A John Deere Publication
closeup of buffalo with bird sitting on top of its face

Bison are kept in family units. The cow, her current calf and last year's calf remain together. The herd is worked only once annually if possible. Cows are checked for pregnancy, vaccinated, and dewormed in winter.

Agriculture, Sustainability   April 01, 2023

Untangling Sustainability


Philanthropist-owned Woodland Farm works to hone and share how to sustainably produce heritage stock.

Regenerative, sustainable, and heritage are lovely ideals in agriculture. Practicing them, however, can prove a tough knot to untangle without accidentally tying a farm finance noose.

Woodland Farm in Goshen, Kentucky, has been picking at the knot for 20 years. The farm raises bison, heritage hogs, laying hens, and heritage beef cattle.

Over the years they've unraveled some tangles and stumbled into some real snarls while pursuing sustainability. They're able to keep working the problem however, in part, due to the passion and financial safety net provided by owners Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson.

"My aunt and uncle have the singular passion of land preservation," says farm manager Kristopher Kelley.

Of the Jack Daniels/Woodford Reserve bourbon family, the philanthropist couple purchased the farm in 1996. Laura Lee had watched her own home farm be devoured by subdivisions. She wanted to save these acres the same fate.

They quickly set about securing its future with an agricultural easement. This act saved the prime acres from becoming a golf course—though it would have been stunning with greens overlooking the Ohio River.

Instead, pastures surrounded by wooded hills—complete with a whimsical three-story tree house—are roamed by heritage breeds.

First to the farm were bison. "Ostriches and bison were considered initially. I'm glad they chose bison," Kelley says.

Trial and error began immediately. They quickly realized free-roaming bison only worked when they were free to cover hundreds of thousands of acres.

"We thought we could just put up a perimeter fence and let them roam. That doesn't work here," he says.

The main breeding herd at Woodland Farm rotates through 21 pastures. Intensive rotational grazing stimulates pasture grasses and improves soil health.

Continual movement keeps the herd on clean ground, moving away from parasite-containing manure. Many pastures are, surprisingly, divided simply by a single electric fence wire.

"We've found if the herd is having their needs met, they respect a single-strand electric fence. If I was starting from scratch, I'd invest a lot less in the large permanent fences beyond perimeters," he says.

Above. Woodland Farm manager Kristopher Kelley enjoys adapting systems until they work in the field and financially. Pullets grow in a converted corn crib before joining the pasture flock. Sows farrow in metal huts in small pasture lots. Farrowing in open pasture resulted in significant losses.


Survivors. It's somewhat surprising to see buffalo in Kentucky, but they do very well there thanks to their naturally adaptive nature, Kelley says. For example, if it's hot while a cow is pregnant, she will produce a smaller calf better adapted to a warm, humid climate. The same cow would produce a larger calf in a colder geography. They're also intelligent eaters.

"They don't bloat no matter what they eat and they naturally avoid fescues with endophytes—which cause cattle to overheat—until after frost when endophyte levels are low. They have a great instinct for what to eat and what not to eat," Kelley says.

Issues still arise. At one point, the herd faced a health challenge. A lack of bison research slowed the search for a solution. One suspected culprit was incorrect mineral levels.

"In cattle, you check the liver and see if levels are within acceptable ranges. In bison, those ranges haven't been established. Instead, we have to do trial and error to figure things out," he says.

Above. Breathtaking views of the Ohio River and a large surrounding suburban population had the farm in the cross hairs for golf course developers. Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson stepped in to ensure it stayed in ag production. Little to no research makes seemingly simple things like developing an effective mineral program a challenge for the bison producers. Finding a processor for the bison was a major challenge. The family opted to buy an Indiana facility and convert it into a USDA plant. All their bison, beef, and hogs are now processed there.


Farm to fork. Bison, pork, eggs and produce from the farm's extensive gardens are served at Barn8, a restaurant sitting on another site, Hermitage Farm, that Brown and Wilson have preserved for agricultural production. Pigs were added to the farm at the request of their chef, specifically Mulefoot pigs.

Diversification was a logical next step, so they folded them into the operation. Mulefoot pigs are best known for their solid, un-cloven hooves. The team soon discovered among already higher-fat heritage breeds, Mulefoot pigs produced the most fat of all.

They also proved to not be great mothers. As a result, Kelley crossbred the herd to another heritage breed, Herefords. The resulting meat is more in line with diner expectations and still very high quality.

Hogs are raised on pasture. Some of the farm's abundant trees and the on-site sawmill were tapped to build wooden huts in the pastures for farrowing.

"They looked great, but the pigs really beat them up. It turns out purchasing metal huts is better even if you have resources to build your own," Kelley says.

They also had to move away from farrowing in the large pastures where the hogs are normally kept.

"The sows often wouldn't choose the huts. They'd have their litters outside even if it was hot, rainy or cold. There were too many losses," he says.

Now sows farrow in smaller lots with metal huts. Piglets remain until weaning at two months.

Once on pasture, hogs rotate through lots no-till seeded to food plots containing corn, millet, soybeans, sorghum-sudangrass, and more.

"They're quite smart," Kelley says. One time there was a large section of corn oddly left standing. Upon investigation, there were no ears on the corn so they left it for shade.

The next restaurant request was eggs, so pasture chickens were added to the livestock lineup. Day-old chicks are purchased and kept in a retrofitted corn crib until they're large enough to join the main flock foraging insects out in the pastures.

"The idea was to have the chickens rotate through pastures after the bison to eat parasites. We've learned we would actually need thousands upon thousands of birds to have a meaningful impact," Kelley says. They do still provide some excellent pasture fertility and even better eggs.

Predation wasn't an issue for the flock—at first. Once nocturnal predators learned there was an abundant food source they started showing up in daylight. A woven electric fence and electrified mobile coop helped shore up their defenses.

"All metal parts of the coop are 'hot.' You have to be grounded to get shocked. Chickens hop so they don't get shocked," Kelley says.

The coop is moved once a week to prevent bare spots. The divided perimeter fence they rotate through is moved every two weeks.

Profit isn't make or break for the farm, but it's the goal. Kelley crunches numbers on practices regularly. He determined it cost too much to harvest their own hay for the buffalo, so now they buy it.

The bison herd is profitable. He notes there's plenty of demand and people expect the premium.

"Our pork, on the other hand, is raised much better than the price reflects. We really need to be selling online to reach customers who care enough about how the animals are raised to charge the necessary premium," he says. ‡

Read More

loom with a rainbow of yarn strands passing through small hoops


Woven Together

Strong ties bind historic mill with local sheep industry.

restaurant chef in apron with fingers interlocked and arm tattoos


Adding a Chapter

Chef Travis Milton brings the Appalachian foodways of his youth into the spotlight.