With the unofficial start of summer kicking off this Memorial Day weekend, I thought it would be a great time to take a deeper look into meat at market. I’ve heard a lot of questions lately about the seasonality of meat, especially pasture raised and grass fed animals so I took a trip to Cibola Farms in Culpepper, VA to get some answers.
When I pulled up to the farm I met Rex, the Farm Operation Foreman at Cibola Farms who is usually working the buffalo stand at our Dupont Circle farmers market on Sundays. When I arrived we hopped into the Kobota RTV (think a golf cart for a farm!) and started our tour with a visit to Cibola’s advanced herd. Commonly referred to as buffalo, Cibola’s herds consist of American Bison, the same animals that used to roam huge swaths of North America in numbers upward of 25 million. The buffalo population was decimated to under 1000 in the 1800?s, but recently with the increase in demand for meat and the rise of sustainable buffalo farms, like Cibola, the number of buffalo in the United States today is about 500,000. The advanced herd of buffalo at Cibola Farms is home to some of their older animals, a mix of both bulls (boys) and cows (females who have calved before). They were happily munching on grass and were scratching off their woolly winter coats with their horns and the help of trees and fence posts when we saw them.
When I asked about what the buffalo ate during winter, Rex explained how he rolls out huge bundles of hay for the heard to feast on every couple of days in winter. They get their hay from a neighboring farm and when the bales are rolled out, it?s a literal hay buffet and the whole heard will graze together until it?s all gone. Cibola also supplements the hay with some free choice snacks, like pine needles and garlic which are available to the buffalo all year round at their leisure. The pine needles are a natural dewormer and the garlic helps keep parasites at bay. During the grass grazing season, pressed blocks of grain are used as treats to lure the buffalo into new paddocks, which they are moved to every few days. Cibola has a total of 35 paddocks which means that it takes a least 30 days for a heard to make the rounds back to the same spot. This ensures that the land has time to rest and rejuvenate before the next grazing.
When grass starts growing on Cibola Farm, usually between March and April, the buffalo transition from eating hay back to eating grass. As you would with changing the diet of any animal, Rex and the other farm workers at Cibola are sure to keep an extra close watch on the herd animals to make sure that each one stays healthy through the transition from dry hay to moist grasses and weeds. Once the buffalo are on a full grass diet again, they will continue to get their fill, moving from paddock to paddock until the a select few are led into transport trailers using a Temple Grandin designed corral system. Between June and November is when buffalo, no more than a dozen at a time, are taken to a USDA approved buffalo processing facility. By August some of the buffalo have had enough grazing time to ensure the tender, nutrient rich and flavorful meat that Cibola Farm?s grass-range buffalo is known for. Once the days start to get shorter and the grass grows back with less vigor the whole process starts over with hay roll buffets until spring when the buffalo can chow down on all 500 acres of fine green Cibola Farm grass once more.
Driving through the paddocks and getting to see the young herd, the advanced herd and some of the special needs animals, including an 8 week old baby buffalo that Rex bottle feeds daily, was an incredible experience. The buffalo at Cibola Farm are treated with respect and can go their whole lives on the farm with minimal human interaction. With the exception of annual check ups for all and occasional pregnancy tests for the females the folks at Cibola let their animals graze, mate, raise and wean their young all on their own. It?s no wonder that Cibola Farms prides itself on their principles of sustainable, humane and ecologically friendly treatment. In addition to their buffalo herd, Cibola also raises Tamworth heritage breed hogs using the same sustainable management practices as they do with their buffalo. They just took their hogs to slaughter a few days ago and are expecting more pigs to arrive any day now.
Cibola is unique in that they sell their products directly to their customers at our farmers markets and at their on farm shop. Each purchase you make from Cibola helps support their principles, their staff and their animals. If you eat meat, choose to support local farmers! Creating healthy, wholesome and natural food is only half of the sustainability equation, the other half is you, the customer who supports this work with your hard earned dollars. Yes, locally and humanely raised meat is more expensive but it?s up to us to create the change we want to see in the world so start small and when it comes to grilling out this summer, be sure to pick up a pack of bacon with your buffalo burgers from Cibola Farms at our Dupont Circle or Penn Quarter FRESHFARM Markets!
Written by Nikki Warner, Markets & Communication Manager at FRESHFARM Markets