AmericanFarm.com

Doyles find new life with bison

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFP Correspondent

READINGTON TOWNSHIP (July 15, 2015) — With nearly 100 bison on their farm, it’s a good thing Erick and Gerald Doyle have good neighbors and supportive local government in Readington Township in eastern Hunterdon County.
The Doyles say they put a premium on safety, as unlike relatively docile cows that come when a farmer calls for them, bison have minds of their own.
Females are extremely protective of their calves and won’t hesitate to charge any person or animal that gets too close.
Erick Doyle actively manages the farm with help from his wife, Kristin, and his father, mother and sister.
Since 1998, Erick Doyle has been managing the Readington River Buffalo Farm and is owner of the Readington River Buffalo Co., the retail farm market that sells their natural, grass-fed buffalo meat, burgers, steaks and other products.
In 1998, Doyle said he was rudderless, working in a ski area in Colorado for three years after graduating with a bachelor of science and math from Colgate University, when his father, a retired chemist from Exxon, called him with an opportunity to manage and eventually own the 400-acre tract of preserved farmland.
Doyle has been managing the farm since then. His wife Kristin works in pharmaceutical marketing and oversees the operation’s website (http://njbison.co.nf.)
They have two daughters, ages 7 and 8, who Erick said take particular delight in selling watermelons grown on the farm — Doyle has a half-acre vegetable tract — during summer.
“Right now, I’m pretty much seven days a week,” Erick, 43, explained in the office inside one of their barns, “I don’t keep any set schedule and when work needs to be done, I’m working.”
While working at Exxon, Erick’s father Gerald raised beef cattle and pigs on a “gentleman’s farm” in the area. The younger Doyle lives in a house right on site off Route 523 in Readington.
Of the roughly 100 bison, there are three breeder bulls, about 40 brood cows and the rest the offspring of those brood cows.
“Most of them will wind up on the table,” he explained, “and we like to use the term ‘all-natural’ to describe our operation, because we don’t give our buffalo any growth stimulants, hormones, steroids, antibiotics, things that are common in the beef industry, we don’t subscribe to that.”
Other than some unanticipated soil erosion which wreaked some havoc with several of their fences, i.e., young calves can get under the fences, but can’t get under a secondary electric fence that encloses all the feeding pastures, Erick said he’s also learned from small irrigation blunders up on his half-acre vegetable growing tract.
That area is surrounded by three acres of feed corn, some of which is used to fatten young calves up before what have been fairly brutal winters in recent years.
“We do it to give ourselves a bit of feed supply, but in general, we don’t give the bison a lot of corn,” he explained.
“Of the 400 acres, 100 of that is pasture and we have a little bit for vegetables here and the farmstead area, but everything else is hay, so it’s much more economical to feed them hay, we feed them as much hay as we can.”
The calves do get some corn, mainly right after they’re weaned, “because we want to give them as good a fighting chance for that first winter as we can.”
Calves are born in April and May and the Doyle’s wean them the first week in November.
“When that happens they are really on their own and even though it’s a New Jersey winter and nothing like they’d be getting in Minnesota or Idaho or Manitoba, it’s still unforgiving.”
Doyle has been charged by cows who are “very protective of their children, but there’s always at least one mean one, and it most often happens during our round-up the first Saturday in November when we wean them, tag them and get the calves settled in for winter.”
Unlike beef and dairy cattle, which Doyle has plans to raise in a few years when a nearby gas pipeline project is completed, bison are wild animals.
As such, “they’re at their best when we’re not involved, so I handle them as little as possible.”
That makes finding which cows are especially good breeders real difficult, so he has looked into a drone mounted with a camera and will be purchasing a small drone to learn how it can best be utilized in managing various herds.
“This guy came out last month and took the drone out with a video camera and he got close enough so that I could see all I needed to know about the herd. I was blown away by it. Even though we can justify it as a business expense, I still look at it like it’s a toy.”
The Doyles are addressing the erosion problem with assistance from employees of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s New Jersey offices.
The local NRCS offices are helping the Doyles with their erosion and fence issues and out in the pastures near the buffalo, he showed The New Jersey Farmer some of the erosion damage, noting the fence was installed 15 years ago and there was no way to anticipate the kind of erosion damage that has occurred since.
NRCS is going to help Doyle and his father divide their larger pastures into smaller grazing areas for even more efficient use of the land.
Breaking the land up into smaller pastures “allows us to better manage our rotational grazing, since the grass will be healthier once we do that, we’ll be able to raise 130 or 140 head and still maintain healthy pastures.”
When that several-years-off project is completed, Doyle said, the buffalo can enjoy even better food.
“When they have large wide open areas, they always pick the stuff they want to eat the most, and when you confine them to a smaller pasture they eat what’s available.
Once that’s all eaten down you let them into the next pasture and two weeks later the next smaller pasture and all the good grasses will be at a size to receive them once again.”
Not surprisingly, being a large buffalo raising farm draws a lot of attention from passers-by on Route 523, who can often see the buffalo out in the fields and see the signs for the retail store out front.
Thankfully, Erick said the Doyle family receives support from the surrounding community.
“We have a very strong community support system, and a lot of my customers are people we see every week. All of the neighbors are also customers. I really like that, and since I feel I have a superior product, I want people I know and care about to receive the best we have to offer.”
The way the Doyle’s look at it, if a bison busts through an interior fence, that’s an inconvenience, “but if she busts through an outer fence, that’s a catastrophe.”
The breeder bulls are several pastures away and sequestered right now, and nine months out of the year they have nothing to do with the rest of the herd.
Erick and his family keep scrupulous records on all the calves, cows and three breeder bulls and each one is tagged and numbered.
The breeder bulls will be let out into the general population in early July, Doyle said.
“Boy are they looking forward to coming back down here.”