EMBRUN — Just east of Ottawa and south of Hwy 417 on the road to Embrun, a herd of shaggy-headed, horned cattle hang out on pasture at a four-way intersection shared by two gas stations and a strip mall.
It’s a great place, it turns out, to raise a specialty animal, said area beef farmer Michel Bourdeau. “When they say location, location, it is true,” he laughed. The farmer raises 50 Highland Cattle, a 400-year old Scottish breed, alongside a small fleet of heritage pigs, chickens and ducks with his wife Jeannine Langlois at Excalibur Farm.
Born and raised on the farm, Bourdeau went into the welding business with his brother and opened up a shop on their former dairy farm. But in 2005, he and his wife, who’s also the president of the Heritage Livestock Club of Eastern Ontario, had an itch to do something more than rent out the land. They wanted to know what they were eating and eat better and decided to get cattle. Bourdeau began looking for a lean cow, and found the Highland: a docile breed, despite being fiercely horned, and a hardy animal that thrives outdoors.
Word soon got around that they were getting into a niche beef market, and friends and neighbours began asking for meat. They originally planned to get six head, but ended up buying an entire herd of 30-plus animals from a retiring farmer. The pigs, chickens and ducks came a few years after.
The part-time farmers aren’t interested in expanding but say it would be easy to do because demand is there, he said. If the herd were three times bigger it still might not be enough, he said. Their sales are local, including city traffic from Ottawa, thanks to their membership in Savour Ottawa, an online directory that helps consumers find local farms.
Bourdeau is one of 54 farmers raising Highland cattle in Ontario. There are 207 across Canada. Their beef is also popular with hunters because it’s about as close as you can get to the flavour of wild game, he said. Being at the four corners helps so much that they only sell at the farm-gate. “It’s not because we sell it cheap either,” he said. We’re probably one of the most expensive.”
But there are clouds on the horizon, much the same as facing other small livestock operations. Abattoir space is hard to find, especially for animals with horns, and many are booking as much as a year in advance, Bourdeau said. To boot, the price of slaughtering and cutting has jumped probably 50 per cent in the last three years, and the abattoir they send animals too is probably going to raise the slaughter price again next year to deal with the horns. Many abattoirs won’t take animals with horns at all. “But personally, a Highland without horns isn’t a Highland.”