The Colgate Scene
July 2000
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Down on the (buffalo) farm
by John D. Hubbard
The Big Boss Man is rolling on his back, but the remnant of his winter coat is the only itch he has to scratch. Otherwise life is good for the master of all he surveys -- the pastures of plenty of the Readington River Buffalo Company in the deep suburbs of New Jersey, the cows in the state's only commercial buffalo herd, the young males who stay clear.

     "He is the alpha male," says Erick Doyle '93 of the 1800-pound bull. "He mediates all disputes." The fire in the Man's eye is one of the keys to the future of the farm -- along with Doyle's energy and vision.

     The Doyle family grew up with animals. Father Gerald, a chemist, and mother Scarlett, a city planner, kept beef cattle as a hobby but in 1995 the interest turned serious. They bought a 250-acre former dairy farm with the idea of raising buffalo after a trip out west where the Doyles tried some of the meat.

     The first year was spent putting up fences -- long sections of telephone poles buried deep in the ground. With the pastures enclosed, the family's starter kit included a young bull (Big Boss Man) from South Dakota and cows from Nebraska and Indiana. That original group has multiplied. The Doyles now have 70 head, with four breeding bulls, and they are expecting 30 calves this year.

     "They don't like humans very much," says Doyle, watching the skittish animals, as he slides out of his pickup truck that has bumped along a narrow lane between two meadows. "They tolerate us because we feed them."

     Buffalo once covered the entire North American continent in numbers estimated at 60 million. Before the great herds of the west were decimated, the animals sustained the Plains Indians. Today what is marketed as "America's original red meat" is assuring the species' survival and herds flourish, especially out west, but on this side of the Mississippi, too. The Eastern Bison Association has 80 members including the Readington River Buffalo Company.

     Erick Doyle actually had to return east to raise buffalo. After graduation, the math major headed to Colorado "to establish myself in a place I didn't know" and to snowboard.

     Eventually he and classmates Scott Stroppel and Matthew Wells (Chris Bell '92 soon hooked up with the group) created an artistic log furniture company in Aspen (www.lifeforms.net). Doyle served as chief financial officer -- "making sure we didn't bounce checks, quite a challenge." Everyone took turns managing the store, too.

     "If it weren't for the fact I was so involved with bookkeeping and how the business ran, I wouldn't have moved back to this. Experiences in Aspen taught me a lot of the business skills I'm incorporating into this company," says Doyle, who is the farm president.

     The title doesn't exempt him from work in the fields or tending the herds. Buffalo are hardy animals, resistant to disease and ornerily self-sufficient, but the days are long and full. The seasons dictate life on the farm. Spring is busy with planting, calving and caring for the animals. All get shots and ear tags and the cows are dehorned. The buffalo are coaxed into a series of metal chutes where they can be secured for the various procedures.

     With summer comes hay season. The Readington Buffalo Farm uses somewhere in excess of 8,000 bales. By fall the other crops are ready. The Doyles grow corn and wheat, and Erick, who is working on his masters in agriculture economics at Rutgers, plans to experiment with sorghum, a grain that is cheaper than corn and drought-resistant.

     The farm has 100 acres of pasture, 30 acres for grain and the rest for hay.

     "My thesis is based on the economics of grains used to finish the animals." The paper takes on added significance since the Doyles lost 30 acres of corn to drought last summer.

     Just as autumn approaches, the rut begins and the bulls square off. Jousting marks the advent of the breeding season. The Big Boss Man, with fire in his eyes, begins then to show off for the ladies and the future of the herd is secured.

     Winter follows harvest and throughout the year the farm's store is open weekends. At this point the farm sells primarily meat (along with some souvenirs), but there are plans to market hides. Head mounts command high prices and the leather is top quality, too. Buffalo wool is also a useful product. Soft and durable, it makes excellent sweaters and knitted goods.



     Animals are slaughtered (at a USDA facility, since buffalo are considered game) at least monthly and sometimes as frequently as every two weeks. Prime meat bulls are between 18 months and 30 months old. If heifers are sent to market it is usually as yearlings. A cow generally breeds after the second year and can continue to breed for 25 years. Buffalo can live to be 40.

     While buffalo is the top selling specialty meat, its sales are infinitesimal against the big three of chicken, pork and beef. Last year 12,000 buffalo were slaughtered while 120,000 cattle went to market every day in 1999. "It means we haven't even scratched the surface of the market," says Doyle.

     Restaurants and country clubs represent 60 percent of Readington's market -- filet mignon is the best seller -- with the balance of sales coming at the store.

     "Mail order is one of our next steps," says Doyle, who is not relishing the hassle of boxes and shipping. "I want to give my customers an affordable package." He anticipates being able to ship come fall. "If things go as well as I hope, I'll need to hire someone to do all the things I can't. I want to work with the herd, finish my degree and get new clients." Visit the website at www.thebuffalofarm.com.

     Buffalo meat has a dramatically lower fat content than beef or chicken. A 3.5-ounce piece of buffalo sirloin measures 40mg of cholesterol, while beef comes in at 65mg and chicken breast with the skin on has 72mg. The lean meat, which is high in protein, cooks faster than beef, but there is no gamey taste. In fact, the steaks are rich and flavorful.

     All the traditional beef cuts are available -- steaks, roasts, ribs, stew meat, ground meat -- though buffalo is more expensive.

     "We see this as the future of how people will be eating red meat. Once cholesterol was recognized as a health risk, bison became a logical choice. All we have to do is make it available." Doyle feels the farm's acreage can sustain a herd of 100. "I'm not opposed to more real estate but finances and geography make that difficult." The farm is less than five miles south of Rt. 22 in central New Jersey.

     The buffalo share the farm with a small herd of Polled Herefords and 11 polo ponies. The Doyles rent out stable space for the horses and they are also keeping pigs for a neighbor. It is the buffalo, of course, that get noticed. In addition to the cars that line up during calving season, the press has been "very good, if only for the novelty."

     Doyle has work to do. He always does, but he also finds time to entertain friends -- "They love to come out to the country and I love company" -- and think about the future. He points out a small barn he envisions as a microbrewery and mentions the entire place is scheduled to be painted soon. There are plans to give the store a more rustic feel, too.

     The farm also sponsors special events -- from a buffalo watch so the public can see the newborns, to hay rides and pumpkin picking. A spring open house allows folks to get a flavor of farm life and helps introduce them to buffalo meat.

     Hay season is at its height and it is obvious Erick is eager to be out on the fields. The company car is an orange tractor, he jokes, but the life seems to suit him.

     "I'm eating food I grow myself," says Erick Doyle. "I'm not wearing a tie to work and I'm going to bed real tired. I like that a whole lot. It's a great way to be living." Even Big Boss Man would agree.

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