'Living With Longhorns a Labor of Love'
June 2006 - The Lake Superior Sounder
Photos Copyright 2006
It's a dim, compacted June morning on County Road A, north of Iron River. The sky to the west looks threatening; there's little wind and though it's not particularly hot, there's humidity in the air - the kind in which you can smell the approach of rain. It's quiet, except for the occasional whoosh of a passing vehicle on the road. George Tutor unhitches the gate, walks into the yard of the farmhouse where he grew up, and calls out across the pasture.
"Curly! Come on, girl! Curly! Curly! Let's go!"
His voice reaches the woods in the distance just as it begins to rain. Its faint echo speaks of the animals he's calling, makes them visible in the mind's eye, though they are out of sight.
"They'll all follow Curly down," he says, with a knowing smile.
'Curly' is one of 24 Scottish Highland cattle that George and wife Barbara Mitchell-Tutor raise on the old Tutor homestead. For the Tutors, it's partly a business venture. The herd is an investment, because the individual animals don't come cheap. This has always been the case, which is why cattle and horse rustling was a crime punishable by death in the old days, but perhaps never more so than in this most capitalistic of eras of American history, when everything, it seems, is for sale.
But raising the herd is also a labor of love. There's no threat of cattle rustling here, just a special bond between herders and herd. The relationship the Tutors have fostered with their cattle is testament not only to the uniqueness of the Highlander breed ("Smarter, and more people-friendly," declares Barbara), but, in a larger sense, symbolic of the decline of the small family farm and their refusal to let the flame of that tradition burn out entirely.
According to Barb, there are two reasons she and George began raising this breed, distinguished in part by its long horns, which make it a bovine more commonly associated with scrub-brush laden grasslands in central Texas than lush, rainy pastures in northern Wisconsin, where dairy cows, particularly the black and white Holstein, are the norm.
"First, to keep George from becoming a couch potato," Barb quips. "He was starting to spend a lot of sedentary time on the couch, and we all known about idle hands..."
The other reason, and this answers to the earlier assertion regarding the dwindling family farm, was a move to keep the Tutor homestead, which once encompassed hundreds of acres of north-central Bayfield County, from becoming designated 'recreational' land, a trend more and more common in an area that is up and coming as 'vacationland'.
"The tax assessor said if we kept live farm animals on the property," says George, "it would continue to be considered agricultural land."
So three years ago, George and Barb purchased their first four head of the unique breed, which, after several seasons of piecing together a decent sized herd using a variety of bulls to sire new calves, they will begin selling off to beef buyers this year.
Scottish Highland cattle are the oldest registered European beef cow. Records date the breed as far back as the sixth century. They are disease resistant and hearty; they had to be in old times, to make it through season after season in the region for which they are named: Scotland's raw, rainy highlands.
They are born in a variety of colors, most often a combination of rust and white, and sport a bush of fur on their crowns (adorable on the calves), which generally grows down and obscures their eyes in a moppy, 1964 Beatles-type haircut.
I'm taken on a walking tour of the pasture just as the sky darkens and the rain picks up. Luckily, Barb has an extra umbrella. George, revealing his agricultural roots (at least to a 'city slicker' - that is, Ashland - like me), walks undaunted through the rain, calling out to the herd repeatedly.
We find the majority of the Tutors' Highlanders in a penned area at the top of a rise, several hundred yards from the house. They are grouped around a feeding trough, and regard us quizzically as we approach. One nursing mother keeps a wary eye on us.
"Watch out for that one," Barb warns, "overall, it's a really docile breed, but she doesn't always like strangers."
Cows viewed from a vehicle passing on the highways may seem to live up (or down) to the banal existence they're generally thought to have. But a close-up look (so close I have to watch where I step) reveals a group of highly animated animals, aware of their surroundings, wary of any possibility of danger, and at the same time clearly able to socialize with one another and, to a certain extent, with the Tutors, to whom several trot over to greet as we get closer.
"People would be surprised," says Barb, as George walks into the center of the group with shrubbery in hand for feeding, "how animated they are. We've watched the adults group all the youngsters in the center and circle around them if they sense danger. They lower their heads, let out a threatening bawl. We had a bear out here a while back, got them riled up. They're not too fond of some ravens in the area either. But they take care of things. If they see something, they'l always go and check it out."
According to Barb, there is a real communal streak running through the herd as well.
"All the mothers take a role in grooming newborns. Last month, when the weather was bad, the mothers positioned all the calves along the side of that barn..." She points to a vaulted roof in the distance. "...out of the wind. They kept the calves on the ground and fed them, actually going out in search of food and bringing it to them."
"Any problems with predators?" I ask.
"The people we bought our first four head from said don't worry about wolves and bears," she replies. "These animals can take care of themselves. And so far, from what we've seen, that's been the case."
Scottish Highland cattle are fairly self-sufficient. George visits them daily, especially this time of year when there are pregnancies. He makes sure they have a supply of grain, some garden produce and the occasional treat (which can range from quartered oranges to granola bars), but for the most part, the herd has free range of nearly 80 acres. And they will eat just about any kind of greenery. Centuries on the sparse Scottish planes taught the breed how to forage above and beyond the call of duty.
"I do have to watch where they roam," says George. He points to a section of thicket nearby that has been stripped clean of undergrowth, several of the small trees knocked over, leaves stripped clean. "They'll make short work of any shrubbery they can find, so I fence off certain areas every now and then, rotate access to them. It gives the areas a chance to recover."
Another unique trait of the Highland breed, it does not require any kind of barn shelter. Even in the winter, the animals grow multiple layers of thick fur to protect them from the elements. The fur insulates heat and cold as needed, and sheds water.
"We've come out here on winter mornings," says Barb, "to find their fur covered in snow and ice, and they'll be huddled together, just as comfortable as they are right now."
Scottish Highland are also disease resistant. "We don't innoculate the animals," says George, 'when you're raising a small, healthy, insular herd, there's really no need to."
I ask if Oscar, one of the bulls in the pen with the females, is aggressive by nature or is that just a myth.
"You always treat any animal, especially this size, with respect," says Barb. "But we get close to them all. We even curry [groom] Oscar now and then, and he seems to like it."
"You get to know which animals are comfortable being touched, and which ones aren't," George adds. "What's great is watching them when they're playful; they can be like puppies when you call them, they bound down to get fed, jumping and leaping."
"I wouldn't want to raise a breed that isn't so human-friendly," says Barb.
Though he grew up on a farm, this is George's first experience with the Scottish Highland variety. In fact, when searching for a breed that would ensure his family homestead kept its agricultural status, he saw an ad in the local paper, and he and Barbara had to do an Internet search to educate themselves. What they found was raising Scottish Highlands not only makes good business sense (females are highly fertile and can have calves up to 19 years of age), but satisfying as well, because of the breed's intelligence and sociability.
"The ad in the paper read, 'cutest calves you've ever seen'," says Barb, "and it was the truth. We were in love right away."
Barb's daughter often chastises her for taking more pictures of the herd that she ever did of her as a child.
"That's true," she smiles, "but there's a reason for it. It's important to keep a visual record and documentation of the animals that are born, when they were born, and who they were born to."
Scottish Highland have been raised in America since the 1800s, but the Scottish Highland Association of America was only formed in 1995. As far as Barb and George know, they have one of the largest herds in the State of Wisconsin.
With four calves on the way, some of the Tutors' head is currently ready for purchase and before long they will be putting them on the market.
For now, however, it's a time to simply enjoy the animals, all of whom have names (nearly all of them beef-oriented), and who have a way of brightening a dim, rainy weekday just by being there.