Cows are back at Peggy Rockefeller Farms!

For College of the Atlantic, four new Belted Galloways at Peggy Rockefeller Farms will improve pasture land, enhance the college’s “foodprint” and provide educational opportunities in sustainable agriculture for COA students and the Mount Desert Island community.

 

 

Purchased from a local farm world-renowned for its breeding, the arrival of the cows on Nov. 20 capped an intensive effort to return cattle to a pasture where dairy operations were active from the late 1800s until about World War I.

“They’re very aesthetically pleasing,” Peggy Rockefeller Farms Manager C.J. Walke said. “People call them the Oreo Cow. We expect people will want to come by and see them.”

In addition to being pretty, “Belties” are also extremely hardy, Walke said. “They can survive the winters here with just trees for cover. They don’t need to be in a barn. But they’re also very docile and calm.”

The Belted Galloway Society said the breed was developed during the 16th century in the former Galloway district of Scotland — a rugged and hilly seacoast region where hardiness was necessary for survival.

“The Beltie as a beef animal produces exceptionally lean and flavorful meat, with carcass dressed weights well in excess of 60 percent of live weight,” according to the Society. “Winter warmth is provided by the double coat of hair, rather than the layer of backfat most breeds require. The Belted Galloways’ heritage has conditioned them to survive in very harsh climates, and U.S. breeders have discovered that the thrifty, medium-sized animals more than earn their way in any beef herd.”

“They produce really high-quality beef,” Walke said, “and they’re very efficient at turning low-quality feeds and forage into meat. So they can survive and do really well on even marginal pasture land.

“As we’re trying to bring this farm back to life and reclaim the pastures that have been overgrown and overrun by weed species of plants, (the Belted Galloways are) able to graze all of that and thrive,” Walke said. “So they fit really well for the land.”

Peggy Rockefeller Farms consist of 125 acres at Crooked Road and Norway Drive in Bar Harbor. David Rockefeller Sr., made a generous gift of the farms to COA in January 2010, to reinvigorate the land for agriculture and conservation in perpetuity. The gift was accompanied by an endowment to help cover management, maintenance and repairs — and a desire to see the farms renovated and used productively.

“On a summer day about half a year ago, a man in his late 90s, five of his kids and a range of COA faculty and staff sat in a circle in a barn at the farms,” college President Dr. Darron Collins ’92 recalled.

That man, David Rockefeller, had come to visit the place that was once his wife’s love.  Rockefeller “was so excited and proud” to be sitting on land that was clearly “very important to his family,” Collins said, and “it was really rewarding to see him there, knowing that he was trusting COA to do something exceptional.”

Cows are just one part of the vision to return the acreage to productive farmland.

At Peggy Rockefeller Farms, Beech Hill Farm, COA’s community gardens and the campus dining hall, there are four focuses in sustainable agriculture. First and foremost, is research and  education, “to give students an extraordinary opportunity for learning on many levels,” Collins said.

Students interning or volunteering at Peggy Rockefeller Farms can help with feeding regimens, breeding, gestation care, and calving care, for example.

Another goal for the farms is to “produce more of the food we consume, closing the loop between production and consumption,” Collins said.

The cows thus will help improve the “foodprint” of the college, as students dine on more meals locally and sustainably produced at its own farms. While COA farms can’t provide all of the food consumed on campus, “everyone is interested in providing a lot more of it,” Collins said, including beef.

“(Co-Directors of Food Services) Ken (Sebelin) and Lise (Desrochers) told me they typically buy about two whole cows worth of beef each academic year,” Walke said. “So my strategy has been to get into a cycle of being able to produce two beef animals per academic year.”

Sebelin and Desrochers said they can utilize all the different cuts of a butchered Beltie: ground beef in stew, high-end cuts for events, and so forth.

Two of the new Belties have been bred for calving in the spring of 2015; one is due in April and the other in May.

Walke said the arrival of the cows heralds a new partnership with a Maine institution that values sustainable agriculture.

The cows come from Aldermere Farm in Rockport, one of the world’s premier Belted Galloway breeders. The 136-acre farm is owned and managed by Maine Coast Heritage Trust, an organization dedicated to protecting coastal Maine’s scenic beauty, outdoor recreation, ecological diversity, and working landscapes.

Aldermere Farm General Manager Ron Howard said he’s focused on keeping the farm the way it was when the Chatfield family — the original owners of the farm — owned it.

Howard said it was the Chatfields who helped Belted Galloways get established in the United States. Albert Chatfield “was considered the father of Belted Galloways in this country and helped other farms throughout the country start their own breeding programs.”

Today, according to Howard, Aldermere hosts “the oldest continuously operated herd of Belties in the country,” one that’s also considered one of the best quality Belted Galloway herds in the country. “We’re working very hard to continue that legacy by promoting the breed,” he said.

Aldermere has helped colleges establish herds in the past — including the University of Massachusetts in the early 2000s — and has educated others about the breed in many ways, including 4H programs that attract youths to the farm.

“Part of our sustainable agriculture program here is getting young people involved in agriculture,” Howard said. “It is critical in a number of different areas, especially in hopes kids go on to become large-animal veterinarians” — a profession experiencing a profound shortage of workers.

“It’s easy to get kids passionate about working them,” he said. “People remember Belties where they may not remember other breeds.”

The relationship is off to a great start. “C.J. is a great partner to be working with,” Howard said of Walke. “There are places and people who have wanted to buy from us [that] we’ve said ‘no thank you’ to. We know he’ll do a great job.”

Walke called Aldermere Farm “the place to go — in Maine, for sure, if not New England — for Belted Galloways.”

Preparation for the cows meant repairing infrastructure such as fencing, shelters, water sources and fields, Walke said, and such preparation has already yielded benefits for those who study sustainable agriculture at COA. But much needs to be done in order to maintain the herd, including creation of meat storage areas.

“We’ve had students work on plans for a rotational grazing scheme, to graze cows ahead of the sheep,” Walke said. “They prefer different grasses. Cows and sheep don’t share any of the intestinal parasites that are an issue for sheep, mostly. So [by] weeding with the cows, the cows can be ingesting some of those parasite larvae and kind of cleaning up the field a little before the sheep come in.

“It’s pretty labor intensive to be moving animals on to a fresh patch of grass every two or three days,” he said, noting approximately 1 acre of land is needed for each cow/calf pair per season.

Belties “do better in a grass-based system,” Walke said, “so I’m really trying to limit any use of grain and focus on pasture and hay that we can produce.”

The two bred heifers cost $3,000 each. The two steers, younger and bred for beef, cost $1.75 per pound — or approximately $750 each.

“Belted Galloways are one of the more expensive animals to purchase,” Walke said. “But with this initial investment, we have two steers that ideally will be ready for the butcher next fall. The two bred heifers will have their calves in the spring.

“If we don’t get any males and we get all females, then wed be able to raise those females, wean them and sell them as breeding stock to other farms and probably have to buy in a steer. If we’re having a couple of calves born every year, hopefully we’re getting at least one or two steers to raise up for beef.”

Collins emphasized that “the most important thing we get out of these farms is education and experiences for students. Making the farm cash neutral should never jeopardize this mission,” he said.

Collins said the quest for financial sustainability could be a learning opportunity in itself.

“It has been so much fun working with (Beech Hill Farm Manager) Tess (Faller), C.J. and the faculty,” Collins said. “Integrating these two really smart, super-energetic human ecologists as farm managers with our wider academic program is what makes it all possible.”

Meanwhile, college officials are planning public events to view the Belties.

And carnivores are also taking notice.

Some researchers have identified genes within the breed that bring that low cholesterol meat and high Omega 3 fatty acids. In a recent nutritional analysis, ribeye steaks from Aldermere cattle were found to have “fewer calories and saturated fats compared to the USDA standard for ribeyes, but more protein, calcium, and iron.” Moreover, Aldermere beef had 11 times the “conjugated linoleic acid” (CLA), which is gaining reputation in the medical community as one of the “good” fatty acids,” the farm says on its website.

“Oftentimes with grass-fed beef, there’s less fat in it, so it becomes leaner,” Walke said. “So healthwise, it’s better that way. On the other side, fat is what gives beef flavor. But grass-based Belted Galloway beef is still flavorful.”

The steers could go from farm to table by winter 2016, Walke said.


College of the Atlantic was founded in 1969 on the premise that education should go beyond understanding the world as it is, to enabling students to actively shape its future. A leader in experiential education and environmental stewardship, COA has pioneered a distinctive interdisciplinary approach to learning—human ecology—that develops the kinds of creative thinkers and doers needed by all sectors of society in addressing the compelling and growing needs of our world. For more, visit http://www.coa.edu.

Focus:
College of the Atlantic’s Farm Management Goals

COA owns 300 acres of farmland and forests. All of our farm and forest properties provide research and educational opportunities for students and faculty.

  • Beech Hill Farm, 15 miles from campus in the town of Mt. Desert, raises organic vegetables and flowers, and has an old orchard of heritage apple trees.
  • Peggy Rockefeller Farms, less than 5 miles from campus in Bar Harbor, raises vegetables and livestock including sheep and chickens.
  • Forested land includes 67 acres at Beech Hill, 62 acres at Peggy Rockefeller Farms and the 100-acre woodland known as the Cox Protectorate near the Peggy Rockefeller Farms.

During 2010-11, COA convened a Farms Task Force that reviewed information available on the farms’ history and land-use capacity, and considered ways to integrate operations at Beech Hill Farm and Peggy Rockefeller Farms. The Task Force developed four overarching farm goals:

  • Provide opportunities for student education and research.
  • Provide food for COA’s dining facilities (Take-a-Break menu).
  • Create mutually beneficial partnerships with organizations and agencies that have compatible goals.
  • Help to raise awareness and promote action on sustainable agriculture issues and food security in our local communities and on Mount Desert Island.

Students have opportunities to work on both farms in work-study positions and summer jobs. They also can design and participate in independent studies, group studies, and senior projects on the farms and the Cox Protectorate.

Courses and tutorials to support students’ learning on the farms are offered through the Sustainable Food Systems program. Partnerships with other organizations and internships on other farms are ongoing.


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