Java couple raises rare breed of white cattle

Farm Forum

Rachel and John Hege of Java want their children to be involved in the day-to-day operations of their family farm.

That’s a big reason they raise British White cattle. The docile nature of the animals is what the Heges like about them.

Rachel and John Hege have three children, Daniel, 4; Elizabeth, 3; and Shalom, 2; with another on the way in September. Mixing the kids and the cattle is not a concern.

“They like to go along and see cows with me,” Rachel said. “The cows are OK with that — I make sure the kids stay on the four-wheeler or in the pickup during calving, but most of the year, the kids with me out on foot is not a problem at all.”

That was the same reason her father, James Stiegelmeier, wanted to raise British White, Rachel said. She’s been around the cattle since she was 5.

“As a family rancher, I want my kids to be a part of what we do as much as possible, as much as is safe,” John said. “I think the British White breed fits real good with that.”

The cattle stand out from other types in the pasture — they’re white with black markings, mostly on their ears, noses and feet. Their white color helps keep them cool in the summer, and Rachel said she’s noticed few flies on the white cows.

“They work hard for me,” Rachel said. “They still have to eat, but they’re a good foraging cow, they go out and eat stuff. We’ve even had cows that would eat things that a lot of cows wouldn’t. They would eat thistles.”

Their markings — the white with black points — make the cattle visually appealing, John said.

“Even more so as newborns or a couple days old,” he said. “That’s a lot of the fun part of raising this breed is those calves are so cute you want to hug them.”

Rachel grew up in the area and, when she was younger, loved being on the family farm.

Her father earned U.S. Department of Agriculture certified organic status on the farm in 1988, Rachel said.

The Heges grow wheat, rye, flax, buckwheat, barley, soybeans, alfalfa, dry peas and cover crops organically, John said.

The cattle are not USDA-certified organic, but are grown using mostly organic practices, he said.

“There’s not a significant market premium, so it doesn’t justify it from a business standpoint,” John said of organic certification from the USDA.

All of the cattle are grass-fed, John said. The heifers they do feed over the winter are on a diet of mostly hay.

“It’s the cows raising their calves on the pasture,” John said. “They get very little or no grain.”

The breed — partly because it is pretty rare in the U.S. — does well on grass, Rachel said.

“They’ve stayed more true to their ancient roots,” she said.

The family has 40 head of cattle, 25 of which are British White. Rachel’s father first purchased the breed in 1991.

“The one guy he was buying calves from in the fall from out by Lemmon heard about these British Whites and thought they sounded pretty neat,” Rachel said. “I’ve been around British White cows just about my whole life.”

The breed has been in the U.S. since the 1940s, Rachel said. While the climate in England is much different from South Dakota’s, the cattle have done well.

“They have adapted,” Rachel said. “There are people who raise them everywhere from New York to the Southwest — there’s a lot of members in Texas. Up here, I would say they adapt well.”

The family also raises Black Angus cattle, which Rachel started purchasing as a teenager. But it’s the British White that stand out.

“They are kind of rare, and it’s kind of special to be a caretaker of a rare breed,” she said.

There are fewer than 160 active members of the British White Cattle Association of America, including the Heges, who are one of seven South Dakota members. There are about 2,500 head of British Whites registered with the association, said executive secretary Sue Seep.

The Stiegelmeiers homesteaded in the Java area at the turn of the last century, as part of the Germans from Russia cultural group that settled in the Dakotas, Rachel said.

“We’re going on five generations of farmers here in Walworth County,” she said. “I grew up on a farm and always wanted to stay around and farm and have cows. Then I married a guy who likes to farm, too.”

John said he grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota. The operation ceased when he was 9, but his love of farming did not.

When he moved to South Dakota as a teen, John said he sought out work on farms.

“I worked for several different farmers and ranchers until I started working here with Rachel’s family, and then over time, Rachel and I got to know each other, and now we’re married and carrying on the tradition,” he said.

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British White cattle traits:

• Gentle disposition

• Naturally polled

• Fertility and ease in calving

• Efficient and trouble-free

• Superior maternal instinct

• Excellent milking ability

• Growth and hardiness

• Excellent flavor and tenderness

Source: British White Cattle Association of America