Farm Articles

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Updated: Jan 16

DENNIS -- Lawyers often evoke images of dark suits, briefcases and neutral expressions. Not jeans, muck boots and a wide grin. Both accurately describe Laura McDowell-May, a fifth generation native from Dennis.

The elder law attorney and her husband, Gerry, an exterminator, own and operate Seawind Meadows, a 10-acre cattle farm in Dennis with their three daughters, Jackie, 13 and twins Miriam and Annalee, 15.

The reason is twofold. “I grew up with horses,” says McDowell-May. “I learned to work hard to support my horse and to be responsible.”

She wanted her girls to have the same invaluable experience. Meanwhile, they wanted to clear land. McDowell-May discovered Scottish Highland cows eat just about anything and are excellent at clearing overgrown pastures.

It was an opportunity for a lifestyle.

“Horses are a tremendous expense. Cattle serve a purpose,” she says.

They bought a heifer for each girl. When the cows were two years of age, they leased a bull with the idea of producing their own beef.

“By then nutrition and where our food was coming from became a concern for me. We had been buying a side of all-grass-fed and all-grass-finished meat out of state,” McDowell-May says.

When she started raising her own beef for her family’s consumption, McDowell-May was told she would eventually get into the beef business. It happened.

“The Harwich Farmers Market came along. The agricultural commissioner asked if we would be selling meat. We had an extra animal that year and decided to give it a shot. It was scary for us,” she recalls.

McDowell-May was still on a lot of boards and time was a problem but she made it happen. Her twins were 11 then and went with her to help out at the market. Two years later, she added the Saturday Orleans Farmers Market to her schedule.

Everyone in the family helps.

“It is definitely multi-generational. Gerry is Mr. Fix-it and Clerk of Construction Works. I am using my college science, math, finance, psychology, and law degree.” It takes discipline to keep balance -- and a lot of thought. To predict when to rotate a pasture, the weather has to be considered, whether it is hot, cold, wet or dry, and the moisture content of the grass and the growth rate must be factored in.

These days, the cattle herd numbers around 20, and six to eight calves are produced each year. Some spend time in pastures off Cape such as the ones at Great Hill Dairy Farm in Marion. Which animals they keep depend on sex, genetics and the market. Some are bred for market, others for reproduction. Prices of beef and breeding stock are escalating, so McDowell-May is holding tight for now.

The girls are involved in 4H and show with the breed association. They travel around the country. They even went to the International Convention for Cattle in Scotland.

Harmony was born on Jacky’s birthday, Aug. 1. Guinness, who is as black as the beer itself, was born on St. Patrick’s Day. Nicki became the Reserve National Champion in both Colorado and Kentucky in 2011 and loves to travel.

“She loves to be shown. Hook up the trailer and she pushes the gate. She gets all excited and loves grooming. She’s a pretty animal when she is all cleaned up.” says McDowell-May.

“We don’t do hockey or skiing anymore. Sometimes the girls sell an animal at a show and it helps pay for fuel. We are not pretentious people,” she says. “It’s about family. We put a lot of passion into it. But you can’t be a full-time farmer.”

That lesson has not been lost on the girls. All three see Highland cattle in their future but plan to go into business.

Stephanie Foster, a frequent contributor to Cape Experience, is a master gardener and flower grower, and author of the book “Farms of Cape Cod.”

Edible Cape Cod, 2012 Fall Edition

Edible Cape Cod, Fall 2012 Edition

To most people, the Highlander is a long horned, shaggy coated, ferocious wild animal that can be dug out of a glacier after several years immersion, to continue its mastication of heather, bracken, stones, fence posts and preferably people, utterly immune to all forces of nature, including earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.” –British Highland Breeders’ Journal

There is a little bit of Scotland in Dennis Village. Seawind Meadows sits on ten acres at the edge of the Great Marsh and is home to pigs, goats, chickens, a pony and a majestic heard of Highland cattle. Highlands are huge, longhaired, big horned creatures that claim descent from the prehistoric auroch. To see a Highland is to understand the images made famous by Europe’s ancient cave art and to hear the lonely call of Scotland’s North.

Laura McDowell-May works full time as an elder law attorney. She is also the proprietor of Seawind Meadows, which she and her husband bought in 1991. In 2006 they acquired three Highland heifer calves to clear the brush from their property, as Highlands are known to graze on just about anything. The venture grew from there. Soon their daughters were showing the livestock in competitions, which provides the family escape from the hustle and bustle.

A Highland’s propensity for natural forage is reflected in the high quality of its meat, which the Mays sell at the Harwich Farmers’ Market. Highlands also have a double coat instead of the fatback typical to other breeds, rendering their meat leaner. While their growth takes three years as compared to the 18 months required by industrial cattle, time makes quality.

Laura states, “Highland beef is very special, it’s got a nice flavor because the beef itself is slow grown and grass fed. Their diet remains the same until the final day of processing. There is no corn in their diet. We UDSA process, at Blood Farm or Adams Farm, then dry age 14 to 21 days for tenderizing.”

When grilling a Highland steak, cook it more slowly and at a lower temperature, brush on some olive oil and shoot for rare to get medium. The raw meat is a darker red than usual, giving it a rich look. Even though it is lean, the cooked meat is juicy and flavorful.

Cottages line the road to Seawind Meadows until it narrows, wending through shady fenced-in pasture. Beneath the trees, cattle doze sleepily in the July heat. Laura and her twins, 14-year old Miriam and Annalee, met me on their front porch at the end of the drive and my tour of the farm began.

We walked through shady grass with the smell of the marsh just beyond to a large pen of nine piglets. Seawind has had pigs since Laura’s niece won a sow at the Fryeburg Fair seven years ago. The pigs work with the cattle to keep the land clear. The cattle are great grazers of greens above ground, including poison ivy, while the pigs are great eaters of underbrush, able to root up invasive species. Once the livestock has grazed and rooted, the area is seeded with a pasture mix for further feeding.

The girls’ affinity with the pigs is clear as they explain how pigs need mud to cool off because they can’t perspire, and the benefits of cool mud were clear in the day’s heat. Pigs are cleaner than you think, never relieving themselves where they sleep. The piglets’ mother, a Hampshire/York cross named Baby Girl, was dozing nearby in her stall. Laura breeds her own livestock and thinks in terms of generations. Baby Girl is the daughter of the original pig from the Fryeburg fair and will be going to her fourth County Fair with Miriam and Annalee this year. Of the nine piglets, one will be kept for stock. Seawind processes an average of twelve pigs annually. This November they are planning on eight. The resultant pork chops grill up beautifully and taste as pork should, with a pleasant texture, plenty of juice and a delicious punch of flavor.

Next we came upon the cattle, where we witnessed a remarkable thing. Among the younger animals, which were calmly shading themselves, were two lively adults. Alpha Torres is the herd’s bull. He is a fine specimen, huge and broad, calling to mind the woolly mammoth. He is descended from hardy stock, from the Highland croft where farmers customarily allowed their livestock to fend for themselves each winter.

When I met Alpha Taurus, he was busily courting Allegra Sophia. The courtship ritual includes serious flirtation. Oblivious to much the else, the two were walking back and forth in tandem, engaged in a timeless dance that, with luck, would increase the farm’s stock numbers the natural way. When breeding Highland stock each generation is important. Over generations, huge thought has gone into the resultant offspring with emphasis on disposition, genetics and tenderness.

Laura calls Highlands a blessed breed, a smart animal. They do remarkably well on Cape Cod even though they evolved in a colder climate. While summer is not their favorite time, they are fine in the shade. They love winter’s cold to the point that they don’t need shelter and they calve easily. The herd currently numbers fifteen and Laura expects to process between nine and eleven this fall. In July, part of the herd was off Cape, having been invited to graze and clear overgrown pasture in Marion, Massachusetts, and Topsham, Vermont.

Sharing the landscape are four goats, the girls’ first pets which, they agree, serve no purpose apart from their role in live nativity scenes. There is a 24-year-old pony called Moxie and a mixed flock of 35 laying hens. As the hens forage, they eat ticks and other insects.

Laura describes her farm, especially her Highlands, as a lifestyle. Her family has traveled the country for fairs and competitions in places such as Colorado, Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia. This year, the twins will show their heifers at the Barnstable County Fair as part of the 4-H Heifer project. They also are participating in the Big E in Springfield, Massachusetts as members of the team representing the state in an opportunity for kids ages 12 to 18 to share their farm work with other New Englanders. They will take their two yearling heifers, unbred females with small horns that I last saw lolling in the shade near the chickens, to compete.

Two years ago, the family went to the International Convention for Cattle in Scotland. This is where valuable animals are bought and sold on a global scale, which is a fine thing to see considering Highlands were not long ago on the endangered species list. This brought the Mays right to the home of their beloved Highlands as they traveled the north and met like-minded people.

Laura emphasizes that she has met incredibly decent people in her travels and states, “People farming now are highly educated. You can’t be dumb to succeed. You have to stay abreast of the regulations, the costs. It’s an intriguing world; there is always something to learn.”

She also says that quietly, under the radar, there other pockets of Highlands dotting the Cape. According to the Scots, a highland does not forget. Their presence on Cape Cod might help our memories too, when we consider both their healthy meat and their ancient magnificence.

Mary Blair Petiet, a Cape Cod native, lives with her family in Barnstable.