UNIONTOWN, Ohio – A farm is not a farm without cattle, or so John Beese thought when he went looking for a breed to bring home in the late 1980s.
And Beese wasn’t looking for hobby cattle for his farm in this once-rural area now rapidly being enveloped by suburban Canton and Akron.
In fact he has been struggling for most of his adult life to keep this long-established farm operating. Merestead Farms, once called Forest Farm, has an original patent signed by President James Monroe, and has been in the Beese family since John’s grandfather, John, bought it in 1913.
But by the 1980s, the Ayrshire herd that Beese had milked as a boy was long gone, and the barn was occupied only by the horses boarded at the farm.
Beese’s off-farm job as a manufacturer’s representative keeps him away from home and out of town much of the time, so he and his wife had some specific needs when they went looking at breeds.
“We looked at Herefords, and Belgian Blues, and even had some Angus on the place for awhile,” Beese said, “but they were out as much as they were in. We had to have something that Lee could handle when I wasn’t here.”
Then they spotted a woman in her 80s at the Stark County Fair managing, by herself, a string of eight Murray Grays.
The Beeses had found their cattle.
Almost immediately they acquired the seed stock for the more modestly sized silver-grays that now graze in their white board-fenced pasture along Route 619, west of North Canton.
Beese is one of fewer than 25 Ohio breeders registered with the American Murray Gray Cattle Association, an small group of cattle people who love their docile silver Angus and keep high hopes that there will someday be enough numbers to spring them into a future in branded beef.
Under the hide. The Murray Gray is primarily an Angus. If you take off the hair, Beese said, they both have an almost identical dark hide. If you take off the hide, there is no difference at all, he claims.
But it is the docility that the breed takes from the Shorthorn cattle Angus were crossed with that makes the breed such superior meat producers. Docile cattle have more energy to produce superior beef, Beese said.
The breed originated in Australia in the early part of the 20th century, along the Murray River. It is ascended from one Shorthorn cow that had a genetic mutation for color. Every time she was crossed with an Angus bull, the calf was silver gray. All were polled and all were true for color.
With more Murray Gray cattle in Ohio than in any other state, Ohio State University conducted the first steer feeding trials in 1994, with each of the 10 steers finishing out well on the measured carcass traits.
Beese who operates his small herd as a cow-calf operation for sale of high scoring registered genetics, said he had a bull last year that at the Ohio Beef Expo registered an 11.97 square inch ribeye at 832 pounds.
He was the national reserve champion. So far Beese has owned two national reserves.
Beese admitted that the bull that beat him at nationals was a “big, big Murray Gray,” but he said that in general breeders are not pushing for size in the breed. He thinks the cattle are sized just about right for their English heritage.
“We have had some that weaned at over 700 pounds,” Beese said, “but they are generally not quite that large. They consistently go beyond 600 pounds, however.”
The future of Murray Grays, Beese said, may be in some of the crossbreeding experiments that are now taking place. There has been some effort to establish an identity program for the breed, but Beese doesn’t think the numbers are high enough to support that kind of effort.
At the University of Nevada there is a program to cross Murray Grays with Galloways, and at the University of Southern Louisiana they have an ongoing program to cross them with Brahman to create a new breed.
Spectrum Farm, operated by John and Mary Ellen Wozny in Coolville, Ohio, has been sending semen to South American to establish a new breed of Murray Gray/Nelore crosses.
Beese said it is not always easy keeping Merestead Farms a functioning farming operation when he is one of the few left in his area. A neighboring farm has been valued for commercial development at $25,000 an acre.
The 600 acres that he rents for production of corn and beans is owned by 22 people. All of it is for sale except that already owned by the Akron-Canton Airport, and he expects to lose most of it eventually.
But he is not ready to give up on a farm with which his family has now been associated for six generations.
Although his great-grandfather never farmed there, he was a Welch miner and superintendent of mines for the Middlebury Shaft in Akron. For a time he was responsible in some way for the mine that the Lawrence Coal Co. operated on the land that is now Merestead Farms.
His grandfather, Beese said, worked in that mine. He left when he broke his leg in a mine accident, and went to Akron to become a butcher. But he returned there in 1913 to buy the land.
Now with one of the Beeses’ sons and his family living on the back part of the farm, Beese said that makes six generations. The coal mine is still there, although it has not been operated since 1897.
Beese said his grandfather found the name Merestead in the dictionary. The old English word “mere” was defined as a measure or a boundary. A merestead, the dictionary said, was a “farm.”
So by definition, Merestead Farms, is what it is, and as far as John and Lee Beese are concerned, that means Murray Gray cattle.