Thistle Hill Farm – Blog

…doing what comes naturally

A sign of spring…

…along with Forsythia and Daffodils…baby piglets. And again this year we’re importing our “weanlings” from Indian Summer Farm in Forest, Virginia.

Thistle Hill Farm Pigs

Berkshire is probably the leading pig among the heritage breeds and these are 3/4 Berks.  But we also like the leaner meat, and particularly the bacon, the Tamworth produces…so these piglets also have Tamworth in their background.

Our thanks to Indian Summer Farm for once again sharing their pig crop!


Our bulls…

…have become an increasingly important part of our operation…not only joining herds from Canada to Louisiana but as leased sires to smaller farms that can’t justify a full-time bull.

Right now we have eight bulls at work for Thistle Hill…and a dozen more in the development stage. 


Our bull pen is still headed by Highwayman, sired by the English bull Millennium Falcon.  The dam was from the Goldings herd of the legendary cattleman Ivan Rowe.  Ivan gave us the pick of his herd and smiled a rare smile when we selected Norah.  It was the only pedigree that he had carried in his pocket.  Ivan judged many breeds in his 60 years as a cattleman.  When he pronounced an animal bullet proof you knew he had found it to have perfect conformity  and an impeccable pedigree!

TDA 35

TDA 35 is a full brother of Highwayman.  The sire of both in the same flush was an exceptional bull, Millennium Falcon.

Millennium sons were the mainstays of many of the great English Devon herds we visited.  And he originated in Margaret Elliott’s Cutcombe herd.  As a judge Ivan Rowe pronounced Millennium top of the show and years later purchased his son Falcon.  And that’s where we collected him in Cornwall and brought his genetics to the states 12 years ago.


Another legendary breeder in English Devon circles was Brian Drake, who has now retired.  Brian was a frequent judge in cattle shows, too, and his Essington Park herd was a must-stop for touring cattlemen.

Our bull Essington is out Brian’s Buttercup by that bull his colleague Ivan judged best in show, Ashott Barton Millennium Falcon. 

Both Brian and Ivan were unashamedly old fashioned and stood athwart the English Devon stampede to “modernize”, which actually meant Ross-breeding with French Salers.

Thistle Hill Prince

Joining our group of senior bulls is Thistle Hill Prince.  He’s the son of a Tulip cow…and in England you’re not considered serious if you don’t have a Tulip!  They all trace back to the original Champson herd.  The sire is Jaunty…the most famous product of Margaret Elliott’s Cutcombe herd. 

Margaret has been generous with her time and counsel, as important in the development of our herd as Ken McDowell, Ivan Rowe, Gavin Hunter, Gearld Fry, and the Enghs.


The newest addition to our team of bulls is Defender, son of the great bull Champson Defender out of Thistle Hill Bribery.  With the decline in the numbers of absolutely pure English Devon it has taken many years to find a male line to put into rotation in our herd.

Church settled on Defender a few years ago and now he’s moving into the field test stage.


A Thistle Hill special weekend treat…

…applewood smoked pork ribs.

Son Church got the recipe for the rub from a trucker…a mix of paprika, salt and pepper and chili, garlic and onion powder.

Applewood smoked pork ribs
Photo by Church Matthews
Applewood smoked pork ribs
Applewood smoked pork ribs

Still a long way to go with the 3-2-1 method of wrapping, unwrapping and mopping.  The secret of course is the apple wood smoke and we’re using our very own apple tree as the source!

Are we sustainable now or what?


Solving the problem…Pt 2…

…well it’s a band-aid anyway.

The numbers are in on using our own trees to make-up for the shortage of board fencing at the local coop.

Thanx to a neighbor with a portable sawmill we were able to turn six trees…oak, walnut and cherry into high grade lumber.  Garrett Heydt was the man with the saw and he did an excellent job.

When finished we had 700 feet of oak boards and six 4”x6” twelve foot beams…just those beams paid for the fencing we won’t be needing not to mention the beautiful walnut and cherry we sawed into planks.  The cherry in particular seemed to us to be furniture-grade.  But the portable saw couldn’t handle a piece this wide for the final milling.

Here’s some of the final product.

Final product

Sadly, while Thistle Hill has about 200 acres of woodland, the overall quality is not as good as these first harvested.  But this is an encouraging early step in our constant drive to be self-sufficient. 


Solving the problem…

…of the fence board shortage.

With fence boards almost impossible to find, Curt has solved the problem by cutting down a dead oak tree.  We estimate it’s about 80 years old and the main trunk measures 19 feet by almost 3 feet around.

A neighbor has recently put out a sign advertising he now has a portable sawmill.  And we have a half-dozen oak, walnut and cherry trees down and waiting.

Inexperienced as we are, we’re not sure we can say “problem solved” but there’s every reason to hope we’ll be able to continue board fencing with our 300 acres of aging forest.


The dogs of Thistle Hill…

…deserve a little credit though none are typical herding dogs.

But all three are important in the daily life of our farm…have good rapport with the cows…and are wonderful companions on our daily Rina.

Thistlehill Farm Dogs

Nala (left) is a very energetic and athletic Rhodesian razorback.  In her native African environment she’s used to hunting lions.

Pochahantas (center) but you can call her Pokey is the oldest in the group and right now is away on assignment…accompanying Church to veterinary school at Cornell.  She’s an English Shepard.

Emma (right) is a Black Labrador Retriever.  She made the move from Dallas when Curt took up residence at Thistle Hill.


Making history postscript…

…includes selecting the “cover bull”…that’s the bull that checks for open cows…the ones that didn’t take in Artificial Insemination or Embryo Transplant.

Selected for the job this year is Prince…the son of the last cow Wooz selected on our final trip to England.

Prince is from Ashott Barton’s Tulip line. His sire another favorite Cutcombe Jaunty.

Prince is from Ashott Barton’s Tulip line. His sire another favorite Cutcombe Jaunty.

We generally wait at least a week before bringing the bull to the herd.  Many breeders release the cow right out of the chute to the bull but Church feels traces of heat can remain.  Whether AI or transplant, we think it’s best to allow the embryo to firmly settle.  It also provides separation in calving dates to elimination confusion on parentage.

There were 22 cows in this pasture…a pretty good workload for a bull just 2 1/2 years old.  But 17 of these cows have either undergone transplants or AI…only 5 are definitely open.  Prince may want his money back.

In a month or so we’ll bring this group back through the chute…the embryos will be developing by then…and we’ll be able to tell who is pregnant and by whom and, if we’re lucky, the gender of the calf.


After the storm…

…a mother and son relax on the comparative warmth of an unrolled bale of hay. It provides some insulation against the frozen ground below.

Photo by Curt Humphries


Winter feeding…

…takes several forms at Thistle Hill.  This is my personal favorite because we’re feeding the soil as well.

Winter feeding...
Photo by Church Matthews

The cows follow behind the tractor as it unrolls the bale of hay.  They’ll eat up to 60%..the rest becomes organic matter enriching the soil…feeding the microbes and, in turn, the plants.

Oh and tonight the new calves will sleep on it…staying warm off the cold ground.  And yes New England, that’s what we call winter in Virginia!


Making history…

…is something of a habit at Thistle Hill.  We’re always trying new ideas…ways to improve the quality of our operation and the cows we produce.

In that pursuit we were particularly excited when Church was able to negotiate the purchase of a canister of scores of straws of semen from longtime Devon breeders Don and Heather Minto in Jamestown, Rhode Island.  Among the straws were collections from almost all the top Rotokawa bulls plus some of the legendary sires in Devon history.

Church planned the first major use from the cache to take place during his Christmas break from Cornell Veterinary school.  Because our vet’s clinic is close to Thistle Hill, Church decided not to freeze the embryos but rush them to our farm for implantation.

Thistle Hill Farm cow/calves grazing.

Three of our best cows…daughters of Cashtiller, Bribery and Buttercup…all outstanding English Devon…were  selected as donors and brought to the clinic for conditioning.  At the farm eleven top mama cows with a top reputation for mothering calves were brought into synchronization with the three back at the clinic.  The three at the clinic have been pregnant for eight days…the 11 recipient cows each have the uterus of a cow impressed exactly at the same time eight days ago.

First in the chute TDA 24…a daughter of Essington Park Buttercup.

First in the chute TDA 24…a daughter of Essington Park Buttercup.  Actually, thanks to modern technology we are breeding a bull long gone to a cow that is out of a herd that no longer exists.

Our longtime vet, Dr Tom Massie, heads the transplant team assisted by technician Jane Naramore and our Church  Humphreys.

Our longtime vet, Dr Tom Massie, heads the transplant team assisted by technician Jane Naramore and our Church  Humphreys.  Flushing the eggs out of the cow is delicate but straightforward…a solution is injected in the uterus and the eggs are gently dislodged and funneled into a flask.  That procedure takes about 30 minutes.

Dr. Massie hurries the flask to his lab and under a microscope searches out the 8-day old embryos among the liquid and chaff.

Dr. Massie hurries the flask to his lab and under a microscope searches out the 8-day old embryos among the liquid and chaff.  The first question is quickly answered…we have live embryos!  Yes, we cheered!

Five embryos are pretty easily spotted and then seven.  There are more but it’s not immediately apparent yet how viable all the eggs are.

Five embryos are pretty easily spotted and then seven.  There are more but it’s not immediately apparent yet how viable all the eggs are.

However the clock is running…only a short window exists to complete the operation and there are two more cows to go.  Jane stays in the lab to complete the search. 

Meanwhile, Church has moved the second cow into the chute and readied the instruments and chemicals for the next flush. 

This second cow proves as docile as the first and Dr Massie raises the possibility we’ll finish all three flushes before the trip to the farm and the implanting.

This second cow proves as docile as the first and Dr Massie raises the possibility we’ll finish all three flushes before the trip to the farm and the implanting.  Until now we had expected to flush two, implant those and the return for the third.

And cows two and three cooperate beautifully…as does the lab work.

This second cow proves as docile as the first and Dr Massie raises the possibility we’ll finish all three flushes before the trip to the farm and the implanting.

Meanwhile at Thistle Hill Curt has moved 11 mothers-to-be into the pen awaiting the stork.

Church has made a decision: we’ll use 10 of the embryos…6 for Potheridge President and 4 for Champson Defender.  The remaining embryos will stay at the clinic and be frozen for use later.

Of course as always with artificial insemination there are no guarantees…it will be about a month before a pregnancy check determines just how successful this day has been.

An exciting and exhausting day…but rewarding for this old wrangler watching the next generations of Thistle Hill Devon!


Church, Carolyn and David