The Shatney family has been raising Highland cattle on Shat Acres Farm in Greensboro Bend, Vermont, for over 40 years. Originally a dairy farm, Shat Acres Farm has been in existence for over 100 years.
Their earliest breeding herds were called Shat Acres Highlands, but they now market their beef under the brand name Greenfield Highland Beef. The family has the oldest closed herd in the country, meaning that they have not bought a cow in over 30 years, proudly owning the third-largest herd in the United States. Today, Shat Acres Farm is considered to have some of the top Highland cattle genetics in the nation.
The Highland breed was developed in the Scottish Highlands, which are known for their rugged terrain and harsh weather conditions. These cattle have long horns and long wavy coats, which are colored black, red, yellow, dun or brindled. They use their long horns to dig through thick snow to find vegetation, as well as for defending themselves against predators. Because of their large size, Highlands have few enemies in the wild. Depending upon location, their enemies are packs of wolves, mountain lions, cougars and bears.
Highlands are easy to maintain, requiring little in the way of shelter or food supplements. They do well in conditions, such as snow and cold, in which other breeds would not survive. These hardy animals are not prone to diseases and seem to handle stress well. All of these traits, along with an even temperament, make them a very desirable breed to own.
Ray Shatney’s dad, Carroll, had an eye for cattle. He knew what bulls to use and what animals to cull. The success of Shat Acres Farm stems from Ray’s dad, who passed away in 2009 at age 98. Carroll loved his Highlands and instilled that love in his son, Ray. Today, Janet Steward and Ray Shatney own the farm, strongly believing that their Highland cattle are very special animals.
“As I did not grow up a farmer, I came late to the occupation of farming, while Ray has been farming all of his life,” says Janet. Being a good steward of the land has been a big part of Ray’s upbringing. He feels that if you don’t take care of the land, your animals will not have what they need to thrive.
The Highland cattle saga began in 1967, when Ray’s dad bought his first Highland cow off of a train car in South Dakota. At the time there were no Highlands in the area, and very few in the United States. Carroll took his unusual cattle to county fairs to pay the taxes on the farm. Farmers were paid a premium to bring unique animals to county fairs, and the Highlands were a true novelty.
Janet met Ray in 2001 when he brought some Highlands to pasture on her land in Plainfield, Vermont. Not surprisingly, she also fell in love with the cattle. It was during this time, when Ray and his parents were farming and raising about 40 Highlands, that Janet quickly realized they could not pay for the Highlands by only selling breeding stock. For many years the price of Highland cattle was at a premium, which enabled the farm to sell breeding stock and make a profit. With more of the breed becoming available, it was difficult to continue selling stock at a rate that would support the farm.
Janet started doing some research and discovered a great deal of information about Highland beef and its uniqueness. She explains, “The Highlands have a prehistoric appearance and are the oldest registered cattle breed. There have not been any genetic changes through the centuries. They are exactly the way they were hundreds of years ago with the breed still able to eat and digest large amounts of scrub and brush.
“In fact, a lot of people use the Highlands to clear pastures and open up land because they are able to eat a variety of plants that other cattle breeds will not. It is interesting that the cattle’s consumption of the weeds and scrub actually changes the flavor of the beef in a very positive way. It flushes out any of the off flavors that you sometimes get with grass-fed beef. The Highlands are also unique in that they are slow-growing and have not been genetically altered to produce beef faster.”
The proud owners point out, “The flavor of the meat is what makes it so special. The animal’s slow growing process makes the meat very flavorful. For other breeds to get that kind of flavor, grain or corn has to be added to their diet to put more fat and flavor into the meat. We tell people that the Highlands do the work for us—they age it on the hoof. The meat tastes like beef that has been aged for 40 days. It is a very complex process because it is done while the cattle are growing. When you grain-feed and finish an animal you get a thick layer of fat on the outside of the beef, not much of it goes into the meat because the cattle are not fed the grain long enough to actually have it become part of the muscle. It just puts fat on the outside.”
An unusual characteristic of the Highland breed is the long hair that insulates their bodies, which prevents them from putting on an outer layer of fat. Any marbling, or fat, that they are able to accumulate goes into the meat, meaning that their meat is marbled throughout—the fat is integral to the muscle. When you cook a six-ounce burger you get a six-ounce burger; there is no waste at all with Highland beef. The meat does not get tougher as a cow get older. Butcher an 8- to 10-year-old cow that is no longer calving, or in production, and the meat will actually be better than that of the younger members of the herd.
It has been a challenge for Shat Acres Farm to grow the herd and supply the market because Highlands are slow-growing. Their numbers have grown from approximately 40 head four years ago to a herd of about 130 animals today. The goal is to remain at this current size for a couple of years to see if the owners can sustain the herd and the farm by selling up to 75 animals a year. Janet and Ray do not want their business to get so big that they cannot stand behind every product and piece of meat that they sell.
The hardworking couple enthusiastically states, “We feel really fortunate to be able to supply people with humanely raised, high-quality local protein. This job also gets us outdoors connecting with the land, while building a relationship with these wonderful animals that are super smart. They learn quickly what is expected of them and whom they can trust. It is our mission to ensure that they have a good life and are properly cared for.”