A small get-together: Dexter cattle breeders from throughout Midwest gather on northwest Wisconsin farm

posted July 31, 2017 9:16 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Heidi Clausen, Regional Editor | heidi.clausen@ecpc.com

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    Kevin and Barb McAnnany say Dexter cattle, which are much smaller than most other beef cattle breeds, are a great fit for their small acreage near Deer Park.
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    From their perch atop a fence, a pair of guineas surveyed the cattle pasture at the Kevin and Barb McAnnany farm just north of Deer Park in Polk County.
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    A pair of Dexters relaxed on the McAnnany farm near Deer Park.
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    Sylvia Burgos-Toftness of Bull Brook Keep spoke to Dexter cattle owners about the best ways to directly market their beef.
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    Kevin and Barb McAnnany run eight head of Dexters on their 17-acre Birch Grove Farm just north of Deer Park.

DEER PARK — Compact Dexter cattle are the perfect fit for Kevin and Barb McAnnany, quite literally.

“If you have a small acreage and want cattle, they’re the breed to have,” Kevin said.

The McAnnanys run eight head of Dexters on their 17-acre Birch Grove Farm just north of Deer Park. Kevin said they bought their first three heifers in 2014 after moving from New Brighton, Minn., to the former Thorson farm, which was established in 1898 with 40 acres. Before retiring, Kevin worked more than 40 years in media communications, including a decade as a Bethel University professor. Barb has been a registered nurse in Minneapolis for more than 35 years.

Birch Grove Farm is the fulfillment of a dream for the McAnnanys, especially Kevin, who has fond memories of working on farms during his childhood in Austin, Minn.

“All my friends were on a farm,” he said, and if he helped them get their chores done faster, they could go have fun sooner.

The McAnnanys on July 22 hosted about 40 people for the Region 12 annual meeting of the American Dexter Cattle Association. Producers attended from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota. This was the second time the Region 12 meeting was held in Wisconsin. Wisconsin last hosted the event about 30 years ago.

McAnnany said Missouri “by far” has the most Dexter breeders in the region. Wisconsin is home to about 30 Dexter breeders. Touted by the ADCA as “the ideal small acreage cow,” Dexters are a dual-purpose breed first brought to the U.S. from Ireland in 1905. Mature cows weigh about 700 pounds by 4 years of age, while bulls weigh about 900 pounds. Adult cattle typically stand about 43 inches at the shoulder.

Kevin said his herd has gotten off to a slow start as they were bred artificially the first couple of years. He has since purchased a bull. He said he has been getting two calves each year. With so few acres, he can’t grow his own hay. Dexters make sense for his property, he said, because they don’t require as much feed as larger breeds. Kevin said they plan to reach a maximum of a little more than a dozen head.

“We hope to get where we have two or three steers to market a year,” he said. “If we can get it to break even and eat for free, that’s a good deal.”

The McAnnanys have only butchered one animal so far, but they hope to eventually sell some beef packaged as roasts, steaks and other cuts directly to customers. Kevin said they won’t be selling it as wholes or halves. They also run two large gardens as part of a Community Supported Agriculture enterprise.

The McAnnanys co-hosted the meeting with Cherrie Wood, who, with her brother, Steven, owns Plum Creek Little Cattle Co. near Somerset. The Woods have been raising Dexters since 2005 and focus on breeding-stock sales. During the meeting, Wood led discussions on best practices for raising hay and fly control.

Frank During, owner of Dexter cattle and Pierce Veterinary Clinic in Ellsworth, gave tips for vaccinating cattle in the Upper Midwest. During came to the U.S. in 1988 and bought the vet clinic in 1998. After a lunch of Dexter beef brisket and burgers at Birch Grove Farm, the group stopped by Plum Creek Little Cattle Co.

Connecting with customers

Terry Sprague of Guthrie Center, Iowa, who serves as Region 12 director, said the ADCA, in its 60th year of existence, is putting a new focus on customer service and social media use. Guest speaker Sylvia Burgos-Toftness of Bull Brook Keep near Amery offered some tips on how to market beef.

Burgos-Toftness took a circuitous path to farming: She grew up in the South Bronx of New York City and moved to Minnesota in the 1970s to work as a TV reporter. She spent her career in public relations, serving public and private organizations in a range of areas, including the organic foods industry. She now serves on the board of directors for the Hungry Turtle Institute and the Hungry Turtle Farmers Cooperative and hosts a Saturday morning radio show called “Deep Roots,” in which she features sustainable agriculture and food experts from across the U.S.

Burgos-Toftness and her husband, Dave, bought their farm eight years ago and raise about 40 grass-fed BueLingo cattle. The herd calves in the spring, and animals are harvested for beef in the late fall and early winter.

When they bought the farm, she said, the land “looked like a pool table” after many years of continuous grazing. They implemented rotational grazing and feed no grain. It takes 24 to 28 months to get animals ready for butchering, she said, but her customers demand 100 percent grass-fed beef.

“It’s more management, time, another year of hay in the fall, but we’ve made that commitment,” she said.

Burgos-Toftness said a picture on the cover of her farm brochure of cattle contentedly grazing under a tree is one of her best sales tactics as it makes people “want to be there,” not just eat the beef from her farm. In their advertising, farmers must appeal to peoples’ emotions and sell their lifestyle. Marketing is about setting a farm apart from its competition, and it’s based on real values, actions and reputation, she said.

“It’s not necessarily so much about the product itself. Your beef is not about your beef,” she said. “It’s about the values that your farm represents. It’s about your values. When your customer knows your values, they’re more likely to say ‘I want your beef.’ ”

While she only harvests beef once a year, Burgos-Toftness said it’s important to keep her name in front of customers year-round so she does regular Facebook posts about her herd and maintains a “very active” website. She signs correspondence with the words “Your Farmer.”

“Because most people don’t farm, anything you do that says this is how a farm operates is interesting or nostalgic,” she said. “Most people don’t know what you’re doing. They want to be a part of your story.”

Be persistent, she said. The rule of thumb in advertising is that people don’t even notice an ad until it has run seven times.

“That’s how much it takes to break through the crowd of noise,” she said.

Burgos-Toftness said beef producers basically have three choices — to compete on cost, to compete on quality and to compete on service. They can’t compete on all three, she said, as they cancel out each other.

“Competing on the cheap is something I can’t do. It’s too much work and I’m too small,” she said.

Bull Brook Keep has chosen to compete on quality and service, she said. While she originally thought she wouldn’t have to deliver product to the Twin Cities — an hour away — she started doing that after a year because customers were willing to pay for that. Along with delivering within about 75 miles of her farm, she has drop sites and welcomes customers on her farm.

Burgos-Toftness said she practices “transparent farming” and is always ready for guests. She recently hosted about 70 visitors on her farm as part of an “Eat Local” farm tour promoted by Twin Cities food cooperatives. The tour featured 27 farms within 80 miles of the Twin Cities. Along with providing free meat samples, she arranged to move cattle three times during the day, and “that’s when the crowds came.” Within a couple of days of the tour, she received new orders, she said.

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