Wallace was bellowing in the pen and who can blame him, really ?? The heifer nearby was in heat and he figured that he was just the man for the job. Unfortunately for our randy boy, that enviable project would fall to a straw full of semen acquired (we’re not quite sure how) from a champion stud bull in Canada. Slightly less romantic than natural service on the bucolic coastal pastures of Jamestown’s Beaverhead Farm. But such is the way for a modern show herd of Highland Cattle in pursuit of the elusive breed standard – short, long and shaggy.
On a “fine soft morning”, positively Hebridean, with a cold mist beading up on waxed Barbour coats, owner Nonie O’Farrell and livestock manager Sarah Balmforth showed us their operation and shared a bit of their passion for the “grande olde breed”. The Highlanders are unmatched in the bovine world for disease resistance and ability to thrive on rough overgrown grass. They were a perfect choice for Nonie ten years ago, a novice farmer taking on 60 acres of briar-choked fields. The self-professed Anglophile based her decision on the fact that “They looked hardy, handsome and cheaper than a landscaping crew”. Their unkempt appearance, homely and majestic at the same time, conceals an animal extremely well suited for survival in harsh northern climates. They are great mothers and resourceful foragers with strong herd instinct and a three-layer coat (down, insulator and waterproofing) that enables them to withstand a howling Nor’easter with nary a care in the world. They provide the small-scale traditional farmer with high functionality and delicious low-cholesterol beef.
Nonie smiles recalling the lessons of the early days and the summer the calves kept getting out, roaming the neighborhood like a bunch of skateboarding teenagers or swimming down at the beach. Her need for expert help became apparent in a freezing February rain four
years ago. Bainne, a young first-time mother, was giving birth in the upper field. Nonie had no idea what to do if there were any complications. She put out some hay bales as a windbreak and said her prayers. A phone call brought her salvation the next morning in the form of a young woman with livestock savvy and experience far beyond her 17 years.
Sarah Balmforth had been working with the breed for years under the guidance of her great-uncle Ern Anderson, furniture maker and Highland cattler fancier from Exeter. He showed her the patience required to handle and these gentle stubborn beasts for the show ring. Sarah found an igloo of hay bales up in the field with two twitching ears inside. Her confidence enabled her to immediately take over herd management operations. She never left. Within a few weeks she had the herd innoculated, called the hoof trimmer, set up a breeding plan and drew up a grazing plan for the next summer. Like most teenage girls, she castrated the mix-breed bull calves and built a chute used for treating and inseminating the animals.
She continues to improve the herd, showing at agricultural fairs around New England and at the breed Nationals in Denver. Animals that don’t make the grade for genetic retention are excessed into the beef program. Beaverhead Farm is a certified producer of 100% grass-fed and antibiotic-free Quality Highland Beef and sells at several local Farmers Markets.
Sarah is enrolled at URI in the pre-veterinary program (Animal Science Department). She was one of three students to be awarded a 2011 Memorial Junior Scholarship by the American Highland Cattle Association (AHCA) to assist with her studies. This honor is particularly meaningful since 93-year old Ern, inducted into the AHCA Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement, went on to greener pastures this year. He is surely looking down proudly on on his girl.