Biltmore Estate is described as a little piece of England in the heart of North Carolina. John Wilkes went to visit.
High in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, Asheville, is an increasingly popular tourist destination.
Central to what makes Asheville both a national and a worldwide attraction is the Biltmore House and Estate, the grand plan of George Vanderbilt, whose family was one of America’s wealthiest when construction began in 1889 on his vision of a formal English country estate set in 3,238 hectares (8,000 acres). Still privately-owned by the family, Biltmore House is the largest private residence in the US.
The house and grounds attract more than a million visitors a year, but there is much more to Biltmore.
It boasts thriving livestock enterprises, specifically geared to supplying its five on-site dining outlets with high-quality, home-grown meat.
Operating very much in the mold of his grandfather, current owner, William Cecil, had the idea of eating local 30 years ago. Thus began his drive for self-sufficiency and diversity of production, eventually leading to the appointment of Dr Ted Katsigianis.
Known as Dr Ted, Biltmore’s vice-president of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences holds a Doctorate from Penn State in animal science. Over the last 30 years, Dr Ted has overseen the technology and scientific development of the thriving beef and sheep enterprises, Freedom Ranger meat birds, and an egg-laying flock with everything produced being used within the Biltmore catering system.
Dr Ted’s early goal was for the beef herd to be able to prosper on forage alone. No grain is fed to the Biltmore pedigree Aberdeen-Angus cows, which spend all year outdoors. The winters in this part of North Carolina can be challenging, but the provision of good quality hay alone, and ad lib minerals, keeps the herd on schedule.
The 200 cow Aberdeen-Angus herd was established in 1983 with the purchase of 29 females from the Graham and Wye Plantation herds in Georgia. Since then no additional females have been bought-in. All cattle on the farm can trace their lineage back to this foundation stock.
The implanting of purchased embryos and those gathered in-house into their own cows started in 2011, prior to that all cows were served naturally or via AI. Superior-bred embryos from Coleman Angus in Montana and Sinclair Angus in Pennsylvania bolstered the herd’s genetic makeup. The pursuit of perfection can come at a price – any semen from Coleman Angus’s highly influential N Bar Shadow, when available, now costs £400 a straw as Dr Ted constantly looks to refine and improve Biltmore genetics.
The beef herd has participated in the Angus Herd Improvement Records (AHIR) programme since 1984, and all breeding females are registered on the AAA Maternal Plus Programme. Dr Ted describes himself as an ‘Aberdeen-Angus pedigree freak’ – such is his encyclopedic knowledge of global pedigree Angus cow families. This knowledge has further enhanced the Biltmore prefixes’ reputation for high genetic, low maintenance cows, with udder quality, consistent breeding and longevity being the watchwords. One cow recently celebrated its 17th birthday.
There are currently some 700-head of cows/calves, yearlings and select finishing cattle on the estate’s 304ha (750 acres) of grassland – consisting mostly of fescues, bluegrass, white clover, plus some orchard grass and timothy.
Calving takes place in December and February. Calves are processed twice-a-day – tattooed, tagged, navels dipped in iodine and oral shots for E.coli K-99 and viral scours administered.
The 100 male calves produced annually see about 30 left entire to go to the breeding side, and 70 are banded at birth. Genemax genome testing for potential marbling and weight gain helps identify steers with superior meat yield and eating quality. Forty of the best remain in the estate’s own finishing system, finished for the catering outlets on Biltmore. The aim is for a 550kg steer yielding a 330kg carcase.
The 200-cow Aberdeen-Angus herd was established in 1983 with the purchase of 29 females
The remaining steers and some surplus pedigree bulls go to Sam Dobson, Statesville, North Carolina, a specialist beef producer and grass finisher. Surplus heifers from the Biltmore herd find ready buyers keen to get hold of their superior genetics.
No growth hormones or antibiotics are employed, thereby allowing the livestock enterprises to adhere to the Global Animal Partnership, 5-Step Program, a US high level welfare code administered by an independent body and also widely-favoured by Whole Foods, one of America’s leading premium food retailers.
Chefs at Biltmore will not accept 100 per cent grass fed beef as heavy marbling and the associated juiciness is preferred by dinners, thus grains are offered.
Recent trials with Wagyu crosses out of pedigree Angus cows are proving popular with an eating quality rivaling the best Angus, and better in some cases. Some resultant female crosses are being retained for further upgrading.
Dr Ted is specifically breeding bulls for his own use, with any surplus finding ready homes at realistic prices. He says: “We are in North Carolina, and this just is not a big money market. Cattle sharing similar genes as ours from the Colman herd – probably one of the best in the country – up in Montana, recently, averaged £6,900 across 175 breeding bulls sold. We are selling ours for £1,700.
“But we make it on the steers, which can top some £6,200 a head retailed through the restaurants.”
The beef herd is complimented by a sheep enterprise, established in 1996, and based around a closed, hi-health, pure-bred White Dorper flock of about 200 ewes.
This breed emanates from South Africa and is officially classed as a hair sheep. It is a Dorset – Persian Black Head composite. The latter is a South African fat-tailed breed suited to heat and harsh environments, thereby attracting much interest in the US. As a genuinely easy-care animal, it was developed with a compact, more heavily fleshed body in mind more so than the mainstream wooled terminal sires in the US where size alone dominates.
From the outset the current estate owner wanted a breed which would provide a handy weight and meaty carcase of 20–22.5kg at six months for his chefs. The tendency is for an average US carcase weight of 34kg plus, so the White Dorpers comfortably fill the bill.
Dr Ted‘s early work, crossing Black Head Dorpers with the estate’s then Dorset ewes, threw up some unusual surprises.
A resulting first cross which visually, ‘looked like a Holstein cow and would have made all our visitors wonder what the heck we are up to.’ Thus the White Dorper’s uniform colour crossing ability proved a better fit until the flock approached pure-bred status via grading up – anything more than 31/32 is considered pure-bred by the breed society. Full blood white Dorper individuals showing direct lineage back to South Africa, come at a distinct premium; hence the breeding up regime and use of ET and AI on the flock.
Dr Ted explains the desired hair shedding characteristic ‘is more prevalent in animals of lesser conformation than the better-shaped woollier sorts, so it is a fine line when we select our own rams for use on the flock’.
He says animals exhibiting what is called good pellage, have a fleece/hair mix which will literally just peel off the sheep, unaided. The idea of fields strewn with wool is not an issue, as the hair/wool mix breaks down readily.
Dr Ted says in this part of the US, shearers are hard to come by and ‘at £5 a time it makes sound economic sense to have a breed which simply sheds hair’. The White Dorper also takes the often-fierce North Carolina summer heat in its stride, yet manages the winters easily.
One big advantage of this breed is a proven natural resistance to internal and external parasites found in hair sheep and this leads to a further reduction in costs and ease of management. This allows young, dry sheep to be set stocked without worm burden, clearing up the season’s accumulated forage in the estate’s Long Valley vineyard – currently growing 30ha (75 acres) of Chardonnay grapes for the Biltmore winery. The estate has a 4ha (9-acre) solar energy site and the younger sheep are set stocked as a management tool to maintain grasses under the solar panels during the grazing season. Both these scenarios use the breed’s ability to eat almost any vegetation put in front of them.
The Biltmore flock lambs once-a-year in early March, although Dorpers will breed year-round, allowing some producers three lamb crops in two years. Small heads and a lighter front end afford easier lambing before fuller muscle definition cuts in at two to three weeks of age.
The Biltmore flock lambs once a year in early March, with lambing averages at 160 per cent
Lambing averages 160 per cent and weaning takes place at 90 days. An ad-lib 16 per cent creep pellet is offered, with the first lambs going for processing at five to six months old, with the last lambs gone by December.
The 200 male lambs all go through the kitchens and the best ewe lambs, identified from internal record-keeping, are retained as replacements.
In the restaurants at Biltmore, White Dorper lamb gets rave reviews. It is all about the taste. The meat from hair sheep is deemed to be milder-tasting than that from wool breeds. Chef Mark Demarco, at Cedric’s Tavern, says: “This is a big plus for us. Many of our customers enjoy the milder taste of our lamb, which overcomes one of the major stumbling blocks around lamb consumption generally in the US. The American palate does not always appreciate a perceived gamey taste in lamb. This is often held up as the reason sheepmeat finds it hard to find new fans in the States.”
Dr Ted highlights Dr Susan Duckett’s research at Clemson University, proving Dorper lamb’s tenderness in clinical trials – using the Warner-Bratzler shear force method against comparable Suffolk-sired lambs. The earlier paper, Snowder and Duckett, (2003) also highlighted a trained sensory panels’ taste preference for Dorper lamb over Suffolk.
Mr. Demarco says: “No lamb is frozen. It is always fresh, with animals regularly processed at May’s Meats in Taylorsville, North Carolina. They are sent cut sheets grouped by restaurant outlet specifying our exact requirements.
“It is great for our clientele the beef and lamb graze all around us here and is a great selling point.”
Dr Ted’s fastidious eye for detail around the livestock, alongside a noteworthy winery and a wide variety of seasonal home-grown fruit and vegetables, all helps cement the Biltmore Estate’s reputation as a truly unique field to fork – grape to glass destination. Something its original founder would be hugely proud of today.