My journey into farming began in 2005 when I managed to obtain some raw milk. See, I grew up drinking raw milk in Colorado and the taste took me back to my childhood. Since buying or selling raw milk is illegal in the state of Alaska, very soon I was dreaming of my own cow. With visions of Jerseys dancing in my head I sat down with a pad and pencil and outlined what I needed in a milk cow. I needed an hardy animal… with horns. We have long, dark, cold winters and large predators in our neighborhood. I needed a cow that would scoff at the most severe blizzards and be begging for AC at -20 F while also being capable of defending herself and her calves against bears, wolves, stray dogs and big cats. Unfortunately, that immediately excluded all of the “dairy” breeds. A local ranch has a couple different breeds of dairy cow and they lose one every year due to our harsh climate. I was putting a lot of money and effort on the line and I didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot. As it turned out, after 2 years of research, the best breed for my purposes turned out to be a breed that’s primarily used for beef.
I found a young Highland x Shorthorn heifer on Craigslist and fell in love. On May 26, 2008 I drove 250 miles to meet a very nice couple who had driven 250 miles from the other direction. Did I mention I live in Alaska? Anyway, they were very happy to see one of their girls going to a good, if slightly delusional home. I had proudly announced that this yellow heifer was destined for life as a milk cow and had met awkward silence and raised eyebrows. In the past, an Highland wife would pull a newly freshened cow from the family fold (an herd of Highlands is called a fold) to be the milk cow for the year. It didn’t seem so odd to me that I could do the same thing! When we pulled into the driveway with the beginning of our farm we had no barn, no real fence and no shelter for her. We had a flimsy, welded wire fence, hay and a Rubbermaid tub full of water. I was in heaven!
Since that day our farm has expanded to include apple trees, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, standard Bronze turkeys, a brief visit by a pig and Bonnie‘s first calf, Cody. We are expanding the turkey operation next spring with the addition of Bourbon Reds. We are also going to begin clearing land for hay and pasture using pigs. We have ten acres that can be utilized in some way and we are excited to see how thing develop.
On April 14, 2010 Bonnie gave birth to her first calf ,a bull, sired by a pure Highland. Our milking relationship has had it’s ups and downs but it has been every bit as rewarding as I thought it would be. We allowed Bonnie to raise Cody, sharing the milk with him. Because our pasture (such as it is) is owned by somebody other than us, we stake Bonnie out during the summer. Because of this, Bonnie and Cody were separated during the day and we milked in the evenings before putting them together for the night. This arrangement worked wonderfully and we will do it next year as well. As the pasture is developed they will spend more and more time untethered and free.
It’s seven months later, Cody is now weaned and we milk twice a day. It’s given me a new appreciation for the farmers of old let me tell you. It’s exceedingly difficult to eat when your thumbs are twitching hard enough to vibrate the fork! I have an offer for Cody to be an herd sire but I’m not sure I want to give up my first grass-fed beef. I have a few months yet to make that decision though.
The ultimate farm plan includes more cows (of course), a laying flock of chickens, a rotation of meat chickens and pigs, enormous gardens, a bigger apple orchard and many, many more berries. It will be a challenge to find and raise varieties and breeds that not only survive but thrive in our frigid climate but I look forward to it!
Thank you, Pam for sharing your farming story with us! As you know, I have a special place in my heart for Alaska and it's residents!