Raising beef cattle in a constantly changing market can be tough, but fifth-generation farmer Kienan Gridley is committed to continuing his family’s legacy, started in the late 1800s in Fayetteville, NY. Most recently, the family had been in the dairy business, but sold the dairy herd in 2010. Today, the dairy barns house heifers for a neighboring dairy farm while Gridley raises beeves on pasture.

Gridley attended Cornell University, first as a food science major before switching to animal science. “After graduation, I entered the dairy industry as a nutritionist,” he said. “In 2011 I returned to the farm. Shortly after coming back to the farm I maintained my off-farm job and decided to start raising beef.” He credits his wife Stacey, who also works off-farm, and his father Edward for their contributions to the farm that allow him to work as a dairy nutritionist.

To start developing his beef herd, Gridley purchased cattle from a local dealer and area cattle farms to obtain suitable females – a combination of pregnant cows and cows with a calf at side. “I wasn’t sure which direction to go with my herd,” he said. “I put together a mix of Black Angus, Red Angus and Herefords. I had heard good things about Herefords being docile and easy to handle, and in my experience, that is absolutely correct.”

Today Gridley maintains the same breeds he started with and appreciates the contributions of each one. Females are all bred via AI, which allows him to maintain purebred lines. He selects sires based on breed indexes that predict the traits he’s looking for. “I use sexed semen on heifers,” he said. “Heifer calves are a little smaller and easier on younger animals.”

Because Gridley works off-farm, having a short, predictable calving window is important and allows him to provide optimum care for cows and calves. What works best for him is breeding in autumn for a mid-summer calving season. He’s aware of the drawbacks of such timing, but said the arrangement works out well because it enables him to breed cows when they’re already coming back to the barn for late autumn/winter when pastures are no longer productive.

“It’s a natural, easy time for me to synchronize them for breeding,” said Gridley. “When cows return from pasture just prior to breeding, they’re housed on a bedded pack.” Calves are born in the bedded pack barn, adjacent to the farm’s handling facilities, which makes it easy and less stressful if an animal requires treatment. Gridley holds cow/calf pairs in the barn for several weeks to ensure good mothering and to avoid turning them out onto extremely hilly pasture before they’re ready. The bedded pack is cleaned out each spring and spread on ground that will most benefit from nutrients.

Throughout the growing season, cows and calves graze on pasture.  Gridley plans to work on further developing his rotational grazing system to optimize available pasture. “I work with some good organic dairy farmers who graze,” he said. “I see how a good grazing setup can optimize pasture, along with clipping at the right time and being able to easily move animals from one paddock to another.”

The farm is on rolling ground, with some of the steep hillside areas designated as permanent pasture. On more level ground, Gridley makes hay – some as dry hay and some as baleage. “I use the dry hay when I have just a few cows in confinement or when I’m not ready to pull cows off pasture entirely,” he said. “I also make some small square bales to sell as horse hay.”

Gridley’s Cold Spring Beef

While he works off-farm as a dairy nutritionist, Kienan Gridley also raises his own beef herd, a a mix of Black Angus, Red Angus and Herefords. Photo courtesy of Cold Spring Beef

The farm has two solar arrays, both of which were installed in the early 2000s as part of a USDA and NYSERDA grant. Solar supplies most of the electricity used on the farm.

In addition to being grass-fed, cattle are finished on a combination of pasture and baleage and supplemented with a customized mineral mix. Calves remain with cows through winter and are weaned when the herd is turned out to pasture in spring. Finished cattle are sent for processing at about 22 to 24 months. Cattle are processed at a USDA-inspected facility so Gridley can sell individual cuts directly from the farm.

One challenge that comes with calves born in a tight window is having to send calves that haven’t quite reached optimum weight, but Gridley’s customers appreciate having access to beef from a local herd. “I carry a bit of inventory,” he said. “But there are times of the year I’m running only half of my freezers because I’m sold out. My consumer base understands this, and they can always buy a half or a quarter. If they really want a particular cut, they’ll buy a lot of that when I have it.”

The farm’s location near a populated area has both benefits and drawbacks. “Population centers have consumers,” said Gridley, “especially consumers who like the grass-fed, grass-finished product I have.” As he added more cattle, Gridley built his market for grass-fed beef slowly, mostly by word of mouth and social media. “I grew into it,” he said. “I’ve kept a closed herd and my market developed slowly. The power of a click, a like and a share goes a long way.”

Gridley posts his cut list for Cold Spring Beef on social media and includes some of the more recently developed cuts consumers are learning about including Denver steak, a beef chuck primal cut; ranch steak, a primal cut from the shoulder; Teres Major steak, from the shoulder or chuck; and Tomahawk steak, a ribeye cut with at least five inches of rib bone.

This past year, Gridley formalized his retail setup on the farm and sells beef by appointment. Although he admitted it takes a dedicated consumer to make an appointment to purchase beef, Gridley has built a customer base that continues to grow.

While he sees the potential for adding more cattle in the future and would like to add more fence to provide more pasture, he carefully watches cattle numbers to ensure adequate winter housing. “We don’t have the terrain to winter animals outside,” he said. “In winter, when they’re on the bedded pack, they have access to an outdoor exercise area. We have marginal land on the farm that’s underutilized. It’s just a couple of fence posts away from being pasture.”

Over the years, Gridley has worked with Onondaga Soil & Water Conservation District to make pasture improvements to exclude cattle from wetlands. He plans to continue working to improve pastures and laneways and to manage potential erosion.

“I’m trying to invest in the right places to make the operation continue,” he said, adding that pasture improvement is at the top of the list for future success. “We want it to last for the long run.”

by Sally Colby