John and Jacqueline Chotkowski, of Spring Flight Farm in Elmira, NY, have plenty to do with a herd of 160 to 180 cattle, but recently took time to exhibit some of their best Highland Cattle at the Keystone International Livestock Expo (KILE) in Harrisburg, PA.
The Spring Flight herd includes both purebred Highland and purebred Angus. “We use a Highland bull on our Angus cows,” said Jacqueline, who is past president of the American Highland Cattle Association. “Angus are brood cattle — they’re used to being with people. Our Angus cattle see us every day so they aren’t wild.” Jacqueline noted that because the gene for horns is recessive, nearly all of the crossbred calves are polled. “We also get hybrid vigor,” she said. “We have faster meat production but not so fast that we’re taking animals at 12 or 14 months.”
The Highland cows in the herd are bred to Highland bulls to maintain a line of high-quality, purebred Highlands. Some of the 50 percent crossbred females are retained and used as recipients for purebred Highland embryos. “We also send females to market,” said Jacqueline. “When you go to the supermarket, the meat doesn’t have a pink or a blue ribbon on it.”
Jacqueline says in general, the Highland Cattle in the Spring Flight herd are medium to larger frame animals. Cattle type change over the years, and she believes that the frame size has become larger. “I don’t want the largest frame size because the majority of our program is grass-fed,” she said. “Big frames are harder to fill, and make a bigger imprint on the land.”
The Highland influence in the herd is clearly a factor in producing low-fat, tender meat. Jacqueline referenced a study that’s underway at the University of Missouri regarding the qualities of purebred Highland beef. So far, it appears that Highland beef is uniformly lean, even grain-finished, and tender. “They’re all tender,” said Jacqueline. “Everyone associates tenderness with marbling, but that isn’t the case. It’s just how much fat is in the meat.”
Tenderness is also related to how the meat is prepared, and for those who prefer meat that’s cooked medium to well-done, Jacqueline recommends a roast. “It’s going to be tough if it’s well-done,” she said. “There isn’t enough fat to keep it moist.”
Purebred Angus, especially those that are grain-finished, would reach market weight between 11 and 14 months. “Our grass-finished crosses go to market at 18 to 24 months, while purebred Highlands on grass can go to market at 24 to 36 months,” said Jacqueline. “With that extra time it takes, I think we have a more flavorful product to sell, and my customers think so too.”
Spring Flight sells beef at farmers’ markets, through volume sales by the whole, half or quarter, and to restaurants. Jacqueline says the restaurants they sell to are bistro-type establishments where the chef is very involved in the selection of cuts as well as preparation. Customers are told which cuts are available that day — perhaps a Delmonico steak or a New York strip. “They buy it by the whole strip, and hand-cut to the same thickness,” said Jacqueline. “The cuts may not always be the same weight, so they don’t advertise the weight.”
Spring Flight Farm includes 150 acres, and the Chotkowskis lease additional acreage for hay and pasture. They make dry hay in large bales and also make wrapped baleage that includes mixed grass with some alfalfa. The herd is bred by both A.I. and natural service for calving that begins in late February and continues through the end of May. Jacqueline would like to use more A.I., which she does herself, but noted that it involves more time. She observes cattle for heat throughout the day whenever possible, but says that during hay season, it’s hard to keep up with heat detection for timely A.I.
The Chotkowskis brought six heifers to KILE, and also brought 12-year old Alexis Washburn who is interested in learning about cattle.