Edmund Brown and brother Garth are innovative young farmers doing unique things in Central New York at Cairncrest Farm.
Experimenting with bamboo to be used for grazing and forage for their all grass-fed beef, and building a competitive marketing system, involves the whole family.
The brothers and their wives relocated to West Exeter, NY, from Bryn Athyn, PA, with “a vision of a vibrant food system strengthened with our commitment to land stewardship, healthy and delicious food, and humane animal treatment,” Normandy Alden Brown, wife of Edmund, remarked. “We have been growing 100 percent grass-fed beef for discerning patrons since 2010. This is our passion as well as our profession.”
The herd consists of Black Angus and Red Poll — a small, hardy, heritage breed of cattle developed in England that finish as early as three years of age.
“We’re not that into heritage breed preservation,” Edmund confirms. “We had a few purebred Kerry cows, but came to the conclusion they grow too slowly and are less easy fleshing than many beef cattle.”
Edmund says the Red Poll heifers were “just the right age at the right price” when they wanted to expand their herd.
“We anticipate their calves will work well for us with our smaller, easy fleshing bull, and some hybrid vigor. We care a lot more about phenotype and overall performance fit for our management style than we do about specific breed.”
Farming is new to the family, who began the farm with no previous “real” farm experience.
“This is our first farming venture,” commented Garth’s wife, Alanna Rose. “All of us had worked in various agricultural settings previously — gardening, landscape work, oyster farming, berry farming, diversified farm apprenticeships — and our own kitchen gardens, but this is the first time any of us have bought land and begun a farm ourselves.”
Edmund says information on farming comes from a variety of places; the internet, Graze magazine, neighbors, trial and error, and mostly, books.
“Garth and I both read pretty voraciously,” said Edmund, who holds a degree in biology. “So plowing through a book on agriculture doesn’t take long.”
Edmund manages the animal herds to provide optimal grazing, while building farm infrastructure.
“The soil mineral levels in our pastures are tested every year,” reports Normandy. “And we work to maintain and improve the quality of our pastures with natural amendments such as lime. We have seen the grass grow greener and taller under our management just in the last three years.”
The Browns say “quality grass results in uniquely flavored beef.”
Garth, with a degree in English from Columbia University, also works on repairing and building farm infrastructure, managing inventory and delivery and moving animals for rotational grazing and takes responsibility for coming up with the idea of raising bamboo. One goal of the family is raising bamboo as forage for their livestock, which also consists of grass-fed lamb, pastured poultry and more than 80 pastured pigs.
“Several years ago while brainstorming on the topic of winter grazing Garth thought of bamboo. Genius that Garth is, he was not the first American to consider bamboo as a possible crop,” admits Edmund. “It’s routinely fed to animals all over the place in Asia. Panda bears, which by all accounts are horrible at digesting roughage, survive on it through snow filled winters.”
Edmund says bamboo is actually a grass.
“The best bamboo variety we’ve tried is Phyllostachus bissettii,” Edmund reports. “I purchased four types of cold hardy bamboo, but only that one has truly thrived.”
The farm has also tried two species of the genus Sasa, and a Fargesia variety, which have all failed in the northeast climate. Two unidentified varieties that were dug up in PA, and may be Phyllostachus and giant river cane Arundinaria gigantea have survived, but have not “thrived.”
“There are many more species to trial,” said Edmund. “We’d love somebody — academic/research funding — to take a run at our bamboo experiment for grazing season extension, but so far haven’t had any solid interest.”
Brown says they have not pampered the bamboo plantings, as they wanted to see how well the plantings would tolerate competing with native grasses. “Now that I’m satisfied the bamboo is capable of holding its own against other plants, I’ve decided to give it a helping hand with some mulch and fertilizer.”
Edmund says being a grazier means taking the herd through an entire calendar year on only pasture, with the animals doing 100 percent of harvesting. “Accomplishing this feat is easier said than done, particularly in my climate. Everyone I know feeds hay through the winter, some less than others, but everyone does it. The metric we graziers use is ‘days on hay’ because it approximates ‘money out of pocket’. Winter feed is the single largest expense when it comes to keeping cows. Every day of not feeding hay means more money in my pocket.”
Edmund says in many parts of the mid-west and plains producers routinely carry their herds through winter with few days of hay feeding.
“In the upper Midwest — like the Dakotas, and Canadian Prairie Provinces — there is an intermediate practice called ‘swath grazing’, where a field is mowed into windrows and these swaths are then left in the field. With portable electric fence the swaths can be doled out for the cattle to eat in the field. Even in a deep snow year the cows will learn to dig to the swath for dinner and the thick layer of grass makes their effort pay off. If the grass is spread evenly over the whole field the return on investment for digging effort is much lower for the hungry animal. The benefits to the farmer accrue in his or her pocketbook because swathing a field is much less expensive than taking it several steps further into finished bales. Nobody I know swath grazes because it is so much wetter here.”
Edmund reports there is not much research about bamboo documented on the internet.
“Most of the interesting papers I dug up were pretty dated — like from the 1950s — which in some respects encouraged me further because the move to Management intensive Grazing by beef producers really only got legs in the 1980s. It seems likely that nobody has gotten around to trying bamboo as a stockpiled forage because of the challenges.”
These challenges include the fact that establishment costs for bamboo groves are high, sufficient research on feed value of standing bamboo is unavailable, information on how to best manage livestock on bamboo is unavailable, and fertility requirements and yield of forage/acre are also unavailable.
“It is unknown how much hoof traffic a bamboo grove will tolerate before culms are damaged and the stand suffers,” said Edmund. “This is probably type of bamboo, time of year, size of animal, and type of soil dependent.”
Brown says “many ‘unknowns’ means there is a lot of room for experimentation and also a lot of room for ‘failure’ of concept.”
“As for getting starting in beef right now, it’s tough,” Edmund remarked. “Even with a ‘price premium’ from selling 100 percent grass-fed the margins are not great. We’ve found the need to add other products — pork, lamb, chicken, eggs — to our direct marketing efforts in order to generate more money and more interest in what we have to offer.”
Brown says they don’t tie their prices very closely to the conventional beef market. “Our prices are higher than you’ll find in Price Chopper, but pretty comparable to the beef sold in high end supermarkets like Whole Foods and Fairway. I think there is a bit of a premium to be found by taking meat to New York City or the suburbs of New York City compared with Albany, but not a really big one.”
The Browns say they are committed to quality.
“Our animals are not given any routine antibiotics, hormones, or pour-on-insecticides. Because we sell only meat from our farm, we know each animal’s history. We are a true family-owned and operated farm. All the meat we sell comes from our farm. We are small enough for intimate care of our land and livestock, but large enough to grow beef and pork as our profession. Every cut is labeled and traceable to a single animal. We personally guarantee the purity and quality of our meat.”