Farmer sees steers as work in progress

STONEHAM – The two Brown Swiss steers that Chris Whitman bought for $800 each at the Fryeburg Fair in 2001 brought the total steer population on his small farm on Slab City Road to seven.

The steers’ former owner, Judy Boyer of Conway, N.H., named them Chris and Shivers after rodeo star Chris Shivers.

They’re a large breed, Whitman said, weighing 2,600 pounds at maturity, with very nice personalities and faces. They already had been yoked and were set in their ways. Shivers, the larger one, always has to be beside him, he said, but, because of a slight difference in size and temperament, people have suggested that the pair would be more balanced if they changed sides.

Normally, Whitman explained, once a pair is yoked, they maintain their positions the rest of their lives together, sleeping in that same relationship in their stalls and even standing in the same positions in the pasture. But he calls Chris and Shivers dyslexic; they sleep in their stalls one way and want to be yoked the opposite. Old timers say you have to change them, he said, but they’re two years old now, and besides their large size, “you’ll discourage them if you fight them and they won’t work with you.”

“When I realized that’s the way they are, I said, ‘Boys, I don’t care what your sleeping arrangements are, but when you’re in yoke, we work together.’ And it’s been that way ever since.”

The Swiss are like puppies, he said, more adventurous than the more mellow Shorthorns that make up the rest of his herd. As soon as they realized they could push over the woven fence surrounding a lush pasture last summer, they were off exploring the neighborhood, leaving tell-tale hoof prints around the farm pond. Now he uses electrified fencing.

These animals will be with him for many years. Most people raise steers for show and for beef, he said, but he expects to continue using these two for getting out firewood, moving rocks and stumps as he clears land. When steers reach maturity at four they are called oxen, he said.

Some of the Shorthorns will probably become beef from time to time, he said. “Realistically, how many of these ton-and-a-half pets can you afford to feed?” He doesn’t have enough hay fields himself but several people in the area give him the hay just to get their fields cut, enabling Whitman to sell some organic, grass-fed beef.

Whitman may show his steers from time to time, but that is not his main goal. And they aren’t pets only, or a hobby. Instead they are a part of the lifestyle he has created with his son James, who graduated high school last year. James is kind, calm and slow-moving – good qualities for working with steers.

Whitman’s family moved to Stoneham 10 years ago, and he began learning some farming and woods skills from Clyde Millett, who had sold him his land. He also credits Pat Williams at the farm with teaching him about lumbering, farming and farm machinery. When Millett’s health began to decline, Whitman began taking care of Clyde’s steers.

Whitman says he has an ideal job at the 200-acre Eastman Hill Stock Farm. He helps produce organic, grass-fed meat from Hereford cattle, Big Black hogs and Cottswold sheep.

“Now I can go to work right from doing my morning chores and nobody cares if I smell like manure.”

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