If growing up on a farm provides a solid background for a future in agriculture, Robert and Bailey Bannister had the right start on their family’s farms in Orleans County, NY.
Bailey’s dad raised beeves and row crops, and she was actively involved with the livestock as she grew up. She attended the University of Nebraska as an animal science and meat science major.
Robert’s family also raised beef cattle, and after high school, he attended SUNY Morrisville to study ag business. The two married and moved to a ranch in North Dakota where Robert worked with a beef herd and Bailey became involved with Cooperative Extension.
“We had our first child and wanted to move back to family,” said Bailey of returning to New York. “Most of our family had settled in western New York so we moved back in 2014 and started farming here.”
The Bannisters settled on Robert’s parents’ farm in Kent. “My grandpa bought the farm in 1958,” said Robert. “He had beef cows and raised fruit.” Robert’s father, Roger, continued the cattle operation, selecting bulls for high marbling, which provided the young couple with good cattle. The Bannisters have since purchased more cattle and continue to improve their 45-head herd.
To make faster genetic improvements, Robert and Bailey use both AI and bulls. “We always try to select the best bulls we can afford,” said Robert, adding that his father purchased bulls from a well-known Angus breeder in Missouri. “He selected for carcass traits.”
Although Robert has seen positive traits in both red and black cattle, he has found Red Angus are more docile, which is important to the Bannisters as they raise their three young children. Today, the Bannisters select bulls for both AI and live breeding based on calving ease, carcass and docility. They track performance and temperament and cull animals that don’t meet their standards.
In the past, the Bannisters bred both natural cover and AI to Black and Red Angus with primarily Gardiner Angus bloodlines. To enhance muscling, they introduced Red Wagyu bloodlines via AI. They now have their own Red Wagyu (Akaushi) bull from Texas to further enhance marbling and muscling.
The cowherd is bred for spring calving (mid to late April) in a 45- to 60-day window. “We pull the bulls in fall,” said Robert, “and we cull anything that’s bred out of our calving window.” One reason for strict culling based on calving time is because the family is busy harvesting fruit in autumn.
The herd is rotationally grazed, some set stock on leased ground and others more intensively where appropriate on the home farm. Bailey said the intensively grazed cattle are moved frequently according to season and pasture conditions.
When the pasture no longer provides adequate feed, a coverall building houses cows and calves through winter. “In fall, we bring them home where the calves are fence line weaned and vaccinated,” said Robert. Calves remain with cows until about six months of age. “We put the cows back on grass depending on the year.” He noted fence line weaning works well and is less stressful for calves.
Calves are finished on free-choice alfalfa baleage along with corn silage, ground corn and minerals. The target weight for finished calves ranges from 1,200 to 1,350 pounds. To ensure an ample supply of beef for customers, the Bannisters use three processors certified by USDA and/or New York State. Bailey said the closest USDA processor requires clients to book heavy calves for processing a year in advance, which means planning ahead to make appointments for calves that aren’t yet born.
“Even if we schedule ahead of time, butchers have a set number of farmers they’ll process for, and will process only a certain number,” said Bailey. “We’re also working with another USDA processor that just opened. They’re new so they’re more flexible with dates.”
When the Bannisters first sold beef, farmers markets were their best option. The three markets they attended regularly proved to be a good way to introduce their products. “We started in 2014 with four or five animals to sell,” said Robert. “This year we’ll have more than 60.”
Bailey said it was sometimes challenging to enter new farmers markets as a vendor, and attending markets regularly became difficult with young children. Inconsistent customer flow was sometimes an issue, especially in bad weather or if other events were occurring in the area. However, Bailey enjoyed sharing the story of how their beef is raised and found that customers appreciate meeting the farmer. “I like to explain the cuts, and people enjoy hearing firsthand from the farmer,” said Bailey.
The Bannisters established themselves at markets, and the more they attended, the more people returned for beef. “We did that for a few years and established a good customer base,” said Bailey, “but it was much easier to start selling through pre-orders.” By 2019, the third year of operation, the Bannisters had established enough demand to sell directly from the farm.
Today the Bannisters sell beef directly from the farm and have figured out how to simplify the process for customers. “We found out early that people like to be given an example of what to buy,” said Bailey. “They might not want to commit to an entire quarter or half, and often have no idea what to do with a cut sheet because they’ve never seen one.”
The average customer who is new to purchasing directly from the farm is often unfamiliar with the cuts included with a quarter. “We explain to customers what to expect with their purchase, so they know what they’re getting at a set price,” said Bailey. “We can tell them they’re going to get exactly 40 pounds of ground beef, a certain number of steaks and how much it will cost.” After customers have purchased a package, they are more familiar with the cuts and know what to expect with their next purchase.
Bannister beef is advertised primarily through word of mouth and social media. “We make a lot of sales through Facebook,” said Bailey, “but we get in a lot of faces with Instagram.” She added that in the last year or two, quite a few new customers, including some from New York City, have found Bannister Beef through an internet search.
The Bannisters sometimes find themselves discussing topics such as antibiotics, hormones and GMOs. “People ask because it’s something they’ve heard and want to know more about,” said Bailey. “But after they find out how the animals spend their lives, they’re happy with the explanation.” More importantly, customers are happy with how the beef tastes.
“Our customers have been great,” said Bailey. “The ones who keep coming back have kept us going.”
Visit Bannister Beef online at bannisterbeef.com.
by Sally Colby