September and Getting There
By September I would be getting a good idea on how the pheasant and grouse hatch went. Some years due to the spring timing of cold wet rains, a lot of first nests were lost and you would see mostly small immature birds, obviously hatched late from second nests. I don’t remember however there ever being a poor or late hatch of goslings. A goose adapted to raising young in the springtime arctic, must not have any problem with whatever the Northern Plains weather throws at it. With September nursery groups of several families, the geese and almost full grown goslings on the adjoining 40 acre lake looking like a carnival crowd.
In September a few ranchers will start weaning their calves to sell, or get ready to sell. The conventional no frills weaning process is a noisy procedure, where the now separated mom and calf spend a few days bawling nonstop at the top of their lungs for each other. Multiply that by a hundred or several hundred on big ranches and its loud. But being loud is the least of the problem, it is the stress, especially to the calves, that I take issue with. I always asked the ranchers that produced the calves I planned on buying to fence-line wean them. With fence-line weaning, basically the calves and cows are put on separate sides of a good fence. The family can see each other, but the calf doesn’t get to come to the milk bar. The calf is eating mostly grass by this time, and really doesn’t need milk, so the fence-line just gets the cow and the calf independent of each other a little quicker. By being apart, but still within view, the strings of attachment quickly fall away without the all night loud concert.
Even a few of the big ranchers are starting to avoid the stress to the calves and go to the extra time and trouble to fence line wean. It is easier, after gathering the large herd of cattle, sorting them, giving shots, dehorning, and castrating, to just put them on a semi truck and ship them to the auction barn as soon as they can. It shaves costs, but it is heavy stress that can lead to sick calves and or tough meat. For the obviously sick ones the rancher uses antibiotics, but there isn’t much help for tough meat other then have those over stressed calves disappear into a monster feedlot. In the feedlot more stress occurs, maybe to the same calves that hadn’t rebounded from weaning, and the tough meat odds are increased. In the past tough meat was never recognized until the consumer took a bite into it. But some packers are starting to use equipment to test for toughness (shear), and trace it back to the feedlot, and if the feedlots reputation takes a hit, they will start tracing back, seeing if there is a high frequency of tough meat from one of their feedlot producers. So things are starting to change.
I considered raising sheep and cattle, but buffalo was the most heady idea. Buffalo is the ideal grazer of the prairie, with 1000’s of years of perfecting the dance with the grasses and the climate. Part of what cooled my heels was that the buffalo market boomed in the 1990s, but most of the ranchers that chased it also went bust a few years later when the fascination blew out. Today the buffalo niche has again taken off, but this time it looks to be a little safer.
The other part of why I didn’t try to raise buffalo is that they are wild animals at their center and don’t like the trapped sensation of corrals, chutes, trailers, and a predator like human in close proximity. Buffalo haven’t had the edge taken off their wildness by domestication. But some ranchers with big western ranches are finding a more workable solution to raising buffalo. Dan O’Brien the successful author of Buffalo for Broken Heart, has put together a buffalo operation that appears to be succeeding in western South Dakota. He has 4000 acres, and he partners with a neighbor that has 5000 acres, and they rent ground in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland which is 75,000 acres, and there is land bought by investors, and he works with the buffalo raised on the surrounding Nature Conservancy land, and Indian tribes land, and in all it adds up to a nice chunk of prairie invested in buffalo. That is the kind of landscape that buffalo deserve.
People besides Dan are starting to understand that these large remaining blocks of semi arid brittle grass prairie can benefit from the buffalo as much as the buffalo benefit from the prairie. There are some complex ecological dependencies. Besides the periodic organic carbon sequestration from mob herd grazing, the arid soil grasses have come to rely on the buffalo herds hooves for the disturbance needed for new seedlings.
And it is more then just an ecological fit, it can be an economic fit. In the west with sparse grasses, it takes plenty of time and money to put a fence all the way around the thousands of acre blocks it takes for relatively low numbers of grazers. With cattle that tend to spread out and pick and choose their favorite grasses, we might be driven to spend a heap of additional time and money for interior fences to limit cattle to one pasture at a time, which requires additional water systems, and maybe even movable electric fence to force the cattle to graze more in a herd manner. Where as, the buffalo naturally move as a herd and eat more of a balance of the diverse prairie plants, allowing buffalo ranchers to get by with much less fence. Another argument in favor of buffalo comes when considering the massive cattle losses from the early Atlas blizzard in western South Dakota in 2013. The buffalo in the area had evolved to deal with extreme weather of the plains and came through amazingly well.
The finishing touch that Dan (and Jill) O’Brien have added to make their buffalo operation called Wild Idea Buffalo a success, is a noble way to harvest those animals. In the past a big downfall to harvesting buffalo has been that these wild animals often go ballistic when they have to be captured and hauled to the butcher. They can hurt themselves, hurt ranchers, wreck corrals, trailers and get a lot of adrenalin worked up that taints the meat. The O’Brien’s have a semi trailer slaughter plant pull up out in their rangeland, an inspector comes along and visually ascertains that the chosen animals are healthy, a sharp shooter harvests the buffalo, and all the slaughter is done right there. No need for a traumatized frantic buffalo smashing against corral gates, and blowing up inside of the livestock trailers.
Amazingly the other buffalo around the kill are usually only mildly agitated. This is the same tendency that allowed buffalo hunters long ago during the extermination debacle, to sit and kill maybe a hundred in a day. But now the wild never have to leave the semi-wild, the carcasses go into a refrigerated section, and everything is hauled back to town. The buffalo are out on the plains where they belong until their last breath. The O’Brien’s appeal to a market not only for buffalo, but a market where buffalo are raised and harvested in a manner that respects the dignity of an animal that has only been slightly domesticated. This ideal doesn’t come without a price tag, The O’Brien’s have taken on a ton of debt, and they and others that have teamed up with land and money expect a little profit. It all gets passed on to the buyer.
More the norm in buffalo operations, is to spend tens of thousands of dollars on concrete and iron handling facilities and the buffalo go to feedlots for a good share of their lives. Ted Turner has the most extensive land and buffalo operation, which supply his chain of “Teds Montana Grills”, and these buffaloes are still at this date, feedlot finished. Primarily because feedlots do it cheaper, but also because grain finishing produces the white fat meat consumers have gotten used to. Corn and soy beans fed in the winter aren’t any different then corn and beans fed in the summer. However green grass (less so with hay) with all its carotene makes for yellowish tinge to the fat in summer and a slightly different steak.
The O’Brien’s business, “Eat Wild” gained a lot of committed customers through Dan O’Brien’s books, especially Buffalo for Broken Heart. They ship in Styrofoam coolers direct to the customer via UPS and FedEx, which adds a hefty price, only partially trimmed by cutting out the middleman. Because cattle mature faster and hang more cuttable meat on their bones, there will be a price bump going from conscientiously raised grassfed beef to feedlot raised buffalo, and a further bump up to get to the conscientiously raised Eat Wild Buffalo.