When Tom Helfter got his first look at Murray Grey cattle at the 1982 National Western Stock Show in Denver, they were relative newcomers to the United States. Helfter, who farms near LeCenter, has always had cattle around, but these caught his eye.

“I was just kind of impressed with them. They looked very similar to Angus, but not quite as spooky,” Helfter said, adding, “no offense against Angus, but they’re not as quiet and calm as some of the other breeds.”

The Murray Grey’s temperament was evident as he approached his herd in the back pasture.

They seemed, if not disinterested, certainly unperturbed when his pickup pulled up beside them. He walked among the herd without their shying away. Even a stranger with a camera did not make them wary. This docile temperament was one selling point for Helfter.

“Their disposition is pretty quiet,” he said. “They don’t seem to get excited about things. The second thing I like is they typically have smaller calves,” which has meant little trouble in calving.

The breed, which was developed in Australia where their lighter color helped them handle the heat, manage cold weather just as well. Helfter’s cattle stay in the back pasture year-round. The pasture includes a wooded area in a valley that offers some protection from weather, and a ravine they go into that keeps them out of cold winter windchills.

He does provide bedding, usually meadow hay that could not be put up in a timely fashion and would not make good feed, “but it does work good for bedding.”

Helfter rents out most of his cropland, but he has alfalfa and also puts up some hay on shares with a neighbor, feeding his cattle both meadow hay and alfalfa when they can’t graze.

In the fall he feeds corn to supplement the grass, which he said has low protein that time of year, and he gives them cracked corn on the coldest winter days. He also puts out a tub or lick that has a protein and mineral mix.

Helfter doesn’t raise his cattle to market the meat. He likes to develop the genetics and has sold bulls and bred heifers from his herd, which currently numbers 33, some of which are ready to calve.

‘Sheepish’ cattle

One of Helfter’s bulls went to the farm of Dave and Rachel Brown near Winona, whose growing herd is an intergenerational project of their son and his grandmother. It was grandmother Elizabeth Reedy who first saw Murray Greys in 2001 on a Michigan farm. She has raised Clun Forest sheep for years, and was told the handsome cattle she was seeing were a “bovine version” of Clun Forest sheep — good mothers who calve easily and thrive on grass alone.

“Had I been 20 years younger, I might have gotten some Murray Greys on my own,” said Reedy, who is 68. “But I was old enough to know better, and put the thought aside. Sort of.”

A couple years ago she learned her grandson, Levi, was looking for a way to earn money to start saving for college.

“My dad is a dairy farmer,” said Levi, who is now 14, “and I earn some money working on the farm during the summer, but I really wanted to figure out a way to earn more than an hourly wage. The idea of raising beef cows sounded really good because most of the pasture land on our farm was not being used. I also liked the fact that they didn’t have to be milked twice a day.”

Grandmother and grandson struck a deal — she would buy the cattle and he would take care of them. They and Rachel, Levi’s mother, attended a meeting of Murray Grey breeders, where they made contacts and determined they would raise Murray Greys.

They also brought home a couple of grass-finished rib-eye steaks, the taste of which they thought was “equal to or better than” some corn-finished steaks they had raised.

“The cattle are generally calm and docile, very cooperative when being moved between pastures, and easily contained by a single strand of electric tape,” Rachel said. “They are thriving on just pasture, and hay in the winter, along with salt and a mineral block.”

Dark mocha moo

Helfter has been raising and breeding Murray Greys for over 20 years. He has served as president of the Midwest Murray Grey Association, which covers eight states from North Dakota to Illinois and Missouri.

“Before (the Murray Greys), I pretty much had Herefords and some Angus,” Helfter said. “I probably wouldn’t have gotten into Murray Grey but I liked them and I thought it would be good to see this breed promoted, because I think it’s a good breed. I think it has a lot of good qualities. They are a more moderate size, they grade out, and they are a quiet animal.”

The Murray Greys’ similarity to Angus is not coincidental. According to the American Murray Grey Association information, the breed was discovered by chance and developed in Australia during the last century.

It originated from crossing Aberdeen Angus males with a particular Shorthorn cow. The cow produced exclusively gray calves and some folks began to breed for that characteristic.

Today, registered Murray Grey cattle can range in color from light silver to black, and in shades of dun from light tan to chocolate brown. The Browns describe their herd colors as ranging from dark mocha to light café latte.

While hair color may vary, registered cattle must have dark skin color and pigment which shows around the eyes, on the muzzle and on the hooves. Females are to have gray teat ends. Murray Greys are naturally polled, and take the horns off crossbred calves.

Grass-fed nutrition

The Murray Grey is a 100-percent beef breed and is of particular interest to those who prefer grass-fed beef. The AMGA website says they consistently finish to choice on grass.

“I wouldn’t argue with that,” Helfter said, “but I’d be reluctant to (make any big claims).”

The Browns are ready to test that claim this spring when one of their steer calves will be butchered. Based on their earlier taste test, they are confident that not only will they like it, but others will, too.

“We believe there is a good market out there for the kind of delicious grass-fed beef that the Murray Greys produce,” Rachel said. “Consumers are increasingly sophisticated about the nutritional value of grass-fed meats in general, and the demand for locally raised farm products is growing very fast. We’re hoping to tap into that growing demand.”

The Browns are scheduled to have seven calves, starting in mid-May. They would like to increase their herd to 20 to 25 cows, which is all their pasture can handle at this point. Helfter is not planning to expand his herd beyond its current size.

“I’m 68 years old and my kids aren’t going to come back to the farm,” he said. But his two decades of raising Murray Greys has convinced him they are a breed that has a lot to offer.

“I wouldn’t say that Murray Greys are head and shoulders above other breeds,” Helfter said. “I think they’re just a good all-around animal.”

Helfter can be reached at tlhelfter@aol.com; and the Browns at drbrown@hbci.com. Other sources of information, the American Murray Grey Association at www.murraygreybeefcattle.com; the International Murray Grey Association at www.murraygrey.org.