Thursday, August 21, 2014

Visiting Wheel-View Farm

The Lady of the House and I went to Wheel-View Farm for their open house day, and wanted to share some photos and thoughts about their farm and overall operation. Their site has a lot of good information including about the environmental benefits of grass fed beef farming. They also have a lot of other photos, all of the ones we have up for this post are our own photos taken by the Lady of the House when we visited. I think if you just want a summary it is the idyllic pastoral farm that one imagines, but rarely actually existed if it ever did.

To start with, some basic facts. Wheel-View Farms raises grass fed beef on their pasture. They raise a combination of Belted Galloway (Belties), Highland Cattle, and recently Murray Gray. All of these are considered heritage breeds, and they do very well on grass. In this area a lot of farms use Belties or Highland Cattle, but this was our first time encountering the Murray Grays. I realized the only photos actually really showing a Murray Gray in good shot is the opening photo. The pearly gray cow Above just left of the center of the shot us a Murray Gray, if you haven't already read the link on their name some of their history is kind of cool, you should glance through it. My favorite of the cows we met was one of the Murray Grays that we don't have a good photo of named Squiggle.

I personally had something of a prejudice against cattle having met them when I was younger, and found them stupid, skittish, and actually relatively mean. Not only was I impressed by the ethical and quality standards of care at Wheel-View Farm, I also had my general opinion of cows changed. I will note that my visits to Crabapple Farm and meeting their dairy cows had started that, but changing my opinion of meat cows is no small thing.

How did they change my view on meat cattle? Simply, they'd raised their cows in such a way that they acted like cows probably should act. They were curious rather than simply suspicious. They were cautious rather than fearful, and they were genuinely friendly and happy to be around people. Part of that is the breeds they've chosen, as a non docile set of breeds wouldn't be as friendly. Another part of it is that the cows are interacted with daily, and get touched regularly beyond just a health check. They get touched, petted, and some of them really like it, demand in fact. When a full grown breeder cow comes up and informs you that you're going to pet her, trust me, it's going to happen.

This is a good photo of me discovering that cows like having their chins scratched mostly back near the back of the jaw bones. This is also the same cow that decided that I needed a thorough grooming, and licked my hands and boot all over. Which reminds me, I should re polish my boot because cow tongues are "Like cat tongues on steroids," in the words of Carolyn, one of the two farmers. The way Carolyn and her husband John raise and care for their cows really shows in their behavior in relation to people. I know I am focusing an awful lot on cow behavior, but that was a really big thing about how their management changed things.
What do I mean by how they manage their herd? To start with unlike many commercial beef farms they give their cows plenty of space to roam, woods to go into for shade, and regular rotation through different fields. I don't know exactly how many acres they have, but their herds rotate through many different fields to manage the cattle's eating, and keep them able to eat grass for the entire possible grass eating part of the year. The grass management for this sort of farm is incredibly important, and to do that the cows never spend more than a day or two in an area of pasture for most of the year which preserves the grass and soil beneath, which leads to the grass growing faster and it being easier to maintain. They've been doing this for some time which means that their soil and grass has become very resilient, the results of decades or more of work. By having access to woods as well the cows can be more comfortable. They apparently have a pattern of coming out, eating for an hour or two, and then going back into the woods to be cooler. Having previously only encountered cows in open un-shaded areas, I hadn't realized they really like having good shade, it makes sense though, they have an awful lot of mass to shed heat from.
Left is one of their bulls. Yes, we were in a pasture with the bulls, the Lady of the House in fact was petting this one when he demanded it. I'll get back to bulls later. One of the things we discussed with Carolyn is that the farm used to be a dairy, and the difference in stress level and management of dairy cattle compared to meat cattle on pasture. Dairy cows are under a lot more stress between constantly being in milk, regular confinement for milking, and having their calves taken away to keep them in milk as due to not having their demand drop off. She commented that she prefers having beef cattle because it's a happier operation than dairy cattle. She also mentioned that if you like animals as we do, not to get into pigs for meat because there's no way we'd be able to handle how personable and friendly pigs can be when given proper space and care. It was very clear that both of them actually liked and very seriously knew all of their cattle. Certainly they knew the tag numbers (red for cows, yellow for steers) and by name. The bulls are identifiable across the pasture. Below Right is the second bull that was in the pasture with the cows we were in with. He was lavished with quite a lot of attention from the cows. The black and white bull Below Right came from the UMass Belties program. Some of his docility and friendliness probably comes from the fact that they were used for the Livestock Classic thus handled constantly when they were young. The gray bull Above Left was raised there from a calf. His mother is one of the Murray Grays still in the herd, and his father was the most gentle bull ever. Their personalities certainly came through in him. Mysteriously much like our rabbits being very docile with handling when constantly interacted with, it also applies to cows and bulls in a low stress environment handled regularly.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about seeing this whole set up is actually seeing a commercial farm doing honestly ethical meat. A very different style of meat farming, and obviously a different animal. It is however a really nice thing to see a full scale commercial farm successfully doing meat production. Carolyn and I had a conversation about how they have reached the limit of their production. It isn't so much that they couldn't sell more, it's actually that they can't expand their operation more without compromising their ethics and the nature of what they are doing. I think that is a reality check, at a certain point ethical businesses have to recognize their limitations and cease expansion. It seems to me that time, space, and manpower are going to always be a limiting factor for any ethical operation, and it's good to see people understand that before they hit the point where they have crossed the line between good and not quite so good.

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