To the outside observer, it’s like Bruce Johnson speaks cow. He bellows out a couple of calls, the herd answers back, and then come running. But the explanation for why is actually quite simple.
He started making the calls every time he brought the cows something to eat, so now they’re trained to it.
It definitely works as Bruce spreads hay in a long line in one of several fields where he raises cattle in Beaverdam. One by one, the Angus and Belted Galloway breeds make their way towards the hay, which helps tide the cows over during the winter months, before they are able to munch on fresh grass.
It’s been a harsh winter and Bruce and his wife Katherine, who run Dragonfly Farms, have to routinely check in on their new crop of wooly calves, located in a field they lease near Scotchtown, a hop, skip and a jump from the homestead farm on Trainham Road.
Demand is growing for Dragonfly’s grass-fed beef – they’ve gone from sending three head of cattle to market in their first year to more than 30 seven years later – the farm’s only obstacle to expansion is land.
“That’s probably our biggest struggle, is finding land to rent in Hanover,” Katherine said.
A lot of land is already in production for another agricultural purpose. Some of the properties they have found required extensive work to prepare for their herds and it’s proven difficult to secure long-term lease arrangements.
The Johnsons have 54 acres at the homesite, which is taken up, for the most part, with their horse boarding operation and the occasional group of cattle. A small group of miniature donkeys and a handful of free-to-roam chickens also call Trainham Road home.
To have enough room for their herds of cattle and sheep, the Johnsons rent two 45-acre parcels and another 20-acre parcel in and around Beaverdam. It might sound like a lot of land, but cattle need plenty of space. Dragonfly’s grass-fed variety of cattle are rotated within pastures to ensure they have plenty to eat throughout the growing season and also to minimize their impact on the environment.
“We would like to continue to grow – we’ve got a waiting list for beef – but our biggest challenge is having enough land to do it on,” Katherine said.
The Johnsons purchased their 100-year-old cattle farm seven years ago, making them the relative newcomers in agriculture-rich western Hanover County.
Though new to the field, Bruce said the local farming community has been supportive.
“There are a lot of farmers that have been here their whole lives and for generations,” Bruce said. “We’re one of the new farmers in Beaverdam but people are very welcoming and helpful.”
Before getting into farming, Bruce was in landscape and nursery work. Katherine still has an off-the-farm job as a veterinarian with experience working with large animals and horses. She tends to the retired or injured horses they board at the farm, and actually knew the previous owner of the farm through her work as a vet, which gave the couple an early jump on buying the property before it had even been listed.
Today, the farm is best known for producing grass-fed beef, which are raised on a strict grass diet, with minimal vaccinations and none of the antibiotics or growth hormones present in the bulk of commercial beef.
“It’s real important to the customers,” Bruce said, referring to his farm’s natural approach to raising cattle. “I think our product has been well received and there’s great interest in healthy foods and local-produced foods.”
The breeds of cattle Dragonfly Farms raises – Angus, Belted Galloway and a hybrid of the two – are beef breeds that do well for their type of operation. Overall, they tend to be shorter and fatter than the larger-frame, feedlot cattle raised in larger operations.
Dragonfly Farms has about 26 brood cows, which they breed. The farm also buys calves from a local farmer in Gum Spring. Generally, cattle are sent to market when they are between 18 and 24 months old, but Bruce said they aren’t sent off until they’re ready.
“Good quality beef is really what we’re aiming for, so we don’t rush producing them,” he said.
Dragonfly Farms’ lamb operation is a growing venture. Right now they’re breeding 25 ewes, which should generate 30-40 lambs, with plans to grow the flock in the future.
“What I’ve found so far is that lamb is not nearly as popular but the people that like it, really like it,” Bruce said.
Produce is another side venture at the farm. Their selection varies, but the farm currently has a variety of organically grown vegetable seedlings they sell out of their greenhouse and to a local supply store. Bruce and Katherine also sell their fresh, mature produce during the seasonal Ashland Farmers Market, where they are a staple vendor.
Dragonfly Farms also does a lot of their business through direct marketing – selling their food directly from the farm. Some customers make the trip to Beaverdam and leave with a full side of beef; some just come for a couple cuts. Their meats are available at several, Richmond-area local food-centric grocery stores, for those who might get lost making the jaunt to Beaverdam.
Though Dragonfly Farms is enjoying its niche in the local foods market, running a farm definitely keeps its owners on their toes in a good way.
“It’s been a challenge which I’ve enjoyed,” he said.