|Scottish Highland Cattle at Home in Tuscaloosa County|
Local Farming Making a Comeback
Four years ago, Jon Fleenor purchased a 640-acre plot of land just outside Northport. His new neighbors were a bit worried since his day job is that of a real estate developer. What the neighbors didn’t know at the time was Fleenor is realizing his dream.
"This is my passion," he said concerning the farm. "This is what I like to do."
In a move that had locals scratching their heads, Fleenor bought a few Scottish Highland cows and put them on his newly acquired property.
Scottish Highland cattle are rare in the South, mainly because they are thought of as cold-hardy creatures. Fleenor said his animals had no trouble adapting to the heat of Southern summers. He offers them plenty of shade and plenty of clean water.
Those same folks who were scratching their heads four years ago are now turning their heads and noticing what is going on at Katie Farms. Talk is centering on the cattle and the benefits they can offer more popular breeds.
When choosing a breed of cattle to raise on his farm, Fleenor settled on Scottish Highlands for a number of reasons. One of which was genetics. He wanted to introduce to the market the lean, stocky genetics of the Highlands.
"I’m not big enough to be a beef producer. I can’t hold 70 head of cattle on this place," said Fleenor. "I want to be able to sell you an animal you can take to your farm and add it to your herd to bring the genetics and the balance back into cows. The main thing is trying to get the cattle we have today shortened up. They’ve gotten too tall."
Even folks who are swayed by the genetics are still put off by one thing — all that hair.
While Scottish Highland cattle do tend to have that sheepdog-look about them, the hair proves beneficial, and not just for warmth.
"The meat and marbling is lean," said Fleenor. "Instead of building up fat, they get their insulation from the hair they shed off in the summertime."
People often want to raise Scottish Highlands after seeing them in person. Fleenor’s first question is always if there is adequate shade in the pasture.
By nature, Highlands prefer shade during the heat of the day. They are excellent browsers and do well in a brushy environment.
The breed is known for being easy-going. It also typically calves easily.
"One good thing about these cows is they are going to throw you a small calf," said Fleenor, noting his five calves born this year ranged from 55 to 60 pounds.
Others have jokingly called his cattle overgrown goats because of their reputation as browsers. Fleenor takes it all in stride, noting the cattle have indeed helped in clearing his land. His small herd has just about eradicated the privet hedge from his property.
The breed has been used worldwide to clear brush and to aid in Oak Savannah Restoration projects.
Fleenor is opposed to dehorning his cattle, noting the horns are quite useful to the animals. Highlands use their horns to tear down brush, ward off predators and for scratching.
"The horns are like big radiators," said Fleenor. "If an animal is born with horns and you leave the horns, that helps them keep a lot cooler."
Fleenor also read a study that said dehorning an animal can adversely affect its ability to put on weight.
Since he handles the farm business by himself, Fleenor knows the value of having animals with a good temperament.
He bought a steer, "Tim," awhile back and doesn’t plan on keeping him much longer. Tim has a lousy disposition setting him apart from the rest of the herd.
Fleenor has had to do things a bit differently than the way most larger operations do. He interacts with his animals daily and they know him. In order to keep them familiar with the normal processes on the farm, Fleenor runs them all through his catch pen and chute every couple of months. That has cut down on the skittish behavior when it’s time to work the cattle.
He also learned to leave the cattle alone if they are having a bad day. Working alone, he has to take extra precautions.
An Open Mind
Fleenor’s lack of knowledge in all things agriculture has led to an open mind when it comes to trying out people’s suggestions. When his cattle began having a problem with flies, Fleenor put a theory to the test — he began feeding his cattle garlic.
Fleenor said, while the Highlands don’t have a huge problem with flies because of their hair, he has noticed a significant reduction in the number of flies on the animals since he began feeding them garlic.
While he admits he doesn’t know as much as seasoned producers, he is hungry for information. He has learned to turn to local resources for much of that information.
Living in west Alabama, he relies on Mississippi State University for ideas concerning his farm. Local agencies like the NRCS have also proven to be a valuable tool.
Fleenor relies heavily on Tuscaloosa Farmers Co-op for products and information.
Manager Wayne Gilliam and his staff are always willing to help customers with their needs, no matter how big or small, said Fleenor.
The Tuscaloosa Co-op is located on McFarland Boulevard in Northport.
Local is Best
While the cattle are still in the development stage, one thing sustaining the farm is the vegetable garden and eggs.
About 10 acres of the farm are set aside for vegetables and fruit.
"The day of the small family farmer is coming back," said Fleenor. "People want to eat local produce. And with the price of fuel you can’t truck it in."
He sells his vegetables to several restaurants in the Tuscaloosa area. He also sells them at the farm, which is only a five-minute drive from the Co-op.
Even though Fleenor sells eggs he collects from his free-range chickens, he encourages folks to have their own chickens. He noticed many people don’t have chickens because they think they have to have a rooster to have eggs. He explained to them that a rooster is only required if you need fertilized eggs.
Within the Tuscaloosa city limits, people can have up to three hens on their property. That number of chickens can easily supply enough eggs for a family.
In addition to eggs, Katie Farms also produces honey, potatoes, muscadines, blueberries, blackberries, okra and tomatoes. They are available for purchase or you can pick your own.
Because he started from scratch when it came to his agriculture knowledge, Fleenor loves to share information with those who will listen. When customers come to his farm and ask questions, he is always willing to answer.
He encourages everyone to read books or websites and talk with older people who grew up producing their own vegetables and fruit.
"The old ways are becoming necessary again," he said.
Persons interested in Scottish Highland cattle or Katie Farms may visit the website www.visit katiefarms.com or call (205) 535-0066. If you are near Tuscaloosa County, stop by the farm and pick up some fresh produce. The farm is located on Bill George Road in Coker.
Susie Sims is a freelance writer from Haleville.