Better Than Beef?

By Tamara Scully

The Bennington Beefalo herd.

The Bennington Beefalo herd.
Photo courtesy of Bennington Beefalo.

"It's relatively easy to start your beefalo herd by crossing on existing cattle of any breed," said Hazell Fuller of Beryl Mountain View Farm in New Hampshire.

Beefalo breeding at Beryl Mountain View Farm started two decades ago, when Marion Ingoldsby claimed the distinction of being one of the earliest beefalo breeders in the northeastern U.S. She used beefalo breeding stock and bison semen, plus Angus and Charolais cattle, meticulously breeding her herd to full-blooded status. Today, her family continues the legacy at the farm, which boasts a herd of 44 beefalo, all full-blooded. The farm's beefalo herd is now comprised of two bulls, 15 calves, 20 breeding cows and seven young cows.

According to breed standards, a full-blooded beefalo is 37.5 percent bison genetics. The rest of the genetics are from cattle of any breed. Purebred beefalo are at least 34 percent bison. An animal is not considered to meet the requirements for beefalo classification until it has a minimum of 17.5 percent bison genetics. Simply adding beefalo blood to standard-bred cattle can increase hybrid vigor, even without achieving beefalo genetics, Fuller explained. Beefalo have good fertility and are very hardy and resistive to illness and disease.

Bob Ott of Bennington Beefalo became excited about beefalo decades ago, when his father read an article on this relatively new fertile cross of bison and beef cattle. They both agreed that beefalo sounded like a good option for their pasture-based beef cattle operation in New York. However, it wasn't until a neighbor's bull escaped and was corralled by Ott's wife, Kathy, that their beefalo dream became a reality.

The bull, by chance, was a beefalo bull. The neighbor loaned him out, and Ott began breeding his herd of Angus and Hereford crossbreeds to the beefalo bull. Ott's herd now consists of 12 to 15 beefalo cow/calf pairs, plus one bull and a dozen young stock. All have at least the minimum 17.5 percent bison genetics.

Randy and Tina Kuhn of The Kuhn Family Farm in Pennsylvania raise beefalo as well as pastured heritage breed pigs and Red Angus beef cattle. Their beefalo herd began when they bred some of their full-blooded Red Angus cows with a purebred red beefalo bull. They also have some Charolais beefalo, which they purchased from a registered herd in Vermont. With 15 breeding beefalo heifers and two bulls, they keep their line as diverse as possible.

Bennington Beefalo cow and calves.

Bennington Beefalo cow and calves.
Photo courtesy of Bennington Beefalo.

Best of bison and bovine

Beefalo are great grazers and adaptable to harsh climates, making them a perfect fit for the terrain at Beryl Mountain View Farm, which is located on a wooded hillside with rocky ledges that was previously quarried for granite. The remainder of the farm's 250 acres is rolling pastures, with streams and hayfields. The beefalo graze the sugar bush as well as the pastures, keeping it manageable without chemicals and without harming the vegetation. The 100 percent grass-fed, pastured herd is well-suited to the variety of range and forage found on the farm.

"The beefalo, thanks to the bison influence, are able to forage a wide range of roughage and turn it into usable weight gain," Fuller said. "They trim down the small saplings and brush and take care of the undergrowth in the maple orchard very efficiently." The farm has 4,000 sugar maple taps, and the sap, which is sold to a nearby syrup maker, is an important crop.

Ott, who raised beef cattle on a rotational grazing system for many years, feels that the beefalo handle as easily as cattle, but are more observant and smarter. His beefalo herd is pastured, rotationally grazed and 100 percent grass-fed. Pastures consist of timothy, orchard and other fescue grasses, plus clover and bird's-foot trefoil. Each 2-acre paddock is grazed for less than a week by the herd, which is then rotated through the remaining paddocks spread across Ott's 60 acres of pastureland. Each paddock is visited two or three times per grazing season, he said.

The digestive system of the beefalo is "better on a high-forage diet" than that of cattle, Ott said, because beefalo "retain a lot of the bison digestive system." With his system, the herd is ready for market in 26 to 28 months.

"Beefalo have lower birth weights, which are a blessing for us and our first-calf heifers," Randy Kuhn said. "We rarely, if ever, have to pull calves due to the calves being too big for the heifers to push out. But at the same time, the calves reach a heavier weaning weight - at approximately 6 months - than the standard cattle breeds."

Kuhn grazes the herd, allowing them to forage on a custom blend of grasses and legumes as they rotate through 3 or 4-acre paddocks. Under typical conditions, he has 30 cow/calf pairs rotating into a new paddock every four or five days, or whenever they graze it down to 3 inches. Pastures there are never fallow, remaining productive and fertile, and weed growth hasn't been a problem, he noted.

"Beefalo are not selective grazers like standard-bred cattle," Kuhn said. "They don't pick and choose forages and trample the less desirable forages. They will eat everything that grows, but at the same time don't overgraze because we move them regularly." Kuhn said that his 100 percent grass-fed beefalo "reach market weight faster on grass than standard-bred cattle."

Combined with the foraging ability and the hardiness of the bison, the beefalo have the temperament of the bovine.

"The beefalo animals are much easier to raise and handle [than bison]," Fuller said. "The beefalo are friendly and are not dangerous like the full-blooded bison. The beefalo are also easily confined and do not take special fencing to pasture. The beefalo we raise are small enough to handle easily. They also have a longer life span than regular cattle and become reproductively active earlier and breed longer."

The beefalo also have dense hair and are more tolerant of winter weather. While these animals are suited to being outdoors year-round, even in harsh New England climates, they do benefit from having some shelter. An open barn area, where the animals are free to wander in and out, is a typical arrangement. Water and feed can be located inside or outside. Hay is substituted for green pasture during the winter season. Beryl Mountain View Farm is limited in herd size because of their need to purchase hay, as the farm is not able to grow all of the forage needed and make enough hay for them, Fuller explained.

Randy Kuhn with his grandson and beefalo.

Randy Kuhn with his grandson and beefalo.
Photo courtesy of The Kuhn Family Farm.

Growing the herd

Although Kuhn uses hay grown from the same custom grass mix used on his pastures so the animals are receiving the same feed intake year-round, he calves in the late summer or early fall. The calving is timed so the young are out on fresh pasture as soon as they can digest it.

"They are much more winter-hardy than standard breeds," Kuhn said of the beefalo calves. "Therefore, we tend to calve in late summer or early fall. That way, when they are approaching [the] age when their rumens can actually digest and utilize forages, they are going onto green pastures rather than eating dry hay out of a feeder for the winter," Kuhn said.

Ott's calving is done in June or the first week of July, and the calves remain with their mothers on pasture until cold weather triggers a move into the barn area. The age of weaning is therefore somewhat dependent on the weather, Ott said. He keeps the animals on pasture as long as possible. Once moved to the barn, calves have a separate area.

"The young stock is separated in the fall. They have access to their own indoor area for the harsh winter months, where they can stay dry, yet have ample access to water and feed without competing with the larger, older animals," Fuller said. Fuller's herd is checked for pregnancy each fall upon being brought into the barn, and is vaccinated as needed, with rabies, brucellosis and Triangle 9 injections.

Young animals are typically castrated and vaccinated as necessary after weaning. Ott and Fuller do dehorn any animals when necessary. "The bull is polled, but the bison ancestry lets a few horns slip through," Ott explained. Kuhn chooses not to dehorn.

For castration, Kuhn explained, "When it comes to the bull calves, we band them, we don't castrate them with a razor. Banding is much more humane and causes very little stress to the animals."

Ott said, "Health issues have not been much of a problem. The animals are hardy." Ott culls his herd hard to keep it in top shape. He culls animals if they are old, ornery or open. "For years I culled heavily so that I tried to retain the best, and it has worked pretty well."

Meat marketing

One reason beefalo are gaining in popularity is the dual nature of their meat. Lower in cholesterol and saturated fat than beef (or pork, salmon, chicken, lamb, ostrich or venison), the meat still tastes like beef. It is not quite as low in fat content as 100 percent bison, but it is lower in cholesterol. The producers realize that these nutritional qualities, plus the great taste, help the meat to virtually sell itself. All three of the producers raise their beefalo herds without antibiotics, steroids or hormones. They all sell directly to the public, although they do so via different marketing strategies.

The Kuhn Family Farm has an on-farm store, where they sell their USDA retail cuts of beefalo along with other farm products, including pastured pork and poultry. They also take orders for sides of meat in person or via the farm's website (http://thekuhnfamily.tripod.com). Several restaurants purchase the Kuhns' beefalo meat on a regular basis. Two beefalo are harvested each month from June to October. Heifers are only culled if they have not been bred by three years of age.

Ott sells his meat with online marketing through websites, such as Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org) or Eat Wild (www.eatwild.com), that are dedicated to local, sustainable food. The meat - each carcass is about 600 pounds hanging weight - is dry-aged for 14 days to promote tenderness. All the meat is processed in a USDA slaughterhouse and is sold by the side, in a split half or in mini sampler packs.

There has been increased interest in beefalo meat, Ott said, and many new customers are eager to try it. It is a good alternative for diet-conscious red meat lovers. Much of his customer base is from repeat trade, and word-of-mouth accounts for many of his new customers, he said.

Beryl Mountain View Farm beefalo is processed once a year at a USDA facility and is sold by the side. Fuller said the beefalo are "a size that, when processed, a family can affordably purchase a side that will fit into a household freezer." In addition to the animals sold for breeding stock, they processed 10 animals in 2012 and hope to increase sales via a local cooperative store this year.

"With the demand for healthy, locally grown, low-calorie, low- cholesterol meat, we are seeing increased interest in the marvelous beefalo meat," Fuller said.

Potential producers looking to get the most out of their grazing system while offering a meat that appeals to those wanting a healthier alternative to traditional red meat, but with all the taste, are flocking toward beefalo. More information can be found at: www.neba.us.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.