THE READER
January 2006

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Producer Profile: Heartland Bison

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Producer Profile

Heartland Bison
A Good Way of Life

by Lynn Olson, Cooperative Services Manager

A herd of fifty bison, some of North America’s heaviest land animals, live just outside Stoughton on the farm shared by Bob and Kelly Boyd and Kelly’s family, the Reins. Bob, owner of Heartland Bison, introduced the idea of raising bison to the family, who had previously only raised dairy cattle, as a way to diversify and provide additional income to support the entire operation. Bob says, “I see it as a way, coming right down to economics, as a way to hopefully stay on the farm, and in Dane County it’s getting harder and harder.”

“Back in the ‘80s, with such terrible times for a lot of guys,” Bob explains, “it finally woke up the farming community and it told them, ‘you’re a business and you’ve gotta run this like an electrical business or any other type of business.’ It opened a lot of people’s eyes and it turned them into good businessmen.” He says, “Most people who do farm are finding it a good way of life. I don’t think they’re out to be millionaires, they just want a comfortable living knowing that they’re being treated fairly. They don’t need to have six figure incomes. They just want a good way of life.”

Family life on the farm

These days, Bob tackles the day-to-day feeding and care of the bison after working full-time for a local manufacturer. He also manages the marketing of their bison meat while Kelly handles all of their deliveries to area restaurants and retail locations. Like so many other farm families, Bob needs to work off the farm in order to provide his family with insurance and other benefits not otherwise offered through farming. Three generations of the Rein family have worked on the main dairy farm. Kelly continues to work alongside her father on the milking and dairy cattle operation as she has for over 20 years. Bob and Kelly’s son has also expressed interest in continuing to farm with the family since graduating from high school, while their daughter has her eye on college.

Bison history

The U.S. bison population once numbered over 60 million before all but a few were killed by the U.S. government in order to incapacitate the Native people living here. Native Americans relied on the bison, utilizing nearly every part of the animal for food, tools, clothing and shelter. Despite the unfortunate history of the bison, whose numbers are reported to have dwindled to only 100 by 1900, today the USDA has recorded over 300,000 bison in the U.S. with about 280,000 of those being raised privately on ranches or farms. Still listed as an endangered species, the largest and most popular wild herds of bison continue to flourish in Yellowstone National Park.

A bit about the bison

In 1993, when Bob began researching the feasibility of raising bison, he felt they’d be a good, low-maintenance match for the dairy farm, but he eventually found a few important and distinct differences. Like all ruminant animals, bison use protein in their diet twice by bringing up their “cud” and chewing it, thereby taking in the protein a second time. Bob has found that protein-rich feeds (alfalfa) routinely grown for dairy cows are extremely difficult on the bison digestive systems, and he’s learned to control the amount of protein grasses the herd is fed. Another marked difference between dairy cattle and bison is their endothermic capability to generate their own heat and regulate their body temperature. While cows may instinctively turn away from harsh, cold winds, bison are comfortable in the element and even use their massive heads in a plow-like fashion to clear away snow and uncover precious grasses beneath the snow. This capability has served them well throughout their long history and makes them a good fit for Wisconsin’s windy plains as well.

While exploring the idea of raising bison, Bob was fortunate to be working for a local fencing company and was able to divert a slew of chain-link fencing and thick phone poles from the landfill. Now, encompassing 40 acres, the recycled fencing allows the herd to roam, play, eat or just stare at the infrequent visitor. By February of 1994, Bob was able to stock this new farm venture with the purchase of ten heifer calves. Because bison bulls average six feet tall at the shoulder and 2000 pounds and bison cows top the scales at around 1100 pounds, fencing needed to be secure and large. The average bison bull can jump six feet into the air from a standing position, so there was reason to be concerned.

Most bison farmers agree low pressure and low stress work best when handling these animals. Because bison defy most forms of domestication or containment, how does a bison farmer approach this delicate operation? Only when individual handling of the animals (vaccinations, etc.) is necessary. Bob says, “I’ve got a couple brood cows that will come after me and, of course, the bulls. I gotta kind of watch them only because of their nature. Besides being real flighty, because their first instinct is to run, if you start chasing them down or getting them cornered, they’re not afraid to come right at you.” With careful planning and coordination to keep the animals calm and safe, bison can be herded through a long narrow opening in order to perform the state regulated and required vaccinations for brucellosis, blue-tongue and tuberculosis. No antibiotics or growth hormones are ever administered to their herd.

Try some for yourself

If you’ve never tried or even considered bison for yourself, be prepared for sweeter, fast-cooking meat. Bob, who prefers the bison brats cooked in sauerkraut, says, “A lot of people overcook [bison] because it is so lean. It’s leaner than skinless chicken because the fat does not marble within the meat. It takes a few tries so you don’t overcook it.” Other sources report that bison has a rich, beef-like taste, but because this meat is lower in cholesterol and calories than beef, it naturally makes for a healthier protein choice. Willy Street Co-op currently features Heartland Bison brats, ground meat and burgers in our meat freezer. For recipes and more information on bison, see the National Bison Association’s website at: www.bisoncenteral.com.