EAST FALLOWFIELD - If we are what we eat, then Dr. Bill Elkins is doing his part to keep us healthy.
At the Buck Run Farm located off Route 82, Elkins' cow and calf operation goes against the tide of the modern corn-fed beef industry. Most of his Black Angus cattle are grazed year-round on only grass, a throwback to ranches 50 years ago when the cows came in daily contact with the earth, sun and the gaze of a farmer.
Striding up a pitched hillside over plentiful grasslands, Elkins comes upon several clusters of Black Angus cows. He calls to a pair of mammoth bulls, round as a barrel through the middle. They lumber over, stopping a couple feet from an electric fence.
On some of the pastures the cattle are supplied with water pumped by solar electric power from Buck Run, a tributary of the Brandywine Creek. There are no artificial fertilizers and the animals are not treated with hormones or antibiotics to enhance their growth.
In the mid-1980s Elkins (a doctor who never practiced) retired from a career in bio-medical science where he was involved in transplantation research using laboratory rodents. Elkins later helped establish the Bone Marrow Transplantation unit at Children's Hospital. Then a resident of Villanova, he and his wife Helen had been searching for a farm. When they were shown a parcel of land just above the Buck and Doe Runs, they snapped it up.
Today, their Buck Run farm occupies 350 acres where roughly 210 head of beef cattle are bred and raised.
'I wanted to change careers and in these parts cattle was the obvious way to go,' recalled Elkins, sitting in the living room of a circa-1810 farmhouse. It was once the home of Andy Dillow, one of the legendary King Ranch's top hands.
'What sold me was the idea of the land easements. I'd seen a lot of open space disappear around the Main Line. Looking back, it was very fortunate tim
ing for us.'
Elkins' property is a slice of the old King Ranch. From before mid-century to the 1980s, cowboys rode herd over thousands of Texas Santa Gertrudis cattle that arrived by the trainload each spring. Known for their brick-red coats and upswept longhorns, they grazed on 12,500 acres of splendid grasslands before being sent to slaughterhouses.
In the early days of Elkins' venture, he learned the ropes from a pair of local hotshot cattle breeders, Craig Kruger and Frank Walton.
'There wasn't much of a market in 1987, or now, for selling registered Angus breeding cows,' said Elkins, 73. 'The cattle commodity market has huge ups and downs.'
He gradually switched the primary emphasis to meat sales.
'First we started with very lean beef, but it didn't taste very good, so that didn't work too well either,' related Elkins with a laugh.
In the mid-1990s medical findings found that beef from grass-fed cattle is an excellent source of good fatty acids, such as CLA, Omega-3 and Vitamin E. Like good and bad cholesterol in our bodies, there are good and bad fatty acids in food. The fatty acids and other important nutrients are richer in antioxidants and may help guard against cancer and heart disease.
'That totally changed my outlook; now we select for plumper Angus,' Elkins said. 'When you put an animal on grain, those good fats go way down. Five or 10 years ago, you couldn't find a restaurant that offered grass-fed beef. Nowadays, we have a tough time keeping up with the demand.'
Helen Elkins is member of the Garden Club of America, for which she consults and reports on conservation and agricultural issues such as the Farm Bill pending in Washington.
'We are not certified organic but we treat our animals and the environment with great care,' she said.
The Aberdeen Angus, as the name suggests, is a product of Scotland. Descendants roam Buck Run grasslands where there are roughly 75 cows (mothers) and another 135 young calves. Calving season begins in March and April and again in September and October. A newborn calf weighs 80 pounds.
They are weaned at seven months and by age two reach 1,000 to 1,100 pounds and shipped to butchers in the region. Feed-lot cattle eat a diet heavy in grain, which makes them gain weight faster (1,200 to 1,400 pounds in 14 months) than cattle foraging on grass. Each year Buck Run offers a limited number of such cattle as breeding stock.
'In selling beef it's very important to have calm animals since that affects texture and taste,' Elkins explained. 'We prefer to raise and sell our own animals, that way I can select out the ones that are very nasty or nervous or the ones whose offspring don't do well on grass.'
Half of Buck Run's cattle are bred through artificial insemination. As a breeding operation, all of the Elkins cattle are registered through the national Angus Association.
'It documents that we're developing the herd in a certain way, so if we ever wanted to sell the business it would be worth more,' Elkins said. 'Our Black Angus would be different than those in a general sale. For the grass finish-ability you want a smaller animal.'
All of the cattle graze on pastures year round except roughly 40 of the two-year-olds, which are separated and finished on grain for 1 to 3 months by request of some customers. Buck Run sells 45-50 pastured animals a year for meat eating.
'The rich corn diet at the end makes them fatter faster and shows more marbling,' he explained. 'Some people can tell the difference in taste with grass fed, but I can't. Different people have different taste buds. Some animals fatten better on grass than others, so we try and sort the animals as best as we can.'
Raising grass-fed cows is more time-consuming and herds tend to be much smaller, which increases the cost. Buck Run Angusburger comes frozen, one pound in a vacuum pack retails roughly $5.50/lb. They use steak and roast cuts to make a premium quality chopped sirloin.
Elkins sells his Angusburger to Philadelphia's Reading Market on Fridays and the White Dog Caf' near Penn, as well as Petes Produce Farm near Westtown. Like many farmers, the Elkinses also sell directly to consumers at the farm. The meat is available at Community Supported Agriculture such as the Inverbrook Farm in Avondale and Vollmecke Orchard in Coatsville, except during the winter months.
Just down Route 841 the Whip Tavern has become the biggest customer. The 'Elkins burger,' doubles the sales of any other sandwich. A limited filet 'special' is coming.
'Customers swear they've never had a better burger,' said K. C. Kulp, owner of the Whip. 'Some of them are making a statement that it's chemical-free, additive-free.
'They all enjoy the taste. I have to say, though, it is a little odd seeing Bill sitting at the bar eating one of his burgers.'