Even before the “shelter-in-place” order, Jay and Susie Hedrick were hoping to slow down from hectic schedules that required travel up and down the valley, and trans-continentally. Putting other people’s needs first was equally wonderful and wearisome. Even managing their 11-acre property in the Bellevue Triangle required constant attention.
It didn’t make sense to come home to work harder. The Hedricks envisioned a different pace of life on the ranch, The Ocho, to contrast their busy social and work lives. They decided that everything at The Ocho would be about creating enjoyable experiences vs. outcomes.
Then the stars aligned: Jay learned about Scottish Highland cows (“Heilan Coo” in Scots) from their son’s hockey coach, Dawn Peterson. These iconic small-ish cattle with beautiful horns, bushy bangs and friendly dispositions seemed a natural addition to the Hedricks’ blossoming landscape. Jay mused that their horses needed a job, but mostly acquiring a few easygoing cows was about roping and expanding their breadth of ranch life. Hence, they purchased their first few female Highland calves.
Jay asked plenty of questions of cattle experts, then followed his own intuition. He credits his inexperience – coupled with the friendly temperament and adaptability of this breed – with raising the cows as instinctively as possible. Quality of life matters for the cows, and for the Hedricks.
Quality of meat matters, too. After watching “Steak Revolution,” a film about discovering the world’s greatest steak, Jay found himself on a mission to taste “quite possibly the world’s best ribeye.” Soon, three more cows joined the fold (Scots for “herd”), this time for the experience of cultivating better meat—tender, flavorful and un-gamey meat fit for a queen (Queen Elizabeth II has her own Highland fold; in fact, it’s the only meat the Queen will eat).
While Rip, the black coo, might always be a pet, Mooney and Baby #16 are amongst a dozen or so cows spread out between The Ocho and two summer grazing pastures on friends’ land out East Fork and in the Pahsimeroi Valley. Staying as true to natural rhythms as possible, the cows eat alfalfa, other grasses, and overripe fruit and vegetables unable to sell at local markets. They are fed no grain.
Indeed, one of the joys of raising Scottish Highland cows is feeding them by hand. This daily ritual has helped the Hedricks establish normalcy and routine during the unprecedented “Great Pause” of COVID-19. A heightened sense of present time also connects them to a heritage lifestyle of raising a fold of coo as homage to the past 1,500 years of breeding—by adding pineapples and peppers.
Besides diet, another reason Highland cows produce lean and tasty beef is their thick, hairy coat that requires less fat on their bodies below the layers. The cows don’t need to increase food intake until approximately -16 degrees F (-27 C). The result is 40 percent less fat than other “well-marbled” varieties, for healthier yet still flavorful meat.
If these cows are so cute, friendly, easy to raise and produce incredible-tasting meat, why don’t more farmers raise them? Yield and cost, of course (and the hassle of dealing with their horns). The life cycle of a Scottish coo is 2.5-3 years, compared with 1.5-2 years for commercially raised Holstein. Coos also produce far less meat – only 450 pounds compared with 750 pounds for a typical Holstein. Lifespan adds 6-12 months in costly feed, and 300 pounds less beef yields $1500 less income.
But for the Hedricks, it’s not about the money. They have gained an invaluable appreciation for their cows. Even when it’s time to butcher, Jay ensures an easy, trusting transition from farm to trailer. Stressing out a cow opposes all the goodness they’ve nurtured, and Jay insists that the adrenaline rush probably won’t enhance the flavor of the meat.
The word is out: the Hedricks raise happy cows. Coo by coo, ranch life at The Ocho reflects natural methods on peaceful time.