Commune with the sleek, peaceful, chewing cows while visiting Charity Hill Farms and Beef LLC on a sunny day, and you’ll find yourself wanting to sell off everything—the Mercedes, yacht and suburban palace—and get into farming.
That’s just the way it is when beef farming gets into your blood and you fall in love with your cows.
“They’re very spoiled. We check on them every day,” said farmer Steve Smith fondly of his Charity Hill cattle, which now number 220. He’s 61.
Seated with him at the kitchen table in their vintage farmhouse was his son Chris, 26, who works the farm with his dad. Cindy, wife and mother, happy and smiling, busied herself at the stove, listening.
“She checks on the cows. She plays a big part,” said Steve, her husband.
“Momma keeps the farm runnin’,” stated Chris matter-of-factly.
It was through Chris a few months earlier that I first learned of Charity Hill, which has been in the Smith family since 1854. He was selling frozen, packaged beef at the Bowling Green Farmer’s Market.
Six-one, slender and lean, with a trim reddish beard and keen blue eyes, he’s a graduate of Virginia Tech in Agricultural Technology and Applied Agricultural Management. That and working alongside his father, he’s taking Charity Hill through another Smith generation.
“I’m a sixth-generation farmer and fifth generation here,” said the Virginia Tech grad.
The Smith’s 800-acre Charity Hill Farm is on winding Golansville Road, a few miles southeast of Ladysmith. From the road, a long, straight drive runs over undulating fields up to the old house, which is white with a prominent front porch and surrounded by ample shade trees. Off to the right are barns and silos. A pretty farm.
They farm an additional 1,200 acres in corn, wheat and soybeans.
Originally called “Hamptonville” and later “Smith Dairy Farm,” the name “Charity Hill” is relatively new.
Steve explained at the kitchen table that when his daddy, Floyd S. Smith Jr., went to buy an additional five acres a number of years back, the seller said, “As poor as that land is, you’ll need charity to get anything off it!” Steve, Cindy and Chris laughed at the telling of the old story.
The name “Charity Hill” stuck.
I mention that the cows looked particularly content when I passed one of the herds driving up to the house. This gets another laugh.
“The cows are less work than grain farmin’,” said Steve, “as long as you look after ’em like you’re supposed to.”
He went on to explain, “They let you know, too.” When they’ve chewed up one paddock of grass and want to move to the next, one will let out a long, plaintive low.
“They only have to holler one time and we go down to move ’em,” Steve said.
I also learned that additional female influences greatly benefited Charity Hill. The farmer said it was their daughter, Dr. Kendal Smith—now a “full-fledged” veterinarian in Nebraska as her dad proudly put it—who urged switching from dairy to beef farming.
I said I’d like to return and take some photographs.
“We have pretty cows,” Steve said. “You can take as many pictures as you want!” Chris and Cindy laughed.
A few days later, I was back at the farmhouse with my camera and looking again for the Smiths. Chris pulled up in an open Kubota all-terrain vehicle, dust flying.
Leaning out of the back, enjoying the exhilarating ride, was a friendly Australian shepherd. Bred to herd cattle, this rugged, fluffy, gray, white and black dog—with one blue eye and one green—turned out to be named “Drover.”
I asked if the Aussie was a help with the cows, and Chris assured me he was. “If a cow leaves the herd, Drover’s right after him.”
Drover looked up, eager and ready to prove it.
A few moments later, Steve pulled up in his own Kubota, and together we headed off to see the cows.
Through a cattle gate and down two lanes, we bounced along until we came to a hilltop pasture where about 80 cows were calmly chomping hay. We clambered out of the Kubotas. The cows didn’t mind. Some looked up, curious, chewing hay.
Scattered among them were many winsome calves. In a few weeks, when they were each 600 or 700 pounds, they’d be shipped to a cattle operation in Oklahoma.
Steve told of their cross-breeding, mixing Balancer cattle, Hereford, Charolais and Simmental. “We experiment every year. We’re trying to get the ultimate calf,” he said.
Striking was the beauty and peacefulness of the scene, the coats of the calmly chewing cattle glossy and shining in the sun, their bodies sturdy, well filled out and radiating good health.
There was a touch of melancholy, too, knowing that some must go. Of the entire herd of 220, one per month is taken to slaughter in Fauquier County. The nearby Timbers Restaurant in Ladysmith serves Charity Hill beef.
Steve said of their cattle, “I believe in feeding them good stuff. I treat ’em like dairy cattle. They get plenty to eat.”
During the grazing season from April to October, that means fresh, green grass. In the cold months there’s silage of winter rye, wheat, cow peas and clover, all grown on the farm.
All the crops are no-till, meaning the ground isn’t plowed, eliminating most erosion. “It does the soil good. I’m a firm believer in that. I’m 100 percent compliant with the Chesapeake Bay Act,” said Steve.
Chris pointed out that the cattle are raised with “low-stress handling.”
“We don’t do any hollering,” said Steve. “We don’t have shock sticks,” referring to electric cattle prods. “There isn’t one on the farm.”
They’ve found they have no need to drive the cows. “The cattle will do what we want. Instead of driving, they follow,” said Steve. All that needs to be said is “Come on!” and the cows come.
The morning was getting on, and Chris and his dad had soybeans to harvest. It was time for my visit to end.
I would have been content, though, to stand a good while longer gazing at the cows chewing their hay, its aroma sweetly pungent.
The scene was so peaceful. So satisfyingly beautiful.
No wonder, I thought, that the Smith clan continues to be happy here on Charity Hill since 1854.
Mercedes, yachts and suburban palaces can’t compare.