On a warm May morning, Bill Elkins walks slowly uphill through the lush, tall meadow grasses, disappearing into his herd of black cattle. His is a gentle flock, and the cows move slowly back and forth to accommodate this familiar man. They look up momentarily, before continuing to graze as he passes through.
The meadows that surround Elkins and his cattle stretch languorously across the low hills of the narrow Buck Run Valley, midway between Unionville and Coatesville. The fields are bordered by groves of hardwood trees, brilliant in their fresh spring greenness following a long, harsh winter.
Cattle have grazed these meadows since colonial times—most famously from 1946 to 1984, when the surrounding farmland was part of the 12,500-acre eastern outpost of Texas’ gigantic King Ranch. Until about 1974, train cars and then transport trucks full of Santa Gertrudis cattle were transported east from the plains of Texas to fatten on the lush Pennsylvania grasses before being shipped to big-city markets.
“I grew up on a farm in Pocopson, and I decided to get in on the ground floor when the King Ranch departed,” Elkins says.
And so, in 1986, Dr. William Elkins, research immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania, retired to become a gentleman farmer. Since then, he and his wife, Helen, have farmed their 280-acre Buck Run spread, mainly raising beef cattle.
Through the years, the two have researched cattle and grasses and markets as religiously as he once researched medical pathways—seeking out, evaluating and then adapting or discarding agricultural practices as they best fit Buck Run’s business plans.
For most of that time, the Elkinses raised only Black Angus cattle to supply local markets, restaurants and home cooks with steaks, hamburgers and other cuts. But now, there are a handful of russet faces of Red Angus and the mixed black-and-white of South Polled Angus Cross among the sea of black as Elkins moves through his herd of brood cows. He is flanked by recent generations of progeny as well as this year’s calves, only a few weeks old. Counting the bulls behind the barn a half-mile down the road, Elkins says his herd fluctuates between 90 and 120 head.
“We’ve been moving them from one section to another on a daily basis,” he says, explaining that if they are allowed to graze primarily on the seedy, protein-rich heads of the grasses and then are moved on, the pastures will renew themselves well into the next winter.
Elkins is in the fields most days, adjusting the parameters of the electric fencing as areas are grazed and new ones opened. He no longer mows meadows for hay, and tries to buy as little winter food as possible.
His trademark floppy hat in place, Elkins completes his inspection and remounts an orange Kubota ATV, unhooks and re-hooks a gate in an electrified fence as we pass through, and drives slowly back down a narrow blacktop road to the old stone farmhouse, considerably modernized. Helen’s gardening hand has turned the place into a flower-bedecked, tree-shaded bower, looking like a cottage in the English Cotswolds.
A tabby cat chases a butterfly across the quiet road toward an open-face barn almost three-stories high, sited in the lee of the hill about 100 yards from the Buck Run creek. “The water was across the road during the rains last week,” Elkins notes, adding that any flooding to the property itself is usually minimal.
Although Bill grew up on a dairy farm, he makes it clear that he had no interest in milking cattle when he wanted to go back to the farm. Breeding cattle was another matter. Throughout their tenure at Buck Run, raising breeding stock—prize bulls—has been part of the Elkinses’ business, although its commercial popularity fluctuates.
Helen had her doubts about becoming a farmer at all. “I was less enthusiastic about farming when we got started than I was later on,” she says on her way up from the barn, hand shading her eyes against the sun.
Elegant, attractive and a tad lanky, Helen has a broad smile and swept-back hair. Her business arrangement with Bill is fairly simple. He’s in charge of raising the cattle, and she’s Buck Run’s treasurer, head of sales, and bookkeeper. Through the years, they’ve narrowed their focus to a few cows slaughtered at a time by a butcher in Mount Joy. They sell the meat online, at farmers’ markets or directly to restaurants, butchers, regular customers. Two outlets are Harvest Market in Hockessin, Del., and Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.
“Sometimes, we will sell cattle on the hoof, but there’s not much of a market for that,” Bill says. “I once tried to make a low-fat hamburger for sale, but I decided that, if we want a hamburger, we want one that tastes like a hamburger!”
The “Dr. Elkins’ Angusburger” is still available on some restaurant menus locally. Frozen tenderloin filets and mixed-cut quarters and sides are available from the farm by special order.
Through the years, the Elkinses have learned a lot about grasses and grazing—what grows well in general, what has a long growing season, what harbors viruses or doesn’t. “We’re as much about growing grass as we are about growing beef,” says Bill, who is always willing to offer a discourse on the virtues of pasture-fed beef over the grain-fed variety more typical in the Midwest. “We’re a little different than most, in that our cattle are outside year round.”
Ideally, the cycle starts in early summer when most cows are bred to calve the following spring—the gestation period, as in humans, being about nine months. Later, a few are bred in winter for fall delivery. By and large, Bill says, cows have fewer delivery problems with newborns than some other farm animals, so the Elkinses seldom are called out for middle-of-the-night midwifery duties. “We graze as long as we can in a typical winter,” he says, thus using as little hay as possible as warm weather nears. “We stop grazing in early spring, then start again in early May, as we’ve just now begun.”
Soon, Helen will be off on a delivery run, and Bill will back on his Kubota, herding cows. But before I leave, he hands me a newspaper story titled “How to Solve Climate Change with Cows (Maybe),” with the subhead, “Could better grazing patterns be the answer? A sweeping new theory divides the environmental world.”
The theory has to do with carbon in the soil, among other matters, and is worth considering. It’s an intriguing idea, Bill says, but perhaps too fanciful. The research-scientist-turned-cattle-rancher will certainly mull it over, and his herd should be forewarned.