Buffalo Husbandry with Horses and 4-Wheelers

For those of you that don't follow the weather in South Dakota, it has been a wet spring. Between winters snowmelt, which created flooding, followed by the lovely spring rains/snows - “that won’t blanking quit” it has made it difficult to get around the ranch and move through the pastures. 

Sandhill Cranes

Moisture is a rancher’s friend, as it usually equates to a "good grass" year. That's certainly how we view it, unless we are trying to move buffalo from their winter grazing grounds on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands across the Cheyenne River, to their summer grazing grounds on the ranch. Getting through the pasture on horse or all-terrain/4-wheel vehicles can be very difficult and a bit dangerous. Add soggy, slick ground and now new baby calves and the difficulty and danger increases. 

Moving Bison

A couple of weeks ago, on a day where it had dried out enough, Dan, Colton, and our sourcing partner friends from the Conata Basin Buffalo Ranch, Doug and Dusty set out to gather the last of our animals. I was asked to meet them at the river when I could see them through binoculars from the house to aid in pulling them across the river with a little alfalfa cake. 

I arrived just as one of the groups was being brought down to the river by Colton and Dusty. They had been on the 4-wheelers since 5:30 that morning and it was now 12:30. By the time they got them to a sand bar on the river another hour had passed. The alfalfa cake I was offering was of no interest to them with the fresh green grass, so we all stilled, allowing them to take a break.

Bison Calves

The new mothers were constantly looking for an escape route, but finally settled down. We decided to sit tight and wait for the other group that Dan and Doug were bringing in and move them all together, with additional manpower.

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

As I waited on the other side of the river, my thoughts drifted back in time, when it was just Dan, me, and Gervase. We were mostly on horseback then and looking for 200 head of buffalo in 24,000 acres was a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack. We would spend days gathering and long hours on horseback in pretty rugged terrain. I would witness Dan getting off his horse to turn an angry mother buffalo around (buffalo are more afraid when on foot than when on horse). The riding was enjoyable, but layered with tension at times.

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

After another hour of waiting I could see Dan up on a lip of a draw with buffalo along the hillside. Colton circled back to help and Dusty tried to hold the group already at the river. It could go any which way at this point. They needed to get them together quick - or a whole day of gathering could be lost.

I watched with one hand over my eyes and one over my heart, holding my breath for them as the scene played out. Steep embankments were climbed in 4-wheelers, until the slick clay soil gave away underneath the tires. Dan and Colton would dismount their vehicles and run in between where they had just come from and the buffalo. Their bravery worked and soon all were gathered at the river.

Once again all settled in and were given a rest. It had been a long day for the guys too, as when we move buffalo we do not hurry, especially with new calves. 

Buffalo on the Cheyenne RiverThe rocky, dirt lip of the river embankment lured one buffalo down to roll and dust itself. Soon after the others followed, with mother cows pushing and grunting their babies across.

Buffalo on the cheyenne River

Buffalo at River Crossing

Once the buffalo were across the river, I moved forward toward the gate slinging out cake like candy at a parade. It encouraged a little and I continued on toward the gate.

Moving Bison

It was 5:30 before the guys closed the gate and took off quickly to check another draw before they lost the light.

Baby BuffaloAlthough our ranch and herd have grown it is still our family whose boots are on the ground and who are doing the work, along with the help of good friends. The guys had put on over 28 miles and spent over 13 hours on a 4-wheeler. They took it nice and easy, being respectful of the animals and minimizing any stressful situations.  We are so very grateful for the helpful hands of our sourcing partners and to have the next generation, Colton and Jilian’s participation and heartfelt passion for our greater mission of prairie conservation. 

I sat in the buffalo for a while longer and watched the light change, allowing their presence along with the setting sun to seep into me and calm my racing heart. A good day.

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  • Great story. Great pics. Buffalo and sandhills! You guys have everything that’s good for the soul.
    Hugs to all!

    Liz Aicher
  • Love reading your stories!

    Joyce Cross
  • I understand your need to “save” summer pasture till the grass gets taller, but I suggest you move from winter ground to summer pasture BEFORE calves are born. Home will always be where a cow calves and this home draws those mothers back every year. Thus making it harder to move them back across every year. And if you allowed a few 5 year old bulls to bond and live with those females then the bunches would be 25-30 animals. Thus no need to get the whole “pack” to move across that river. And with those young bulls as part of those cows that herd always feels a lot safer. In the end a herd with a less stress, fluid retention… and a better meat product.

    bob jackson
  • Truly a labor of love in action by each of you. Thank you for sharing this awesome experience with us.

    David Fleming
  • Thanks for the story and the work you’re doing to bring the prairie and buffalo back.

    marie stanislaw
  • I always enjoy reading your Ranch articles. I liked this one and it has been wet in
    Iowa too. In fact Mississippi River is over bank and flooded now. Davenport, Iowa.
    I can imagine driving buffalo in wet ground with those vehicles. Thank you…

    Mary Flaherty
  • Springtime. Life at its best. This was beautiful. Brought tears to my eyes, thinking about the peaceful and hard work sheep ranching in Wyoming. Thanks!

  • Why don’t you use drones to locate the buffalo and then go out to round them up?

  • Great pictures of an adventure most of us never see. It makes me want to hook up my Honda MUV and head east to help with the herd! You folks are doing a wonderful job of conserving something that had almost been lost!


    Tim Harris
  • Wonderful story. I love that territory and love the bison and how you ranch them.


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