When I was a boy, my family eagerly anticipated state-fair season, and the fair that we most often wound up attending was the Minnesota State Fair. That event was so huge, and my mom often entered jellies, jams and even pies — more often than not, bringing home a ribbon. But that was not why I anticipated the trip. Once we were though the fates, I was left to my own devices to wander the grounds. Once I’d had a quick run through the machinery area, I would head to the poultry barns. And when I’d had sufficient clucking, crowing and chicken smells, I’d head over to the cattle barns, find a bale of straw to sit on, and eat the sack lunch my mom had packed me. And as the calories warmed me and made me a little drowsy, I’d dream of my own little herd located on an idyllic spot on the bluffs of the Missouri River north of Bismarck. The cattle barn was calm, peaceful, warm, and smelled of cattle and hay — scents that now take me back more than 50 years to those wonderful days.
It took me a while to get my own herd together, but eventually I was in the right place at the right time and put together a small group of registered Angus — the black kind. I chose black because they would get you more cash at the sale barn, and they were readily available. I chose purebred because by then, I had a Ph.D. in genetics, and the trait analysis, expected progeny differences (EPDs) and subsequent breed planning really appealed to me. Between record keeping, tattooing, tagging, weighing, measuring, pouring, vaccinating, selling, shipping, sire selecting, calving, and artificially inseminating, that group was sufficient to keep me out of trouble by a country mile.
One day while hauling some bulls to a distant customer in the east, I spied them from the road. They were short, stout, hairy, and had really large horns. They were red, blond, dun, red brindle, you name it, and they captivated me. It took me a few years to finally learn that these cattle were the Highland breed. And I began to read about them, dream about them, and even visit some herds that were not too far from home. If I ever decided to sell out and downsize, I thought to myself, I’d have a small group of Highland cattle to keep me company.
The downsizing opportunity eventually presented itself, and I jumped. Not too many years later I would up here in Kansas, with another small grass farm to tend. As luck would have it, there is a large Highland ranch not 40 miles west of me. Once my fences were fairly tight, I pulled the trigger on a small group — one red brindle bull, one red and one dun cow, and one blond and one white heifer. For the past almost nine years, these largely self-sufficient animals and their offspring have graced my days with abject joy. They are hardy, they finish beautifully on grass, they are fantastically tender and lean, and they grow slowly — perfect for an old guy like me. Top it all off with a waiting list for their gift of beef, and I am pretty grateful about the whole deal. I limit myself to an even dozen head these days — someday I will tell you about the sheep.
If you find joy in your daily life on the land, or in the yard, or even at home, I would love to hear about it. Write me a note or send me a photo (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I just might be able to slip it into a future issue of the magazine.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn on his rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines.