the street, they watch all the people go by.”