Eagle Bend cattle breeder enjoys Highlands for good nature, winter heartiness

Eagle Bend resident, Michael Martin, reaches out to touch the nose of one of his Highland cattle. The independent cattle graze pastures year-round and are never inside a building, yet are rarely hostile or aggressive toward humans. Martin says the gentle nature of the breed coupled with its heartiness got him interested 25 years ago.

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Michael Martin has tailored his life to be able to live in the country.

As retired superintendent of Parkers Prairie schools, Martin said one of the driving forces behind getting into education was being able to work in a rural school district where he could own a farm.

He said he likes the peacefulness and quietude of the country, something he also looked for in a cattle breed when starting his beef operation 25 years ago.

“Any time there is an animal that is tame enough, I will call that one out,” Martin said. “I like to be able to walk amongst them. It is a very peaceful herd.”

On their 240-acre farm south of Eagle Bend, Martin and his wife, Laureen, raise a herd of about 50 Highland cattle, a breed known for its long hair, docility and slow maturation, which lends the animal to produce notoriously tender meat.

First brought to the United States in the early 1900s, Highlands have a long history of living alongside humans in the remote Scottish Highlands. According to the American Highland Cattle Association, harsh conditions during Scottish winters meant the cattle were kept very near their owners, often living right in the house.

“They put on a heck-of-a winter coat,” said Chris Dokka, Martin’s long-time friend and herd manager.  “They are a fun breed to work with.”

All Highland cattle — cows, bulls and steers — have horns and are naturally very comfortable with humans, but Martin says this trait doesn’t mean they are not very hearty, independent animals. His herd of cattle lives entirely outdoors, year-round, and feed on hay only in the winters and rotationally graze during the summers. Their long hair (developed after centuries of Scottish winters) protects them from the cold and the heat in the summer, he said.

Because Highland cattle take three years to reach maturation, Martin said he chose to cross breed much of his herd with the Pinzgauer breed from Switzerland. Pinzgauers have shorter hair, shorter horns and when cross-bred with a Highland, reach maturation in two years.

Other than bringing in a few Pinzgauers years ago, Martin raises a closed herd, raising only calves that are bred on the farm. Martin relies on bull-breeding. Artificial insemination is not commonly used with the animals because of their tender nature, Martin said.

Martin, who grew up in Edina, sells nearly all of the Highland beef directly to the customer, something he said drives down middle-man costs. He makes deliveries to homes in Brainerd, Duluth, Aitkin and sometimes Minneapolis. Martin said he enjoys meeting customers in person.

“You get to know the people that really care about what they eat,” he said.

Highland beef is very high in Omega 3 fatty acids and very low in cholesterol, something he said he really appreciates. And because the animals are not raised in tight, cramped conditions, Martin said the occurrence of E. coli is essentially eliminated and veterinarian bills are nonexistent.

“It is a very healthy kind of meat,” he said. “And we don’t like to use any kind of feedlot approach, where the cattle are in their own manure. I feed them out in the fields, and it is just really easy that way.”

To reduce the amount of stress hormones in the meat, Martin shoots the animals on the farm before sending them to be processed. Martin said he believes this a more humane way to kill the animals, rather than forcing stress upon them during their last moments en route to the processing plant.

“My animals wander around [their whole life] … and right up to the very end they are happy,” he said. “Our meat was tougher when you would send them to the locker.”

Martin hopes to continue raising his Highlands for many years to come. When he gets too old to manage the herd, he said he suspects he will pass them on to Dokka.

“We have come a long way just in the last ten years,” Dokka said. “We learn something new every day we work with them.”

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