In 2014, Reagan Vaughan decided to raise a show steer and compete in the Virginia Beach 4-H Livestock Show and Sale. The wiry 12-year-old had grown up on a working 400-acre farm and was no stranger to animals—she’d frequented the show since the age of 9 and competed with both hogs and cattle.
“The contest helps youths get a feel for the business of farming,” says Bernadette Vaughan, Reagan’s mother, an accountant. Participants buy an animal, budget for feed, care for it, then show and sell it at auction. “It’s basically a livestock operation in miniature.”
Given Reagan’s size and age, officials recommended a steer with a Hereford pedigree. Hailing from Herefordshire, England, the breed is known for its friendly character. Standardized by the 1600s, Herefords feature soft red-brown hides punctuated by white heads, bellies, tails and hooves.
Reagan named her steer Buddy. She doted over the animal, leading him around the yard and playing with him like a puppy. The experience led to a deep love for the animals. Also, an idea. Rather than start a college fund, Reagan suggested using the money from the sale to start a business breeding Herefords.
“It seemed like a healthy learning experience, so my husband and I agreed,” says Bernadette. The Vaughans bought five female calves. “We didn’t know what to expect from the girls, so we started slow and went from there.”
But Reagan was serious. Helped by her sisters Olivia and Molly—and her dad Billy, a full-time grain farmer—she began showing cows at events throughout the commonwealth. These included the State Fair in Doswell, the Virginia Hereford Association Bonanza near Harrisonburg and many more. Prizes accumulated. As business picked up, the herd grew. Five cows became 10, then blossomed to 15. Additional pasture and barn space were allotted to the enterprise.
“This thing was fast becoming a real business, and Billy and I were starting to ask ourselves, ‘Should we keep going with this?’” says Bernadette. Virginia Beach’s hunger for homegrown local produce led the Vaughans to consider expanding into meat production. “We were already raising heritage breed cattle and implementing sustainable practices like not using hormones or antibiotics, keeping the cows out of waterways, using free-range rotational grazing techniques [and so on]. And that’s before you even mention the farm’s history.”
Pictured left to right: Reagan, Bernadette, Olivia (in back), Billy and Molly Vaughan
Agriculture ran deep in the Vaughan’s blood. Counting the kids, the family has been farming the same land for at least eight generations. Their records include a grant of property from the King of England dating to the 1720s. Continuous operation has led to designation from The Virginia Department of Agriculture as a Bicentennial Farm. By 2015, Billy, aged 47, had assumed management duties from his elderly uncle, Eddie. Though still financially solvent, he noted margins had grown slimmer by the year.
“Grain farming is increasingly tough for a small family operation like ours,” he says. Crops like soybeans, corn and hay are often sold wholesale to a broker, driving down prices. Factory farms and conglomerates “make it hard to make a living without some kind of supplementary income.”
Previously, Billy had done just that. After studying agriculture in college, he worked for Southern States in Chesapeake. Throughout the early 2000s, he managed hog farming operations at nearby Salmons Farms. With Billy’s brother finding success selling produce at area farmer’s markets, meat production seemed a logical next step.
“But if we were going to do it, we wanted to do it right,” says Bernadette. “We wanted to set the stage and try to become one of the area’s staple producers.”
The family spent the next two and a half years preparing. They converted barns and pastures, grew the herd to around 70 head, applied for USDA certifications, created branding materials, established a web and social media presence and built community relationships. Coastal Cattle launched in June of 2018.
When the Vaughans announced the event on their Facebook page, expectations were minimal.
“The night before, Billy and I decided we’d be happy if we got 20, 30 people,” says Bernadette with a laugh. Instead, upward of 500 attended. Inventory sold out by early afternoon.
“It was just incredible,” says Billy. “We all looked around at one another, and the message was pretty clear: This was going to be a lot bigger than we’d imagined.”
Today, Coastal Cattle sells through the farm’s Meat Shack, as well as at area farmer’s markets. Their beef is featured in numerous local restaurants, including The Cavalier Hotel’s Hunt Room and Commune locations in both Virginia Beach and Norfolk. Customers and chefs tout steaks and burgers for their flavor. In addition to munching free-range grass, animals are finished with recycled grains from Commonwealth Brewing Company and Tarnished Truth Distillery.
“That mash is like our secret weapon,” jokes Bernadette. Grown for human consumption, the grains are premium quality. The fibrous, flavorful mash is rich in protein and great for the cows. Combined with stress-free management practices and year-round pasture grazing, Bernadette says the feed has left chefs calling the meat “some of the most tender and flavorful in the state.”
With demand skyrocketing, the Vaughans are focusing on growing the herd and expanding. Billy, the current vice president of the Virginia Hereford Association, hopes to soon make a total transition to cattle. His goal is to have Coastal Cattle be for Coastal Virginia what Polyface Farm is to the Shenandoah Valley.
“This has been an amazing and meaningful journey for our family,” says Bernadette. “People come here and look at our livestock and learn about how we’re raising them. They appreciate what we’re doing. We make friends and get to know customers by their names. They’re trusting us to help feed their families—and that bond is the most incredible thing. It’s allowed our family to draw on our roots and carry on a tradition that’s been going on here for nearly 300 years. We’re both thankful and very, very proud.”