Like a boy with his Clifford-sized dog, Kyle Flack recently rubbed and nuzzled a steer named Moo while standing in a picturesque field on Whidbey Island filled with eye-catching white cattle.
“That’s a good boy,” he said.
Moo and his compatriots are Ancient White Park Cattle, a rare bovine breed whose genetic makeup has remained unchanged for over 1,000 years. Flack, owner of Central Whidbey’s Bell’s Farm, raises the cattle on Bell’s secondary farm near Monroe Landing, along with almost all of the farm’s other animals.
“This might be one of the largest herds in North America, to be honest,” he explained, adding that he knows of a large herd in Montana and another of about 60 beasts in Iowa.
Flack has about 150 of the striking animals, which are a mix of steers, bulls, and mothers with calves. Native to England and Wales, the cattle originally lived on large English estates. All are horned and completely white, except about one in 20 which carry a recessive gene that makes them entirely black.
Flack has owned the beef cattle for about four years but dramatically increased the number last year. He picked the breed because Bell’s Farm is focused on soil and plant health.
“I wanted animals that are good on pasture, that are good to stay out most of the year,” he said.
He researched different types of breeds that fit that bill and also had good quality meat. He found an Ancient White Park Cattle breeder in Snohomish County and has been working with him ever since.
The cattle’s unchanged genome means they have continued to possess their positive traits; they gain weight and produce milk well and are good mothers.
Angus cattle, which is one of the most common breeds for beef, are large and can be aggressive. They’ve been specifically bred to produce as much meat as possible. Flack said breeding for a single trait often results in unintended consequences, such as health problems.
“I’m not going to be putting them in a barn and feeding them grain and trying to get them as fat as I can as fast I can,” he said of the white cattle. “The point is to not have them cost me a ton and to move them around the properties, which is just going to improve my land.”
He said cattle are often butchered at two years old at large commercial beef operations that are only driven by profit.
Flack doesn’t force wean calves; instead, they stay with their moms if they haven’t gained enough weight.
“If my animals are not costing me very much and, in fact, they’re doing me a good service on the property and I can still get a decent price for them, I’d rather them finish at three years and have a healthy, good-tasting animal,” he said.
The cattle get moved around daily on the farm’s property to eat grass. They have a half a day of grazing, then Flack feeds them hay.
“I’d rather mix their diet as opposed to just going 100% on hay,” he said. “The reason I move them daily like this in a tight group, is really for soil health and for pasture health.”
It’s closer to how most herd animals would move in the wild, he added.
Bell’s Farm sells flavorful beef from the Ancient White Park Cattle locally. Depending on the cut, the beef is anywhere from $6.50 to $22.50 a pound.
“My meat is more expensive because it’s really high quality, but a lot of my costs are driven by where I live,” Flack said.
At about two and half or three years old, the cattle are sorted and some are transported to a butcher south of Olympia. The beef is hung for 21 days in a process called dry aging before being cut and wrapped to be sold.
A few of the cattle are nearing 20 years old; they can live up to 30. The youngest are just a couple weeks old.
“If they’re a good cow, we might just let them be,” he said. “We’ve been known to do that.”
Moo is a steer who was a bottle baby, meaning his mom died when he was a calf. He had to be separated from the herd because he didn’t have a parent to protect him. Since he couldn’t have his mother’s milk, Moo is small for his age and Flack treats him much like a pet dog. In fact, Moo actually lived in his backyard alongside his dogs for about six months.
Moo won’t be butchered because he’s become part of the family.
“He’s probably just going to be an ambassador animal,” Flack said.
Bell’s Farm, which is 76 years old, has grown strawberries since 1948 and now has about four or five acres of mixed vegetables, along with sheep, pigs and cattle for meat. Flack and his wife took over the operation about five years ago and went “cold turkey organic,” he said.
It was a huge process and buying animals was the best way to make the transition easier.
“They just provide so much nutrients and stuff for the land,” he said.
Flack has only been farming for about six years. He served in the army for 11 years before moving back to the island where he grew up.
“I think a lot of multigenerational farms had these situations where we just sort of had a family meeting, and it was, you know, someone needs to come back to the farm or we’re going to start selling parts of it,” he said. “So we just jumped in.”
Flack is determined to make sure the farm does not have a negative impact on the Earth.
“I’m really focused on building a profitable business that’s also good for the environment,” he said. “I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive.”
Ancient White Park Cattle beef is for sale at Bell’s farm stand at 892 North West Beach Road in Coupeville, as well as Whidbey Island Grown’s online marketplace, the Food Hub.