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December 23, 2012

Volunteers help Clay County family move herd of cattle

TERRE HAUTE — News reports of cows skating down three miles of road around Clay City Saturday morning were indeed related to the grass.

More than 30 friends and customers of the Yegerlehner family gathered early in the morning for The Swiss Connection’s biannual cattle drive. Carhartts surrounded a campfire near the family business’ barns on Clay County Road 550S, and the promise of locally raised beef franks and ice cream was eagerly anticipated.

Alan Yegerlehner gathered the volunteers just before 11 a.m. and explained the process, now a tradition, of moving his 70-some dairy cattle about three miles down the road to their winter pasture. Participants from as far away as Chicago came on a chilly morning with temperatures in the lower 30s and ice on the ground to get a feel for how all-natural beef and dairy products are created.

Afterwards, Yegerlehner said the invitational event not only helps the farm with its commitment to all-natural production, but also connects people to their food.

“We’ve talked about it before and tried to remember how long we’ve been doing it,” he laughed, guessing about 10 years.

The Swiss Connection offers a wide variety of food products through its country store as well as farmers markets and high-end grocery stores and restaurants from Chicago and Indianapolis to Bloomington and Terre Haute. The 200-acre operation employs rotational grazing as part of its pasture-based system, moving cows to an 80-acre patch surrounded by woods during the winter months.

According to The Swiss Connection’s website, no grain supplementation is used in the dairy, setting it apart from other operations. Milk cows are moved to fresh grass twice a day.

“A consistent diet of pasture with no grain or silage results in the total volume of milk being lower but much more concentrated with butterfat, protein, vitamins, minerals, and other solids,” according to information provided by the farm.

But a little bit of work is required.

Yegerlehner explained the cattle drive strategy to the group beforehand, noting many were veterans of the affair. Using two lines of string, the group created a “walking fence” with the lines on both north and south sides of County Road 550S. The herd was headed by a tractor-pulled wagon loaded with square bales of hay and followed by trucks. Participants carried the string on both sides of the road, walking the three-mile distance at a quick tractor’s pace.

The county road, still covered with bright, shiny snowmelt, was icy, and 900-pound cows skated on their hooves up and down the hills, jogging along as volunteers hustled them onward. Steaming droppings of manure splattered on white ice, and for the most part, the cows knew their way to the winter grounds. Volunteers hopped on the wagon after reaching their destination and took a hayride back to the farm.

Afterwards, Yegerlehner said the move went well, and he explained that cows actually do better outdoors during the winter once accustomed to it. Crowded barns lack oxygen, and as long as the cows can find a wind break, such as trees, their coats will adapt to the colder temperatures.

Meanwhile, heavy grass is left from the summer in the winter pasture on which they’ll feed through spring.

Inside The Swiss Connection’s store, Yegerlehner’s wife Mary said she’s a country girl, raised as a Schroer on a farm near Bowling Green.

“It’s a way to connect with our creator and our food system,” she said of the lifestyle, adding she enjoys developing relationships with customers who become friends.

Inside the store, the farm’s homemade “Raw Milk Swiss” and “Ram Milk Gouda” set in coolers near fresh sausage and beef. Ice cream of many flavors and styles is also available at the store by the cone, pint or quart, as are the pasture-raised “beef franks” roasted by participants who noted the value of a real alternative to commercial hot dogs.

Yegerlehner’s daughter, Kate, continues the family’s work on the farm, living with her grandmother at the dairy while her parents are down the road. Ever since she was a little girl, working with the cattle has been fun. The 2002 graduate of Purdue University brought home a degree in animal production, and she now serves as both herd manager and an operator at the business.

“Plus it’s a lot of fun,” she said, explaining the benefit of walking the cows instead of loading them into trailers for the three-mile trek.

Steve Scarborough, 15, was among those participating in the drive, coming from West Terre Haute with a friend, Jackie Martin, who lives near the Clay and Sullivan county lines.

“I just came to help,” he said, adding it was a fun experience.

Martin said she’s become a friend of the Yegerlehners since patronizing their business.

“I’m a customer,” she said, noting she buys milk, eggs, cheese, beef and ice cream from the store. “I like the naturally produced items without chemical additives. It’s healthier, I believe.”

Supporting local businesses, she said, is also a big plus to patronizing the farm which has been in Yegerlehner hands since 1852 when David and Magdalena Jegerlehner bought it after immigrating from Switzerland.

“And it tastes good,” she said, pointing to the ice cream.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.

 

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