Ever dream of leaving the big city and starting over ... say on the great plains?
Well, have I got a profession for you!
The bison business is booming!
And sheesh, how hard could it be?!
With their wild natures, bison thrive on minimal handling. They are hardier, more disease resistant, and longer lived than cattle. In general, bison cows have fewer birthing problems. And bison graze more efficiently than cattle and are better winter foragers, requiring less supplemental feeding.
Add to that how cowboy boots totally "up" your coolness factor, and those invigorating prairie winds—oooohhh, they'll take your breath away. Yessssireee.
Well before you pack your bags and leave that cubicle behind, my friend and experienced bison rancher, Jill Klawonn is here to share a little about bison and bison ranching. She and her husband, Glen, have been at it for over 18 years.
Lexie Interviews Jill Klawonn, Wyoming Bison Rancher
Lexie: Jill, how long has your family been in the ranching business?
Jill: In 1927 grandpa Carl Klawonn (claw-vonn) began raising cattle, dairy cows, chickens, and wheat on what is now the ranch, just south of Pine Bluffs, Wyoming. He traded the cream and eggs for things they needed and sold their wheat crop to make land payments.
Shortly after my husband's tour in the Navy and my completing a degree in Ag Business, we decided to add buffalo to the ranch as a means of utilizing the land's natural resources with as few outside inputs (expenses) as possible.
Lexie: Tell us about bison and what they require.
Jill: Raising bison is exciting and thrilling, but it presents some unique challenges. Bison are a very powerful and very wild animal and must be handled with respect and caution. Surprisingly, each animal has its own distinct personality. They require a very tough set of fences and knowledgeable people to handle them properly to avoid incident or injury. They need lots of room to roam—of which they can do upwards of two miles a day. They are happiest in large, wide open spaces—as are we!
Lexie: What do you feed your bison?
Jill: We raise our bison on native prairie pastures. The land has never been tilled nor do we supplement or finish with grain. Our animals are 100% grass-fed.
Our pastures contain plants like crested wheat grass, buffalo grass, blue gramma, and wildflowers. These plants are full of nutrients and omega-3 fatty acids which help the bison to grow and give the meat a superb flavor. If you were to butcher a grass-fed animal in the spring after it has grazed on spring onions, the meat would be strong and onion flavored. If the animal ate sage or other woody forbs, it would be gamey. Finding good grass-fed meat is all about finding a ranch that does proper grass management, pasture rotation, and proper timing of butchering animals. Different types of hay also influence the taste of meat. We grow millet for hay. Millet is in the grass family and when we get the good rains it produces a nice, leafy, soft hay that the buffalo love. We graze our buffalo 365 days of the year, but when there is a drought (as we are in now) supplemental feeding with hay is a necessity.
Lexie: Tell us about "finishing" and where your meat is processed?
Jill: When we determine that our buffalo are the proper size and weight (finished) for market they are butchered at the USDA processor in Windsor, Colorado. “Finished” is a term many consumers only associate with feedlot animals. In fact, it is a scientific term for when an animal has grown to the point that it is beginning to put on a layer of fat. An animal first grows bone, then muscle, then fat cover. If you have very nutritious grasses, you can have a fat grass-fed buffalo!
In my opinion grass-fed bison and beef tastes better than grain-fed, but each person has their own opinion. I think our grass-fed bison meat tastes sweeter and richer. There is very little fat on a buffalo which makes for very lean cuts of meat.
Lexie: How about the nutritional value of bison meat?
Jill: Bison meat is low in fat and cholesterol, but extremely nutrient-dense. It boasts high levels of iron, protein, healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, and various vitamins and minerals.
This diagram from National Bison Association compares the nutritional value of various cooked meats, including bison. It is very likely that grain-finished bison meat was used in this comparison. The nutritional punch of vitamins and minerals would likely be higher for grass-finished.
Source: National Bison Association.
Lexie: Where can High Point Bison meat be purchased?
Jill: Most bison ranchers market their animals for meat through a handful of the big companies that only sell grain-fed or grain-finished bison (Kroger, Sams, Walmart, Safeway, Whole Foods, to name a few). Some challenges we face as a ranch are creating our own markets and planning three to five years ahead for production. Most of our meat is sold locally through health food stores, co-ops, farmers markets, and direct to families in the area. It is USDA-approved and comes in clear vacuum sealed packages. The rewards of many happy customers make up for the challenges!
Rather than hugging the fence line or turning their backs, bison face the fiercest of storms head on.
Lexie: Thanks for chatting with us Jill, finally what advice can you offer my readers for sourcing quality bison and/or beef?
Jill: Source your bison or beef directly from the grower. Find a grower at a farmers market, through your local cooperative extension, friends, or an association like the National Bison Association or the Rocky Mountain Buffalo Association. Ask the tough questions. How long have you been in business? Do you raise everything you sell? Do you buy meat from other growers? What do the animals eat? Do you raise the hay they are fed? After the animals have grown are they finished on corn or on grass? Are the animals given hormones or antibiotics? If you are satisfied with the answers, ask where it is processed, and how to buy it.
A Trip to Terry Bison Ranch
On Interstate 25 as you cross the Colorado/Wyoming state line, just east of the freeway is another bison ranch—one of the biggest in the United States—Terry Bison Ranch. It's a hub of activity during Cheyenne's summer Frontier Days. For the rest of the year, it makes a great outing for the kids or road trip pit stop.
Stop in and stretch your legs. They have a fishing hole, offer trail rides and pony rides, and have a rockin' old-school playground. Seriously I haven't seen one like it since the 70s! Death-trap? Maybe. Cool? Oh yeah!
And for $12 you can take a train out to the buffalo herd and feed them by hand—yes, you heard (or herd) me right! Quite the memorable experience even for this old-school mamma!
Poor Jack the Yak. His owner didn't want him anymore so dropped him off to hang with the bison. They look like long lost relatives if you ask me!
Terry Bison Ranch is a big operation and has a sizeable feedlot. Personally, I like to stick with growers like High Point that are smaller and 100% grass-fed. I mean, just look at the size of these beautiful beasts. They need room to roam. And I think they'd grunt in agreement.