Beef and Bira Buta pigs at Shaw Road
by Sonja Heyck-Merlin
In 1995, Fred and Karen Cookson purchased 200-acre Shaw Road Farm in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, as a retirement project. In 2013, a fire destroyed their house and 150-by-55-foot renovated dairy barn where they raised a small number of beef cattle. Both buildings were on the National Register of Historic Places. Fred and Karen briefly searched for a different farm after the fire but realized there were no comparable properties as ideal for raising and pasturing beeves.
The regeneration of the farm after the fire included a new house, a four-sided 50-by-70-foot trussed barn and the return of their son, Ben, and his wife, Ashley, in 2016. The 100% grass-fed herd of Black and Red Angus has grown significantly since Ben’s return, and the farm has also diversified into egg, pork and lamb production. Including the land they lease, they have about 130 acres of open land – two-thirds for hay and a third for pasturing.
“When I moved up five years ago,” Ben said, “my dad was finishing just a few cows a year. In 2019, we did 22, and this year we’ll be up in the forties.” Currently, they are overwintering about 40 animals, which are split into two groups in the barn. One is a group of 14 bred cows and their two breeding bulls. The other group is comprised of mixed ages who will be processed at 14 – 16 months old. Ben noted that with the increased demand for their product they are processing earlier than they’d like. To meet this demand, they also plan to purchase some grass-fed young stock in 2021.
The floor of the new barn is concrete, with the concrete extending outside. The bred cows eat from a feed bunk in the barn, while the young stock accesses feed from round bale feeders located on the outside pad. Of the 500 bales of forage they put up each year, one-third is dry hay and two-thirds is individually wrapped baleage. Both dry hay and baleage is available to both groups at all times during the non-grazing season.
Since Ben works in close proximity to their bulls in both the confinement and grazing seasons, one of his goals is to breed a less temperamental bull, and in his experience Red Angus are easier to manage. However, he prefers the meat from the Black Angus. To this end, Ben said, “We recently inseminated one of our Black Angus mothers with red English bull semen from England. I hope to get a Black Angus bull with a Red Angus temperament.”
The two winter groups are merged together during the grazing season, which starts around May 8. The perimeter of the 80 acres of pasture is fenced with steel wire. A lane running the full length of the property divides the acreage in half, with a 1.25-inch black plastic pipe running alongside the lane. Using jumpers off the pipe, the cows are never farther than 100 yards from fresh water, and they also have free choice access to minerals at all times.
Ben creates temporary paddocks with poly poles and poly wire. “During the early part of the grazing season, the herd is moved every 24 hours. Once it hits June and the grass is really growing, we move them twice a day. This encourages them to eat down everything and not trample down the grass,” he said. The goal is to have a rest period of 45 days.
The water tub is moved each time the herd gets a new paddock, and a back wire prevents the cows from accessing any of the previous paddocks. “We found that if we left the water tub in the same spot it would get muddy and sacrifice a lot of grass,” Ben said. “We also want to make sure we’re concentrating the manure on each paddock rather than in areas where they’ve already grazed.”
Because the cows don’t get any grain and aren’t handled very often, Ben said they are fundamentally wild animals with large flight zones (the distance within which a person can approach it before it moves away). By understanding flight zones, Ben said he can make better decisions about how to approach a group of animals and how to get them to move in a specific direction.
“Our entire farm is inspired by Temple Grandin and her low stress cattle handling techniques,” Ben said. (Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a pioneer in the field of humane livestock handling.) Ben said, “Reduction of stress is a key component to superior quality beef. Increased stress triggers adrenaline and an increase in the pH or acidity of the meat.”
One of Grandin’s techniques that Ben uses is eliminating shadows in the barn when they are handling or loading animals for transport to a local slaughterhouse. Ben said they don’t leave anything hanging in the line of vision of the animals. “We also manage the colors of our clothing,” he said. “They can recognize shapes and they can recognize me. In winter or summer, I am always in a black shirt and jeans.”
Additionally, through the use of a careful grazing plan, they use paddocks close to the barn when it’s time to cut animals out of the herd for loading onto a trailer. “The goal is to never move them where they don’t want to go. During the grazing season, we use body language and the green grass to get them where they need to be,” he said.
The majority of their meat is sold locally, either at the farm, farmers markets or through the farm’s website, and Ben is proud of the personal connections he makes with his customers. “Our aim is customer satisfaction,” he said. “I give out my cell phone number and email to everyone. They can call me up anytime with questions or to ask for a recipe for a specific cut of meat.”
With current demand so high, Shaw Road is unable to fulfill requests for halves and quarters. In Ben’s opinion, however, most customers are better off with a well-curated mix of cuts. “I will have a conversation with a customer and put together a package that makes sense for them. People really appreciate that, rather than handing them a quarter of a cow,” he said.
With the enthusiasm of the next generation, there is much potential for growth and innovation at the farm. In particular, Ben is excited to expand pork production and is planning to raise 50 “Bira Buta” pigs in 2021. “Bira Buta” production entails giving each pig six craft beers per day during their last 30 days. “Depending on the hop profile or style of beer, it can sweeten up the pork and change how it crisps up,” Ben said.
One long-term goal is to start a destination on-farm microbrewery. Customers will be able to quaff a pint, eat a burger made with Shaw Road chuck and see how their food is produced.
“There’s a lot of demand for local food. That’s my niche and what I believe in,” Ben said.