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Raising hearty highlands


     The day that Michael Martin brought his first Highland cattle to his farm near Eagle Bend, it was 40 below, and a blizzard was raging.  Schools across the state were closed. When he found his whole herd covered in snow, he was convinced they were dead. To his amazement, he found they were just sleeping. Another time a calf appeared in February, not ideal calving season. “I thought, that calf is not going to make it.  I didn’t see how it could.  I went out the next day to see if it was still alive. The cattle were hungry; they were bellering at me. But a group of cows had pushed hay over that calf and had not eaten any themselves, even though they were hungry.  It was so cool.” It proved just how hardy these cows are, with their shaggy coats and sturdy bodies, bred to withstand the winters of the Scottish highlands–or of Minnesota. They don’t even require a barn or other shelter. They have been known to mingle in neighborly fashion with coyotes and deer, each respecting the other’s boundaries.  They are usually good mothers, and if one neglects her duties, there is usually another cow in the herd willing to play surrogate. Not only the females can get into mothering mode: One day  Michael went to check a newborn. “I went out there with my school clothes on, looked at the calf, and all of a sudden, I got hit with the bull. He lifted me up in the air and put me down. The horn went through my pants and underwear but barely scratched me. I grabbed a rock and hit him in the forehead, and he went off.  I’ve never had a bull like him before. He cared more about his calves than any bull I’ve ever known.  I should have known that about him, because he would lie out in the pasture and be the babysitter for the calves.” Highlands have long, thick coats and usually placid dispositions.  They are tame and friendly, if they are raised that way. Michael doesn’t like them to be referred to as “cute,” although it’s hard to resist that description when a cow comes to the fence, gazes at a stranger with big brown eyes, and obviously wants her curly forelock tousled.  He avoids making them into pets–eventually they are going to be slaughtered, after all–although the occasional character gets a name. “I used to have three or four when we first started.  The kids could comb them, and we would name them.  Now we just name the characters in the herd.”    Bluebell, Silver Bullet, Macy, and a Janice Joplin namesake are a few who have earned appellations.    The current bull is named Challenger. “I try to have only one bull at a time.  If there are more than one, they’ll fight.” Bulls, cows and steers alike have horns, which appear in their first year, but their shaggy coats are in evidence right away. Their long manes fall over their eyes, preventing pinkeye by keeping away insects.  They are fed strictly on a diet of grass and hay, although sometimes Michael and his wife, Laureen, go out with the 4-wheeler and entice them with a very occasional treat–a small bucket of cracked corn and rolled oats. Now when they see him with a bucket, they gather around. “When you grain feed you destroy some of their best quality.  Highland beef is high in Omega-3 and low in cholesterol.   But when you introduce them to corn, they’re not as hardy or healthy.  I’ve known people who bought expensive grain-fed heifers and they had to put them on a diet because they wouldn’t breed.  If they don’t, we slaughter them.  We cull for personality.  It makes a lot of sense.  We had two white ones that always broke down the gates. We said, why not eat them?” Two of his cows were still able to give birth when they were 24 years old. “Finally we had to slaughter them because their teats got too big to nurse. We ate them, and they were good!” Michael was by no means a farm boy.  He grew up in Edina. But the country life always held a special allure. “As soon as was 16 I found an excuse to go out in the country for hunting or fishing.  My folks have a cabin by Deer River, and we spent a lot of summers there.  I just knew I didn’t want to be stuck in the city.  We love the Cities, but we like to take what we can from them and come home.” He attended five different universities in Minnesota and Wisconsin to acquire degrees in school psychology and school administration.  He taught in Edina and Mora.  He served as elementary principal for 20 years at Eagle Valley, and a superintendent for six years at Parkers Prairie.  He retired for a year to do some home building with the Amish, but found he really missed children and went back into education. He was a substitute teacher in Long Prairie, where he enjoyed serving the Hispanic population, and he was a school psychologist serving a large area around Cambridge.  Today he does school-based mental health through Village Family Services of Alexandria and for the Parent Support Outreach Program of Ottertail County. “Its purpose is to deliver mental health right in the schools so that kids can access it and don’t have to be brought 20 miles to an appointment. The number of really tough mental issues is incredible.” Michael’s 65 cows share a pasture with some Pinzgauers. “We cross breed with Pinzgauer Swiss, a hardy animal with a larger frame. I can send this crossbreed to market a full year earlier, two years instead of three.”  He explains further, “I never have to help with a birth, and if I do, I cull them, because I’ve got too much other stuff to do than spending my night out there trying to save a calf.  That tells me the genetics are not good, and you probably don’t want them in the herd anyway. The only time I’ve ever had calving problems was if it was with a crossbreed.” The herd usually stay in their pasture, discouraged from running away by New Zealand low impedance electric fence that delivers a powerful jolt. Michael uses no chemicals, supplements or vaccinations. “Our vet didn’t know he was still our vet.   He looked at our records and found it had been nine years since he had a call. They’re very healthy; they never have to be in a building.    I’ve never had a sick herd.” He likes his animals to be placid, but not to the point of haltering, as some breeders do. Michael says, “For many years the meat was healthy but tough. We finally decided to do on-farm slaughtering. They are federally inspected, and then Riverside Meats of Swanville come out and shoot them right on the farm. It’s cleaner than bringing them to a common slaughterhouse.  We’ve found that the meat is deliciously tender.  Otherwise, we take an animal that was born on our farm, lived its whole life on our farm, and suddenly we send it from pen to pen, and load them into the trailer. They go to a slaughterhouse, they stand all night on concrete, which they’ve never stood on before with other unknown animals who are raging. They’re trying to break through their pens, and there are my docile animals waiting for their turn to be slaughtered.  It destroys the Omega-3 and produces three different fright hormones.” Michael is thinking about cutting down his herd to 20 or so, as his son-in-law wants to buy some of his land to expand his farming operation.  Meanwhile, he sells his meat products on the internet and to individuals in Duluth, Brainerd, St. Cloud, and other targeted Craigslist markets. “Sometimes I only talk to people on the internet or on the phone, and we might meet at a casino. Once I was looking for their truck, and here came the casino police .”  Michael was cool: “I’m a dealer,” he said. “Want to see what I deal in?”  Then he opened the back of his truck.

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