The American Bison, the country’s national mammal as of 2016, used to roam across the continent, from northern Canada to Mexico, Oregon to Pennsylvania. Tens of millions of bison roamed the continent’s grasslands until the 1800s, when humans intervened. The systemic slaughtering of them to remove food sources for indigenous people, plus a reduction in grasslands from the growth of the railroad, agriculture and settlements, brought their numbers down to a few hundred.
But through conservation efforts, the wild bison population is back up to around 30,000, with 400,000 more being raised for livestock.
Catching a glimpse of these awesome animals brings hundreds of thousands of people out west every year. But at Readington River Buffalo Farm (buffalo is a colloquial term for American Bison) in Hunterdon County, you can see the animals up close, where they range on 400 acres of land. You can take some bison meat home, spend an afternoon on the grounds (with a pretty cool built-in saloon) or attend an autumnal event or the wildly popular Lunar Faire.
The farm today, with about 70 bison, plus cattle, chickens and pigs, and unique farm structures and equipment, has been decades in the making. Erick Doyle has managed the farm for 25 years with his wife, Kristen. The idea to bring bison to New Jersey started out West, while Erick was living in Colorado.
“My dad was a chemist by trade. He didn’t want a gym membership, but he wanted to keep himself active by producing something and not running on a treadmill. He and my mom basically built the farm,” Doyle says—his parents built a cattle farm and operated it for about 20 years. “And then when I was living in Colorado, they came out to visit me and we got to eat lunch at a ranch that raised bison, and that’s where the idea was born. They quickly learned that the farm they were on would be inadequate for bison due to the layout and the pasture system. So, coincidentally, one town over a much larger farm became available at auction through the Farmland Preservation Program.”
Doyle’s parents bought a stud bull from South Dakota and some cows from Nebraska and Indiana and conducted a “pretty intensive breeding program.” They bought more stock along the way, and “pretty much let nature take its course.”
Raising cattle proved to be suitable experience for raising bison, Doyle says—“the process of pasturing, feeding and maintaining them isn’t really that much different … for the most part you’re not interacting with them. You’re just putting out food for them.”
Which is how it ought to be—not only are pasture-raised animals healthier and happier animals, but how many times have we seen on the news someone thinking bison are docile animals that they can approach only to be gored?
“They’re wild animals. That means they’re unpredictable and dangerous. You really need to be extra careful,” Doyle says. “I can’t figure out for the life of me why these massive creatures don’t inspire a similar type of fear that a crocodile or a hippopotamus would. They’re not to be trusted because they have that wild instinct.”
Doyle’s parents quickly realizes that managing these animals on a large scale required more manpower, so Doyle moved back to Jersey in 1998 to help manage the work. While the broad strokes of raising bison and cattle may have been similar, the equipment needed to manage the herd and a farm of that size are different, and required some on-the-job learning.
“With every new piece of machinery you introduce yourself to, there’s damage just through not knowing how to deal with the temperament of that particular piece of equipment, and also just making efficient farming decisions on the best way to utilize what you’re [using],” Doyle says. “The first couple years we were involved, the silo caught on fire and that’s a big to-do. Fortunately we haven’t had a silo fire since 1999. I think we figured that out early enough, to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Although bison roamed far east just a couple centuries ago, modern bison raising takes place primarily out West, where pastures are gigantic and food sources are different. So the Doyles had to figure out the best way to raise their cattle on fewer acres and provide enough good food to ensure the animals remain healthy, well-fed and disease-free.
“They don’t have the roaming range that you do in the West; you have to be very, very careful,” Doyle says. “It requires just a different course of worming medications. You have to go through a whole different process.”
Because they’re being raised for meat, what goes into the bison affects how that meat tastes. Doyle says he can taste the difference between meat from his bison and those raised out West.
“I like the taste of the meat that is raised on the East Coast better. Because the grasses are of much lower quality in both nutrition and abundance, the bison need to work a lot harder,” Doyle says. “The last time I bought Western bison [maybe 20 yeas ago], it had a very sagey taste to it from the prairie grasses, and I could smell it when it was cooking.”
Doyle supplements the range grasses with hay culled from the farm and spent brewer’s grains obtained from nearby Conclave Brewing in Flemington.
Doyle says Readington River Farm sells a lot of ground bison, but also offers muscle cuts—hangar, skirt and rib-eye steaks, London broil, as well as ground and fortified patties. Now paying for a premium food product like farm-raised, largely free-range bison comes with a higher price tag than what you’ll buy in the store, but Doyle says he prices the meat (roughly from $15-$20 for ground bison and most muscle cuts) so people can come away with something for dinner.
“If you come into the store and see a little sticker shock from the ribeye and T-bone, you’ll at least be able to come home with something. You’ll fall in love with the flavor of it, and then you’ll say you’re ready to come back and buy yourself a steak,” Doyle says.
Paying a premium for well-raised meat also supports better food systems. While Doyle has learned from mistakes in the past, he’s now operating a farm that regenerates the soil and takes care of the land. The farm once managed about 120 bison, but the overuse led to land degradation and erosion, so Doyle cut the number of head basically in half. That decision has led to improvements in the land.
“Generally, smaller farms have a lower environmental impact, but even with that in mind, there does need to be a substantial amount of stewardship with the land,” Doyle says. “Probably about 15 years ago, I started to get very aggressive with the need to reestablish the fields and be worthy of the animals that are on it and the people that come to visit it.”
Doyle partnered with local and federal government and environmental groups to assist in restoring the land, all at a minimal cost, provided that Doyle was willing to do the work—he, and his crew, have indeed been willing. In fact, he added about three miles of fencing to increase open pasture land. (It worked, on a recent visit, we saw one herd near the farm operation, but couldn’t find the open range herd even after driving around the fields for 15 minutes.)
Readington River Buffalo Farm is a good example of the opportunities and challenges with growing the local food movement. Eating locally grown and raised food can reduce our carbon footprint (as can eating fewer animal products, and reserving the times we do for food grown on farms like Readington River Buffalo Farm), but there are obstacles to doing that.
For instance, there is no commercial processing facility for bison in New Jersey, so Doyle must take his stock to a processing facility in Pennsylvania. It’s a small thing, but those miles add up, and the lack of availability for a local processing facility prevents other small farms from joining the industry. In fact, if we concede that people are going to eat meat, and if we want them to eat less, but higher-quality meat, then the agricultural shift toward factory farms and processing facilities is a direct impediment to making that a reality.
“The trend back post-World War II was everything was booming and the industry was going to try to realize economies of scale by having centralized feedlots, butchering, all of those economically driven innovations where it was ground-breaking at the time,” Doyle says. “Now, 50 years later, we’re starting to see the negative side effects. In 2020, when the meatpacking plants started to get outbreaks of COVID, all the shelves were bare at the supermarket, so decentralizing the meat industry would be very helpful for avoiding problems such as that.
“The centralization of our food systems makes it very difficult for producers to be able to exercise options for where they want to take their animals or even where they could,” Doyle continues. For instance, butchers have long-waiting lists, so sometimes they’re “going to be booking an animal to be butchered before it’s even born,” Doyle says.
But farmers and ranchers like Doyle are producing sustainable (if consumed at responsible intervals) food nonetheless. The other side of it is that consumers must be willing to pay more and spend more time seeking out local food to continue to grow the local food system.
“There needs to be will of the consumer. The convenience of being able to go out and get all the produce and all the meat and everything that you want, there’s real value to that when people are budgeting their time. But in exchange for that extra 10 minutes they would spend by going to two produce stands or limiting themselves to what’s available in their food shed, that will end up being a real way [to get more people eating locally],” Doyle says. “Recognizing the available options in your surrounding area for where you can get locally produced food is a pivotal component to that.”
Readington River Buffalo Farm. 937 County Road 523, Readington, njbison.co