On the outskirts of Rush City, there’s a somewhat inconspicuous farm that’s garnering some national attention.
Gray Owl Farms, located five miles northeast of Rush City, is nestled off a dirt road and it’s easy to miss if a person isn’t looking for it.
The owners of the farm are Don and Sandy Vaughn, a pair of former city dwellers who got into raising Scottish Highland Cattle about six years ago.
Don grew up near downtown Rush City and Sandy used to hail from Northeast Minneapolis.
The couple now lives in a sprawling rambler home on 614 acres of land off 360th Street. Most of that land has been in Don’s family for over 100 years.
During much of the last century, the property functioned as a gravel mining operation.
When the Vaughns started to use the land—much of which is still the DKV Landfill—for raising cattle, creating a top-notch cattle-producing operation wasn’t really on their minds.
Starting out, Don procured about half a dozen cattle to clear a section of the Vaughn’s property.
“We had a bunch of land here that probably hadn’t been pastured for about 20 years and Scottish Highland Cattle are known for clearing the land,” he said. “They’ll even eat prickly ash.”
He added, “What they do is they pretty much clear your land back and make it into oak savannahs. The DNR of both Minnesota and Wisconsin are pasturing them in land that they want to clear.”
After that section of land was cleared, Don allowed the Vaughn’s cattle to reproduce.
On a whim, Don and Sandy decided to get involved in cattle-judging competitions, an activity they both admit they didn’t know that much about initially.
Success came fast.
A grand champion
Shortly after deciding to bring their cattle to judging competitions, the Vaughns met and partnered with Sue Dyke, a farm owner from Magnet, Neb., to have the Vaughn’s cattle shown in competitions around the country.
In 2011, one of the Vaughn’s bulls, Bearach, started a string of wins that put Gray Owl farms on the national map as a top cattle-producing farm.
Bearach won the North Central Regional Show in West Salem, Wis. that year and then proceeded to win six more major cattle-judging competitions over the next two years, including a state grand championship and a national grand championship at the 2012 Midwest International Highland Cattle Show in Louisville, Ky.
“There’s only one farm that can say it took grand champion out of Louisville,” Don said. “You’re up against competition that could be from any place in the United States.”
Don added he and Sandy plan to sell Bearach at an upcoming show in Denver.
The national attention the Vaughns have received for winning cattle-judging competitions has started to pay off in the form of local partnerships.
Recently, the Vaughns sold six cattle to Fitger’s restaurant in Duluth.
That depleted the stock at Gray Owl Farms, but only slightly.
The farm still has over 50 cattle, and the Vaughns are always looking for prospective buyers.
Even though the Vaughns are competing against farmers who usually have much more experience in cattle-judging competitions than they do, the competitions are generally friendly, according to Sandy.
“You compete against a lot of the same people,” she said. “You meet a lot of different types of people—it’s just like a nice, big family that competes against one another.”
She noted she hopes Gray Owl Farms’ success continues.
“We’ve been in this for such a short time, and we’ve gone from little all the way up,” she said. “Our name is getting out there.”