Charlie Sydnor has been involved with beef cattle for as long as he can remember, starting from his time growing up in Montana. He raised cattle in what he calls a rather conventional method until the late 1990s, which is when he looked at the scientific data on grass-fed beef.
“It dawned on me that that’s what we ate when I was growing up — grass-fed beef,” said Sydnor. “Then I looked at it from a historical perspective, and realized that most of our beef prior to 1945 was grass-fed.”
Sydnor, a former neuro-ophthalmologist, has developed Braeburn Farm in Snow Camp, NC, to produce meat in a highly organized intensive grazing system.
“One of the biggest problems we have in the grass-fed beef industry is that we don’t finish them,” said Sydnor. “We raise them to 900 pounds, which is really just a heavy feeder. They don’t have enough intramuscular fat because that’s the last fat to be put on. They’re tender, but they aren’t always flavorful. The key to a good eating experience is good beef flavor with some marbling, and that means a 24-month-old animal with some intramuscular fat that weighs about 1,200 to 1,300 pounds. We’re doing that on grass.”
Sydnor says his shift in thinking about how to raise cattle was in 2001, on 9/11.
“I had about five loads of stocker cattle to go out of Virginia,” he said. “The price dropped 10 cents/lb and I lost $25,000 that day.” Sydnor recalls taking a hard look at what he was doing. “I realized that I had the wrong cows, I was producing the wrong product, my place was a mess and I was making too much hay. I didn’t like the way the stream banks looked and I didn’t like sending cattle to feedlots. I had been rotationally grazing, but not to the degree I am now.”
After that realization, Sydnor decided to change everything about what he was doing. He evaluated his cowherd, studied more about raising cattle on grass, and decided to use Red Devon semen on his Angus cows. “I was no longer in the commodity business,” he said. “I was in the grass-fed beef business.
In 2002, Sydnor worked with the North Carolina Wetland Restoration Program to design a paddock system and restore the stream to a healthy status. Each pasture is subdivided into four to eight sub-paddocks, so there are close to 200 pastures. With a conservation easement on the creek, there was enough funding to drill three wells and put in underground pipe to supply waterers in 34, 15-acre paddocks. There were also major improvements made to the existing creek.
“They filled in the old creek and created a new creek that was one-third longer with more meander in it, raised the water table and recreated some of the wetlands,” said Sydnor. “We could see more than a mile up the creek. Now water that leaves the farm is cleaner than the water than comes in.”
Well-known grazier Jim Garrish worked with Sydnor to help with a pasture management plan. Rather than seeding, pastures are allowed to grow naturally. “If I manage properly, I’ll have a smorgasbord of plants,” said Sydnor. “I started mob grazing — the cows are in a small area for a short time, then we give that area a rest period.”
Rather than feeding a mineral mix to the herd, Sydnor uses a multi-mineral feeding system so that cattle can select what they want. He says this helps balance the nutrients they’re receiving from the pasture. “I want the cow in the best shape possible on the day she calves,” said Sydnor, who tries to maintain cows with good body condition scores so that they have healthy calves and will rebreed easily.
Sydnor notes that the Red Devon cows in his 120-head herd are deep in the chest, wide in the rear and not too tall. Cows from Wye Angus stock make up part of the herd, and says when those cows are bred to a Red Devon bull, the resulting calves are outstanding.
“The animals incredibly docile because they’re moved every day,” he said. “When it’s time to wean, calves are placed on one side of the fence with cows on the other. They bawl for two days, then they get hungry and go off and eat. There’s really no stress.” Sydnor compares these home-grown calves to those he used to purchased at the livestock market that required castration, dehorning, deworming and a move to winter pasture.
“I’ve never been especially sensitive to breed,” said Sydnor. “We raised Shorthorns when I was a kid, and by the time I went back to the ranch in 1960, all we saw was Herefords. Later, Angus and the continentals came in. We went from short cattle in the 1950s to giant cattle in the 1980s, and now we’re going back to shorter cattle. I think there’s a happy medium.”
In addition to beef cattle, Braeburn Farm produces chickens, eggs, pork and ducks. An average of two beef animals are taken to the processor each week. Marketing is through several outlets, including high end restaurants, farmers markets and on-farm sales.
“I prefer to sell my product in the local market where I have control over the price,” said Sydnor. “I’m producing a product I can be very proud of.”