BAR HARBOR — Four new Belted Galloways now call the Peggy Rockefeller Farms home. The cows will improve pasture land, enhance College of the Atlantic’s “foodprint” and provide educational opportunities in sustainable agriculture for COA students and the Mount Desert Island community.
Purchased from Aldemere Farm in Rockport, 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 cookie 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 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.
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 on 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.
The 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.
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.”