By Stephanie Simon
While many ranchers pen bison in feedlots before slaughter, free-range advocates hope to create market for steaks with sass.
WHITEWOOD, S.D.-The buffalo bunch up on the ranch out here, big and very dark against the flat forever of the sky. They rip at the prairie grass. They call to one another in a dusky purr.
Dan O’Brien watches, content.
These are his buffalo. And this is how he wants them to live: free to roam, free to graze, free to mate, right up until the very end-when he picks a few young bulls and shoots them, out on the prairie, so he can sell their meat.
It’s a vision he is committed to, with passion. But it is also controversial.
For many of O’Brien’s fellow buffalo ranchers have taken quite the opposite approach. Instead of leaving the bison to run wild, they are treating them much as they would beef cattle.
That means penning them in a feedlot for months before slaughter. Fattening them on corn to produce a more tender meat. Picking out the biggest bulls for breeding. Even tricking them into gaining weight faster by exposing them to bright lights during winter to stimulate spring feasting.
The ranchers say such practices are essential to build a market for buffalo meat. Let the animals run wild and their meat will taste wild, tangy with the unpredictable flavors of whatever grass happens to be in season wherever they happen to graze. Pen them and feed them grain, however, and their meat will mellow, will marble with fat-will taste, in fact, like beef. And consumers will return for seconds.
“The world is used to eating meat that’s consistent,” North Dakota rancher Ken Throlson explains. “The buyer demands it.”
But critics, O’Brien loud among them, reject that logic.
They point out that only 20,000 bison are killed for meat each year in North America compared with 120,000 cattle slaughtered each day. There’s no way buffalo ranchers can compete with cattle ranchers. So why copy them? Why not forge a new market, a niche market, for buffalo steaks with a bit of sass, for meat that tastes like the wild? And , economics aside, why coop up an animal that has roamed North America for millennia? Why tame a symbol of the great Wild West?
“We’re worried,” says Tony Willman, who advises a coalition of 51 Native American tribes raising bison. “They’re going to turn the buffalo into a shaggy Angus.”
The clash between these two approaches resonates beyond the bison industry, echoing a broader split in American agriculture.
On one side, corporations emphasize consistency by dictating, for example, the diet of each pig that will enter their slaughterhouse to be processed into bacon. On the other side, independent farmers peddle quirkier products, such as free-range pork chops or organic milk, in an effort to build the niche markets that will sustain them.
Neil Harl, director of the Iowa State Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, estimates that the free-range movement has been growing about 15% a year since the early 1990’s. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, anticipating still stronger demands in the future, has teamed with the American Humane Assoc. To develop a “free farmed” label for eggs, beef, dairy and chicken from animals raised with room to roam. (So far, four growers have been certified.)
Still, free-range meat is decidedly fringe: “I can’t imagine it’s even 1% of total U.S. meat sales, says Bob Scowcroft, director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif. Indeed, most independent farmers, unable to tap a national distribution network, survive by peddling their wares to friends and neighbors.
The buffalo industry mirrors that dynamic.
The North American Bison Cooperative, with 330 members, dominates the market much as corporations control the pork and poultry industries. It has the meat supply and the marketing clout to win grocery and restaurant contracts. The independent, free-range ranchers are left to peddle their steaks on the Internet.
The co-op requires all its bison to be grain-fed for at least three months before slaughter.
So that is what 90% of buffalo ranchers do.
A few worry about applying cattle-rearing techniques to a breed that has roamed North America for 200,000 years, outlasting the woolly mammoth and the saber-toothed cat.
“Some [ranchers] will select a bull [for breeding] because he gains 3 pounds a day in the feedlot with a bucket of corn in front of him. But he may starve out on the native prairie,” says Oren Krapp, who raises about 460 bison in Pingree, N.D. “It’s possible that they could breed the instinct to survive right out of bison in the years to come. Then we’d have nothing but glorified beef cattle.”
Most of his fellow ranchers, however, say that is nonsense.
In Sioux Falls, S.D., for instance, rancher Ed Nolz is proud that his bison will eat from his hand, that his grandkids can get close enough to pet Davey Boy and the others. He boasts that corn-feeding his animals for 120 days produces meat that tastes so much like beef, “you can’t hardly tell the difference.”
But he insists he’s not domesticating the buffalo. These animals can survive temperatures of 45 below. They can jump a 6-foot fence, run at 35 mph. They are immensely powerful. And wild. “We want to keep them just like [they are] now,” Nolz says.
Like most ranchers, Nolz doesn’t manipulate his bison nearly as much as he would cattle. He doesn’t inject growth hormones or dose healthy animals with antibiotics. He doesn’t castrate the bulls or shear off their horns.
True, some feedlot ranchers do tinker with their herds’ reproduction. They may pick the biggest, best-tempered males to run with fertile females in the pasture. They argue, however, that’s how natural selection would work in the wild: The strongest males get to pass on their genes.
North Dakota rancher Dennis Sexhus also points out that, for the most part, only bison destined for slaughter are confined to feedlots and pampered with human contact and a rich diet of grains. “They don’t pass any of those bad habits on to their offspring, because they don’t have any offspring,” he says.
That there is a bison industry to clash over is remarkable: Just a century ago, there were only 500 buffalo in all North America. Up to 50 million others had been slaughtered as the U.S. military sought to wipe out Native Americans by eliminating their main source of sustenance.
Ranchers began a concerted effort to build up the buffalo population several decades ago. By 1972, there were an estimated 30,000. Today, about 250,000 roam ranches, reservations and state and federal parks across at least 16 states, from Washington to Wisconsin to New Mexico.
They have become such a tourist draw that Denver is considering stationing a herd just outside the airport, as a welcome to the West. Environmentalists love them too, touting buffalo as the key to restoring the prairie ecosystem that dominated the Great Plains for centuries, until cattle destroyed the native grasses.
Bison are even a lure for sportsmen these days. There’s no official buffalo hunting season; in fact, most of the shoots organized on public lands in recent years have been shut down due to protests. But several Native American tribes have organized their own programs. The Fort Belknap Indian Community in north-central Montana, for example, expects to welcome two dozen hunters to the reservation this year. (The tribe charges $2,000 for a crack at a medium-size bison and $4,000 for a trophy-class head.)
Perhaps the grandest bison dream of all-and the ultimate free-range vision-is spun by O’Brien and his ranching partner, Sam Hurst, who talk about turning the Dakotas into a giant buffalo preserve, no more cattle, no more farming, just bison and tourists and vast, unfenced stretches of the wild, as it was.
“When you come up over a hill and see 100,000 buffalo grazing there with herds of bighorn sheep and coyote,” Hurst says, sketching his vision, “the seduction is enormous.”