by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Consistency is the word that Joan Harris and Mike Scannell of Harrier Fields Farm use to describe what they were looking for in cattle when they settled on breeding Devons for seed-stock and beef: “consistent herds.”
“In 2002 we acquired our first Devon cattle after learning that breed could consistently produce tender and tasty all grass-fed meat,” Harris said. “Over the years we’ve been breeding for Devons that yield 70 percent when butchered.”
Influenced by Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture,” Scannell, a Vietnam War veteran, who had purchased the farm and farmhouse that dates back to 1835 in 1982 after retiring from a career of rodeo riding and working as a blacksmith.
He named the farm Harrier Fields Farm for the hawks that nested there and kept draft horses for working the land and bringing in hay.
“He worked as many outside jobs as possible to pay off the mortgage and made and sold hay,” Harris recalled. “In the ‘90s he began to raise replacement heifers on a small scale.”
Harris, an accomplished artist and retired art teacher, had grown up on a small dairy farm in the Catskills where draft horses provided much of the labor.
It was the draft horses that brought the couple together.
“I joined him in the late ‘90s,” Harris said. “He stopped working off the farm as the mortgage was paid off, and he began to raise grass-fed beef cattle and refine his rotational grazing practices which has led to having an extremely fertile farm.”
“I was one of the first to get into rotational grazing,” Scannell remarked.
In the spring of 2002 cattle consultant Gearld Fry befriended the couple and visited the farm to evaluate the developing herd.
Fry, of Rose Bud, AR, is one of the highly-esteemed founders of The American Herbataurus Society. He mentored the couple on producing the best herd possible according to his beliefs.
This herd of Rotokawa Devon-sired offspring would produce “highly valued grass-type beef genetics.”
Devon cattle are one of the oldest beef breeds of heritage livestock in existence today. Native to southwestern England, they are chestnut-colored, and are possibly the first purebred line of cattle to arrive in North America with the Pilgrims in 1623.
“We became involved in breeding seed stock early on in our Devon experience,” explained Harris. “The foundation cows at Harrier Fields Farm came from the Buckeye herd and have been bred exclusively to Rotokawa sires. The farm is also home to part of the Bakewell herd imported from Ken McDowall of New Zealand in 2002 by Ridge Shinn and Gearld Fry. Harrier Field Farm’s bulls, embryos and females have been sold to farmers and ranchers in many parts of the United States.”
Scannell said Fry’s “help and friendship has been and continues to be invaluable.” The couple credit Fry for their greater understanding of genetics, pasture management, and understanding how important a mineral program is for “optimal herd health and production.”
“We have a very strong nutritional program here,” Scannell attested.
Harrier Fields’ extensive library holds many years’ worth of research publications.
Another great influence on the farm has been Allan Savory’s advice on “holistic pasture management,” which essentially states that cattle managed correctly will have a beneficial impact on soil and will preserve the grazer-soil relationship.
Constantly observing the soil/grass/water cycle and the herd’s behavior impacts both the environment and the cattle meat quality, Scannell acknowledged. “The only thing that is going to save the world is sensible agriculture. There are no technological solutions for biological problems. Healthy soil makes healthy cattle and healthy people.”
He said he has sometimes rotated pastures four times daily (4XD), when required by weather conditions.
The herd currently numbers over 100 head and he keeps about 20 cow/calf pairs on about an acre of land at a time.
Working with genetics have taught the couple about embryo transfer techniques and they’ve studied cattle pedigrees.
Through their genetic program, the farm has now produced a naturally polled bull that is currently being used for breeding silky coated Devons, which are sought after for dairy cows.
“Cattle should never be fed grain — dairy or beef cattle,” remarked Scannell. “As soon as you start feeding grain you start losing efficiency.”
Scannell and Harris advise culling bulls when they are young and are guided by measurements recommended by Fry, which they say are an essential part of their program.
“Set a standard. Measure your cattle,” Fry stated.
One rule they follow is that bulls should be a minimum of five inches wider across the shoulder than the length of the rump.
“Harrier Fields Farm is dedicated to producing high quality grazing beef animals,” said Harris. “We have found that Devon cattle make ideal grass-fed animals who mature quickly and thrive on pasture. We’ve found them to be a joy to work with — the Devon temperament has to be experienced to be believed.”
Scannell, who is known for farming with antiquated equipment when not using draft horses, advises folks getting into the beef farming industry to stay out of debt. “Debt limits your options.”
The couple also advises having a market lined up before you get too far into the business.
“Without marketing it still doesn’t work,” Scannell remarked thoughtfully.
“We’re much better at marketing genetics than marketing meat,” Harris added.
However, beef is still available by the quarter, half or whole.
Harrier Fields, although not certified organic, has operated under organic principles for years.
“No pesticides are ever used on the land. The animals are treated as humanely as possible and they never receive any antibiotics or hormones,” Harris commented.
“We’re sculpting cows and bulls one gene at a time,” Scannell said. “God has indeed blessed us with animals that have improved over the generations.”
For more information on Harrier Fields Farm call 518.732.7350.