In a way, it’s inevitable. When someone learns that I live and work on a farm, the first question is, “So, how many cows do you have?” Or, “You guys have horses?” These domestic animals have been an integral part of family farms for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and for many it is hard to imagine a barn without cows or a pasture without horses. Ours is a homestead with antique structures, run by small women in a situation and environment that is best suited for livestock the size of sheep, pigs, and poultry. Back in the 1920’s, the farm did have a herd of Jersey cows, but judging by the distance between the historic stanchions and the gutter in the floor, those animals would have been about the size of a modern Dexter cow in comparison with the contemporary Jersey breed.
Yet the inseparability of farms and cattle is clear to many agrarians who tend the land and their animals today. In Wisconsin, the most common association is with milking stock, but just as vital is the care and raising of beef cattle. Tweed and Melanie Shuman of Shuman Cattle Company, who live just outside Hayward, Wisconsin, are the present caretakers of the family farm Tweed’s grandfather purchased in 1956. For the Shumans, horses and cattle are their passion.
“I might be an RN during the day,” Tweed related with a knowing smile and twinkle in his dark eyes, “But really, I’m a cowboy at heart.”
The family (which just recently bore its first member of the fifth generation of farmers) works closely with their four quarter horses and English Shepherd working dog Zoe to move and maintain the 150-head Red Angus cattle herd. The Shumans take pride in the high quality of their genetic line, and their bulls are prized by breeders across the nation.
“So often,” Tweed frowns a moment, balancing words, “Everyone wants the black ones. But really, the red calves are much rarer, and once you take the hide off, it’s the same animal underneath.”
“And in the black strains, you can hide other genetics, like Holstein,” Melanie adds. “You can’t do that with the red line. It’s a much truer strain.”
Angus cattle were first developed from a variety of short and stocky breeds living in Northeastern Scotland, along with strains introduced by the Viking invasions of the Early Middle Ages. By the 1700’s, selective breeding methods in Scotland began producing hearty, well muscled, poled (hornless) cattle in black and brown (known as “red”) coloration. Hugh Watson, of Keillor Scotland, is considered the father of the modern Aberdeen Angus breed, beginning in 1808 when his father bequeathed his best cows and a bull to help his son set up in farming. By the 1880’s, members of this Angus line had cross the Atlantic to call America home.
While black is a predominating color in Angus cattle, the red color is a recessive gene. Breed reds to reds, and the color stays true. These beautiful animals stand nobly in the field, their coats shining, their ears and tails twitching alertly. They sail as rusty-colored ships through the tall grass of the pasture or rest contentedly beneath the tall pines on the edge of the fields.
“Transitioning to all grass-based practices has been a priority for us for the past couple of years.” Tweed smiles as he thinks on his prized herd waiting for the spring grass to grow again. “Grain prices are getting very tough, and we want to do what’s right for the land and the animals. We’re also growing more conscious of our environmental impact, and we want this farm to be here for our children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It’s all about doing the right thing, being stewards of the land, and being able to live the lifestyle that we care about and passing that onto the next generation.”
“I’d love to someday have a bed and breakfast at the farm,” Melanie muses. “Of course, that’s my project, but it would be great to give people an experience of what it’s like on a farm. So many people today are disconnected from their food source. They don’t know where it came from or who raised it—how it was raised. All that is important.”
The Shumans have attended many of the same conferences as my sister (the sheep expert in the family), learning more about new methods in rotational grazing to optimize the relationship between livestock and the landscape. Changing long-running methods on a farm is never easy, but the Shumans have made a special effort to transition their livestock to grass-fed, pastured lifestyles, and already they can see a difference.
Just this week, the Shumans brought in the first coolers full of cuts of meat from a young grass-fed steers for us to retail at Farmstead Creamery & Café. Their pride in a job well accomplished with livestock that is so close to their souls shone as they taught us the use and style of each cut and talked prices.
“We’re not in this to get rich,” Tweed nods, his well-loved cowboy hat tipping as well. “That’s not why people go into farming. We care about raising good, healthy animals, without the use of hormones or antibiotics, and offering people good, wholesome products they can trust.”
There is something truly magical about the interrelationship of humans and animals, working animals (horses and working dogs) and stock, and of herdsmen and women with their watchful eyes doing their best for the land and their livestock. This is where I want my food to come from—not from a feedlot where soon it will be illegal to document the conditions with photographs or video; not from a confinement feeding operation where the animals never get to run through the field or sniff at a fresh spring wind; not from the floor of a plant where conditions are so horrid that worker are losing parts of their own bodies to wayward knives and unprotected machinery.
I want my food to be raised on the family farm, like Tweed and Melanie’s or my own, where the pigs get to root in the earth and the cattle roam contentedly in the field. Don’t tell me that some recent study found that the vitamins in organic lettuce are the same as commercially produced, non-organic specimens. The vitamins are only a tiny piece of the holistic picture of growing and raising food. Instead, ask this: who are the farmers, and what are their lives like?; what is the health of the land that supported this food, and how well is it being cared for?; how sustainable is the system that raised this food, and how far did it have to travel to reach my table?
In the face of self-protecting agribusiness statistics, questions like these help us re-ground in what really matters when it comes to our food. It is about knowing your farmer, learning their story, and reclaiming your freedom of choice. The efforts of small-scale, family farmers like the Shumans and their beautiful Red Angus herd are part of what really matters—keeping the cattle on the homestead, with care, compassion, and sustainably minded stewardship. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com