Small family beef operations part of wider livestock piece of Virginia Beach’s agriculture industry

Steve Kent offers a special treat of bread to a lucky cow at J.W. Smith Farms, a small cattle operation of about 30 head in the southernmost reaches on Virginia Beach on Wednesday, May 15. The cows run to Kent when he brings them bread. According to federal statistics, the majority of cattle businesses in Virginia Beach are small, with fewer than 20 head. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

VIRGINIA BEACH — Under blue-gray thunderheads in a windy field at the far end of Princess Anne Road just this side of the North Carolina line, Steve Kent carries a narrow blue plastic bag out into a field strewn with cut hay. A black Angus heifer toward the edge of a small herd about 30 yards away glances up. Kent smiles. The heifer knows. She lifts her head, begins to turn. Kent reaches into the bag and pulls out several slices of white bread, holding them toward the herd as he begins a loud chant that’s something between a song and a moo. 

The cows start trotting toward him.

“I taught them this,” Kent said, “in case any got out and I had to get them back.”

Surrounded by giant lapping tongues, Kent laughs at the nudges from wet noses that encircle him, nuzzling his red and black checked jacket. Kent’s daughter, Morgan, joins him with another bag of bread, leaning over to kiss a calf’s neck while she encircles it with her arm when her bag is empty.

“They love this,” he said.

And the Kents loves the cows, engaging with the animals daily for health and welfare checks as well as scratches and rubs as they graze on pasture and hay Kent raises and harvests on several local farms.  

Kent runs this farm for Charla Smith-Worley, managing partner of J.W. Smith Farms, one of 15 farms with cattle in Virginia Beach, according to a 2017 census compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Most of those farms are small, according to the census, with many well under 20 head of cattle. 

Smith-Worley’s is a cow-calf operation, which sells calves at auctions in Blackstone and Lynchburg. It is one of the larger cattle farms in Virginia Beach, with just under 30 head.

Bernadette and Billy Vaughan own about 75 head of purebred Herefords projected by the end of this year. They hope to raise that number to around 100 in the next two to three years.

A cow walks toward the herd at J.W. Smith Farms. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

The Vaughans’ Coastal Cattle is a farm-to-table beef operation. They opened their Meat Shack in February, offering small cuts directly to customers, and they also provide beef to several local restaurants. 

“People want to know where their food comes from,” Bernadette Vaughan said. “More and more people are interested in that now. Here, they get to see that.”

Outside the windows of the pristine light gray and white shack, tucked in a corner of a field in front of the Vaughan’s home, reddish brown calves, heifers, steers and a couple of bulls graze. 

All of them are raised here “from calf to consumption,” the Vaughans said. The herd and business originated with a 4-H project initiated by their daughter, Reagan, when she was given a Hereford for a show and fell in love with the breed.

After showing a pig, lamb and sheep in her early 4-H years and watching older members with steers, Reagan said, “I was just in awe of how big they were and how people would just carry around this massive animal and it would just walk right next to them.”

She was ten when she showed her first steer. By the time she was 12, she said she realized she wanted more.

Her father, Billy Vaughan, had been considering slowing down on grain farming and moving into the beef industry. Reagan Vaughan wanted to use some of the 4-H money she had earned to buy some cows, and her father said, “OK.”  

They did some research and they had the land, so the family went to Rockingham County, “our new second home with all of our cattle friends,” Reagan said, and bought five cows in 2014.

Since then, the 200-plus-year-old homestead has overseen the growth of the herd and the business, which the Vaughans said is committed to responsible and sustainable farming and business practices. That incorporates rotating grazing areas that include grass and hay, working with two local brewing companies who supply mash, or spent brewer’s grain, as a feed supplement that contributes to marbling.

They never using growth hormones and only use antibiotics on the rare occasions it is necessary to treat sick or injured animals, they said, having those animals processed separately, and not including “antibiotic-free” on its labeling.

Billy Vaughan of Coastal Cattle in Back Bay shows off the cows during a February visit. Vaughan, from a longtime farming family in Virginia Beach, grows grains, but said cattle was a way to diversify the family operation. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Billy Vaughan greets customers at the opening of the Coastal Cattle Meat Shack, a retain location for the farm-raised beef operation, in February. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

Businesses like Coastal Cattle are something of a “wave of the future,” said David Trimmer, agriculture director for Virginia Beach, a coastal city known for tourism and the military, but which includes farming among its leading industries, especially in the southern, largely rural reaches of Virginia Beach.

“You raise that animal the exact way you want it raised,” he said. “You control the nutrition, just like we do our children, that they have a clean environment, they live a fresh life.”

In addition, Trimmer said, “anything you can buy local is a win-win both locally and for the farmer,” he said, by keeping tax dollars in the city.

Smith-Worley and the Vaughans contribute to an industry that is dotted across the commonwealth in almost 22,000 farms that cover almost 8 million acres listed in tallies compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service. 

Totaled among those owning at least one head, according to its 2017 census, more than 1.4 million head of cattle live in Virginia as of January 2018.

In Virginia Beach, cattle is part of a livestock value of $15.4 million within a total agriculture value of over $131 million, according to the city’s 2018 impact statement compiled by the local extension office.

Smith-Worley watches those numbers closely. 

Development threatens to shrink them as it encroaches on the southeastern end of the city, and she said she is grateful for the farm her father bought when she was a young teen back in the early 1960s. 

He decided to raise some cattle there after he sold over 200 acres where he raised produce and she rode horses – and the site is where Virginia Wesleyan University stands today.

“It’s a tough business,” she said. “Sometimes you learn by the seat of your britches. We did a lot of that.”

Her farm manager, a commercial and residential HVAC specialist, did a lot of that too, Kent said, after he had helped on the Smith-Worley’s farm for years and started running it in 2011.

“It’s a lifestyle,” Kent said. 

A calf was born on the farm on the spritz-rainy night of Monday, May 13. 

The next day, Kent watched it saunter with its mother to a far corner of the field after her treat of a few slices of bread was finished.

Dark clouds parted. 

Sun shone on the hay.

“I wouldn’t trade this,” Kent said.

And he leaned down to scratch the head of a nearby heifer, as she nudged the empty bag for another slice.

Billy Vaughan, with the help of farmhand Shaffer Wells, prepares to mix feed at Coastal Cattle in the Back Bay section of Virginia Beach. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
J.W. Smith Farms cattle investigate a visitor to the farm in southern Virginia Beach near the North Carolina border. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
The Vaughans and the extended Coastal Cattle family pose at the farm. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Coastal Cattle opened its Meat Shack earlier this year, offering direct sales to consumers. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
A calf and mother at J.W. Smith Farms. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

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