Dressed in black and white, admired and photographed by passing tourists, the famous stars of Aldermere Farm are nonetheless down-to-earth sorts who seem to savor the simple life: dining al fresco, feeling the winter sun on their backs, chewing their cuds.
OK, they’re beef cattle, not movie stars, but they really have garnered plenty of camera-toting fans.
In fact, Ron Howard, manager of this well-known Rockport, Maine, farm, believes Aldermere’s Belted Galloway cattle could possibly have the distinction of being the most-photographed bovines in the world.
Not surprising given their Panda-ish colors and striking patterns: black separated by a broad, white belt around the middle of their sturdy bodies.
Give them a backdrop of vivid spring greenery, golden summer grass, autumn leaves in flaming hues or winter’s austere white drifts, and you have one of the loveliest rural scenes imaginable. A scene—and a cattle breed—you likely won’t forget as long as you live.
Trish Smith, a Graham, Wash., hobby farmer who grew up in Ohio and often visited nearby Camden, Maine, with her family, certainly never forgot Aldermere and its Belted Galloways.
Established in 1953 by Albert Chatfield Jr., who bequeathed it to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust in 1999, Aldermere Farm preserves the oldest continuously operated herd of Belted Galloways in the United States.
At any time of year, a portion of the 75- to 100-head herd can be seen grazing lush pastures on either side of Russell Avenue.
Recently, after a poignant reunion to scatter her parents’ ashes off the Maine coast, Smith introduced her two grown daughters to the “Oreo” cattle she’d loved watching as a child.
“Someday I’m going to have some,” Smith vows as she eyes her 5-acre pasture back home, currently occupied by horses. “I’ve wanted these cattle ever since I first saw them as a kid.”
These belted beauties can’t help but have that kind of effect on people; however, Belted Galloways possess more than cute faces and pretty exteriors—something you’ll quickly discover if you take the time to get acquainted with them.
A Rare History
Born amongst the moors, rocky hills and woodlands of southwestern Scotland, the Belted Galloway breed developed during the 16th century in an ancient district known as Galloway.
Some sources think the name Galloway stems from the old Scottish word “Gallovid” which means “a Gaul,” a reference to the first people believed to reside there. In this rough and often rain-lashed area, a robust breed of Celtic cattle, usually polled (hornless) and possessing a shaggy black coat, had eked out an existence for hundreds of years.
Although no one knows for sure, these blocky Galloway cattle—thought to be the oldest of beef breeds—may have been crossed with imported Dutch Belted dairy cattle, also called Lakenvelders, to give us the Belted Galloway.
According to the U.S. Belted Galloway Society, the first Belties came to the United States in 1939, when Alice McLean of New York imported a bull and a dozen bred heifers from Great Britain.
Tragically, about 10 years later an unscrupulous herdsman butchered and sold off the rare cattle as black-market beef when she was away in England.
The next batch arrived in 1950, brought from Scotland to Hapwood Farm in Pennsylvania by Harry Prock, who went on to found the American Belted Galloway Breeders Association in 1951 with two more Beltie enthusiasts, Charles Wells of Michigan and H. Gordon Green of Quebec.
Coming to the United States
During the 1950s, a handful of other Beltie breeders joined the organization, including Aldermere’s Albert Chatfield Jr. and General James A. Van Fleet, who at the time operated Withlacoochee Farm in Florida. In 1964, they incorporated under the name Belted Galloway Society, Inc.
Bringing Belties in from their native Scotland was expensive, costing about $7,000 per animal, so few cattle raisers kept them, notes Jane Faul, a veteran Beltie breeder in Battletown, Ky., with some 30 years’ experience.
During the 1970s, she had stumbled upon a photograph of the striking breed accompanied by an article billing Belties as “the lazyman’s cattle” because of their self-sufficiency.
“I thought, ‘I can go for that,’” she recalls. “But at the point when I came in, if you wanted to get into Belties you had to spend three or four months on the phone trying to find someone who wanted to part with one. It took me five months to get five animals together, and I was lucky to find them.”
Only about 100 Belties had journeyed to North America when the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as mad cow disease) outbreak in Great Britain put a stop to live imports in 1989. Even though breeders could still import semen and embryos for their breeding programs, Belties remained scarce.
The commercial beef industry’s emphasis on uniform cattle with large frames and rapid growth did little to help boost the breed’s numbers.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s 1994 book Taking Stock: The North American Livestock Census listed Belted Galloways in the “rare” category on their Conservation Priority List, meaning the breed had an estimated global population of less than 5,000 and fewer than 1,000 registrations in North America.
Thanks to the efforts of its enthusiastic supporters, though, the Beltie’s popularity—and population—has grown in recent years as more people discover this unique breed and its exceptional meat.
Today, Belted Galloways have moved up to the “Recovering” category of the ALBC’s Conservation Priority List, which means the organization estimates these cattle have exceeded the “Watch” category’s global population of 10,000 or less and fewer than 2,500 registrations in North America, but they still need to be monitored. What’s even more heartening: Faul thinks the breed’s worldwide population could be closer to 30,000.
The U.S. Belted Galloway Society itself currently has more than 10,000 active animals in its registry, and the organization that started with three individuals now stands at 1,000 Beltie-loving members strong.
Wisconsin, where winter temperatures plunge to 30 degrees F below zero and the average yearly snowfall varies from 30 to more than 100 inches across the state, demands that its inhabitants be hardy, especially those living outdoors year-round.
So when Michael Caldwell, MD, PhD, and his wife, Lorna, started thinking about raising organic, grassfed cattle on their Milladore, Wis., farm, they looked for a breed capable of weathering the rough winters without batting an eyelash.
Enter the Belted Galloway, with a dense, double coat—both beautiful and functional—consisting of a shaggy, weather-resistant outer layer and soft, insulating undercoat.
“Belties are so well insulated that when it snows, the snow on their backs doesn’t melt,” says Lorna. “We have a shelter for ours, but they prefer to take shelter in the woods; they don’t like being inside.”
Coastal Maine’s harsh winters pose no problem for the Aldermere’s Belties, either.
“While we have buildings and shelters where our young stock or pre-calving cows have access, they’re perfectly suited to doing well in the open,” explains Howard. “We just make sure they have a sheltered area away from the wind to rest and give them plenty of fresh water and hay throughout winter.”
Indeed, Scotland’s capricious climate has created an adaptable breed capable of toughing out all kinds of weather and difficult conditions, from torrential rains to sweltering summers. (They love a pond to cool off in, though.)
“Belties are unique in that they can do well even in hotter climates, as they won’t carry their extra hair through warmer weather,” Howard says.
Belted Galloways are Survivors
The moderately sized Belted Galloways have retained many of the survival traits bred out of the larger, more traditional cattle breeds, he stresses.
For example, long-lived Belties generally show good resistance to diseases, and the cows tend to to have an easy time come calving season. Thanks to the probable Dutch Belted dairy influence, Beltie cows are excellent milkers whose calves thrive on their rich, high-butterfat milk.
“Over the years, I’ve only had to pull maybe five calves,” Faul says. “And Belties are definitely good mothers—they’ll even run coyotes off.”
Beltie enthusiasts also praise these cattle as efficient grazers and feed converters (they’ll eat plants other cattle spurn, Howard notes), a trait that makes them an excellent choice for grass-based operations like the one at Caldwell Farms.
“We don’t feed our cattle grain at all,” Michael explains. “We use management-intensive grazing, and in the wintertime, we feed them haylage [fermented alfalfa, clovers and grasses], which we harvest during the summer and store in our silos.”
“The organic inspector couldn’t believe that these plump animals are getting no extra feedings of grain, they look so good,” Lorna adds. “It boils down to their genetics and being fed good-quality grass.”
The Beef on Belties
While many Beltie owners opt to keep these cattle as pasture ornaments or focus on preservation efforts, an increasing number of breeders raise them for what they were developed for so long ago in Scotland: beef production.
“Twenty years ago, people wouldn’t have considered putting one of their Belties in the freezer, but this breed lends itself extremely well to grassfed operations,” says Faul. And what about that beef? “It’s definitely good meat: lean and very flavorful, with a darker color than commercial beef.”
Protected by their weatherproof coats, Belties don’t need to lay down much back fat to stay warm during winter.
This translates to more beef—properly finished, Galloways and their crosses dress out at 60 to 62 percent of their live weight—and a meat product low in total fat as well as saturated fat, yet still juicy and packed with flavor.
For the Caldwells, Michael’s background in the medical field made it only natural that they would raise their Belties organically and humanely on pasture rather than use confinement methods favored by commercial beef producers.
With more consumers today concerned about the treatment of livestock and the safety of our food in light of E. coli scares and bacterial resistance to antibiotics, it also made good business sense for them to take this path. Right now, beef and other meat products are the fastest-growing segments of the organic-foods industry.
Organic farming, however, takes hard work and dedication; easy fixes like hormones to boost cattle growth or synthetic fertilizers to create lush pastures aren’t an option.
For instance, producing USDA-certified organic beef requires that the Caldwells tend the land where their Belted Galloways graze while keeping environmental sustainability in mind, shunning synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and other potentially hazardous agrichemicals.
Also, the cattle cannot receive any antibiotics or hormones during their entire lives. If one of their bovines becomes ill and requires antibiotics, the couple must pull it from organic production for treatment and finish raising the animal for sale as “natural” beef.
All of this demands documentation, including detailed records of each animal’s life history, plus the yearly inspection to maintain their certification.
Belties are Worth It
It’s clear the Caldwells believe the extra work is worth it and that their hearty, efficient Belted Galloways have been a gift to them, their organic farm and their customers.
“Our feeling is that we want to be comfortable with the products we sell,” says Michael. “We want to give our customers the best quality and the healthiest meat products. I couldn’t imagine raising feedlot cattle.”
If you don’t mind getting questions like “Why do you put those sheets on them every day?” or “How do you paint the white stripes around them?” you might want to consider adding these belted beauties to your hobby farm.
According to Howard, given regular handling, these medium-sized cattle are easy to work with, and they make great projects for kids to show (he does warn they can be skittish if left on their own).
Surprisingly, raisers often find Beltie bulls friendlier and calmer than the cows!
“The Belted Galloways are self promoters in that people are automatically drawn to them,” says Howard, who grew up from second grade onward at Aldermere while his father, Dwight Howard, worked as farm manager helping the Chatfields conserve this breed.
By the way, after he graduated from high school, Howard vowed he would never have anything to do with farming again, but by now you know how Belties are: Eight years ago, they called him back to the farm.
“Because these cattle are so distinctive and the quality of their meat is so consistently high, they’re perfect for the hobby farmer who wants beautiful, self-sufficient animals that can be easily marketed for their beef on a local scale,” Howard continues.
“I’ve sold some to farms that don’t even sell beef; they may just have a farm stand and want some Belties in the field to attract customers; they’re a traffic-stopper. If you were to design a marketing plan and a cow for your logo to attract customers, it would have to be the Belted Galloway.”