Thistle Hill Farm – Blog

…doing what comes naturally

A gift to us…

…from us. What Santa left under our tree.

24-foot Wilson Cattle Trailer

A new 24-foot Wilson cattle trailer! Needed with Church increasing our bull leasing and seed stock sales.  Oh, not to mention more frequent trips to the butcher.

Our old trailer…16-feet and bumper mounted…had been driven into the ground. A goose-neck with excellent tracking was clearly called for…particularly on some of the mountain roads we have to navigate.

So if you’re in the market for animals get in touch with us quickly while delivery comes in a bright new and clean trailer!


Our Christmas child…

..on the home page is descended from the historic Cutcombe line in England. In fact, his sire was Thistle Hill Cutcombe…an embryo import.

Thistle Hill Calf

Cutcombe genetics bred by Margaret Elliott played a key role developing our pure traditional English Devon line which now numbers 16 females and 7 males.

Ten years ago, after being impressed by several bulls with Cutcombe in their pedigrees, we had to track down their breeder.

Margaret did not disappoint! A small powerhouse of a woman, she had made a major impact at a time when cattle breeding was a male-dominated world.

When her animals were not in the show ring, she was there herself as a judge.

Both Jaunty and Millennium—either or both—have contributed to what Thistle Hill is today! We thank Margaret for that…and for her friendship.


What were the odds…

…with four daughters what were the odds they would all marry men who love to cook? I’m a lucky guy and am particularly blessed when Thistle Hill can supply the entree!

Son-in-law Curt Humphreys demonstrates what a pork loin should look like: perfectly pink. You won’t find flavor like this at a supermarket. Curt did a simple topping of garlic and rosemary and a few fresh mushrooms.

Thistle Hill Farm Pork Loin
Photo by Curt Humphreys


An alternative view…

Joel Saladin has been in the forefront of the battle for natural food…particularly pastured meats. His Polyface farm down the nearby Shenandoah Valley is a kind of Mecca for farmers and foodies alike.

In a recent blog, Joel opens another controversial topic: why the explosion in Alzheimer’s in our society? The real villain may be: Grain…and Vegan-ism!


Parade of (baby) bulls…

…features three of the yearling bulls we’re holding back to see how they develop.

Bull #1
Photos by Church Humphreys

The first is the final pairing Wooz selected on her last trip to England. His dam comes from the famous Tulip line. The breeder resisted collecting her and after some to and fro, we bought her outright!

Then we had to figure out the complexities of owning a single cow…both physically and legally.  We are greatly indebted to Tilbrook’s Gavin Hunter for providing the umbrella and eventually the transport to the clinic where Tulip was flushed to Cutcombe Jaunty. Gavin also arranged a permanent home for Mom. Too bad we couldn’t have arranged a Thistle Hill colony in England.

Bull #2
Photos by Church Humphreys

The second bull is packed with England’s Finest Devon genetics…in fact, you can’t even duplicate this pairing in England today.

The dam is the daughter of Tilbrook Cashtiller…grand champion Devon three years’ running…and four years in a row her bull calves topped the annual Devon sale!

To mate with her daughter we selected a son of Ashott Barton Millennium Falcon…a show-stopper if there ever was one.

The judge wanted to buy him but decided that wouldn’t be proper. But after it sold for a second time he claimed Falcon as his own! And that’s where we found him 10 years ago.

Bull #3
Photos by Church Humphreys

Finally from the historic Essington herd…this bull from a stunning cow bred by a legend in British Devon circles, Brian Drake.

Brian started breeding Devon in 1950 and retired several years ago. The dam of this bull is Essington Buttercup 165…an amazing heritage!

And in this case Falcon is the grand sire!

If you want to read more about our partnership with traditional English Devon breeders, go to our website and click on “English Devon” in the menu.


King David on assignment…

…we’re fortunate to have some cooperative farmers to handle our heifers (and keep them away from the bulls)! But this is NOT that time of year.

King David
Photo by Curt Humphreys

Here is the King (2nd from right), a half English Devon bull from the old Essington Park herd, and his harem of eight English and American heifers.

Between munches he can be heard saying “tough work but somebody’s got to do it”.

If you’ve been wondering: yes there’s a plan in our breeding. We start with the heifers and then the artificial insemination before moving to the main herd.

That spaces the calving so we are generally watching the right cows at the right time. Generally.


An ah-ha moment…

…when you finally try leaf lard. I’ve been procrastinating for at least 15 years…ever since we added pigs at Thistle Hill…but we’ve waited long enough.

Leaf lard is a particularly pure fat found only around the pork loin and kidneys. Carefully rendered it makes the very highest quality cooking fat, prized by bakery chefs.

The leaf lard is colorless and tasteless…nothing “porky” about it. Son-in-law Bill Rozett…the family’s world class baker…decided to try it first with crust of a chicken pot pie.

As they say on Facebook: OMG! It is flaky beyond compare! The “ah-hah” moment indeed.

True confession: I was never much of a fan of pork until we started to raise our own. There is no comparison between pasture-raised pork and what you are forced to buy at the supermarket.

I urge you to try some from a farmer or farmers market near you. That is if Thistle Hill isn’t convenient.


Jar of Leaf Lard
Photos by Linda Rozett
Chicken Pot Pie
Photos by Linda Rozett
Bowl of Chicken Pot Pie
Photos by Linda Rozett

Send me in coach…

…our pure traditional English bull Essington is ready for his assignment as this year’s cover bull for the main herd.

Photo by Church Humphreys

We’ve AI-ed 26 of 40 cows and it will be up to Essington to cover the rest and any of the AI-s that didn’t take.

It’s the first time we’ve tested him. His dam was Brian Drake’s Buttercup by Shiamala Comer’s Millennium Falcon…both renowned English breeders who insisted on traditional values.


Breeding…part three…

Heat Detectors

…and now it gets really interesting…starting in the pre-dawn darkness… and a pasture alive with blinking red lights.

It’s the heat detectors…right on schedule at 48 hours. When a cow goes into heat, another mounts it, crushing the chemical patch on its rump.

One of Carolyn’s jobs is thawing the semen straws. That’s what that pot next to her arm is for. No time to waste!

One of Carolyn’s jobs is thawing the semen straws.

And the deed is done. But it’s a slow process at the end…finding just the right spot…then pushing the plunger to deposit the semen.

It’s a process that’s repeated 29 times over three days…matching cow, heat, and the right bull. Hard work…and cold…but satisfying.

But it’s a slow process at the end...finding just the right spot...then pushing the plunger to deposit the semen.

The results won’t be known for a couple of months…some of the pairings are experimental…and some of the semen is suspect. But it’s the most ambitious breeding project Thistle Hill has ever attempted!

Church reports the actual number of cows bred was 26. Three did not have the proper heat. That’s normal or average. Calves will be on the ground in early September of next year. But again, whether through artificial insemination or a bull, we can only hope for about a 60% success rate and in some cases we were using sub-par semen.

Some cattlemen immediately follow AI with a bull. Church wants to delay a few weeks. That break in the resultant calving will make it easier to determine the sire…but we’ll pregnancy check before that and also DNA type the calves.

Breeding step two…

…is very much a family affair. The herd has to be brought in from the pasture and sorted to isolate the target cows. We started in the dark, in a light rain.

Church administers a shot of lutalyze.

Grandson Church is really in charge now. He administers a shot of lutalyze which will bring the cow into heat in 48-72 hours. Dad Curt (in background) is the Chief Wrangler, bringing the designated cows into the chute.

Mom Carolyn is “manning” the headgate.

Mom Carolyn is “manning” the headgate. Gotta grab ‘em just right or it’s back around and try again. How many farms have a gynecological cancer surgeon in their crew?

Mom Carolyn is “manning” the

The final step: putting an alarm patch on the rump. When she goes into heat, others cows will mount her turning the patch a bright red. Then it will be time to inseminate.

We are prepping 29 cows…over two days. The rain could make things messy and uncomfortable but this is a process that is carefully timed.

There are no time outs!