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Nature's Salad Bar

You’ve heard the adage “You are what you eat.” But what are you, if you don’t know what you eat eats? There’s been a lot of movement in human health toward returning to our “original” diets—that is, eating what we evolved to eat. We’ve all encountered the literature that says we’re healthier when we eat a variety of unprocessed foods. After all, that’s what our bodies were made for.

overhead shot of a buffalo steak salad with butter lettuce and garden tomatoesThe same is true for animals. We’ve seen the effect of feedlot and confinement models on livestock and poultry. We know animals raised this way aren’t healthy, and this has a negative effect on our health when we consume them, to say nothing about its impact on our environment. All of this seems intuitive but huge sectors of our food system repeatedly fail to connect those dots. This puts the onus on us as consumers. If we care about our health, our planet, and the creatures we share it with, we must do the work of seeing the big picture behind what we put in our mouths.late summer buffalo herd in a green pasture with a pink and purple skyFor example, there is ample evidence in the form of academic studies that the cattle industry struggles to strike the right balance of nutrients to support the health of confined herds. The use of supplements for one mineral that’s deficient in corn, soy, or alfalfa hay inadvertently tips the scales too far in one direction. It’s been well documented that when the price of corn, soy, and hay gets too high, cattle in feedlots have been served everything from bagels to crab guts to hot chocolate mix to candy (sometimes with the wrappers on), all under the umbrella of “alternative feed.”

Solving these problems calls for even more tinkering, adjusting, and rebalancing. It is constant, incredibly labor intensive, and expensive. And none of it is natural.
GrasslandsWild Idea’s website is full of information about our large-landscape grazing model and why it makes sense. The native perennial grasses, forbs, and sedges that thrive on a healthy prairie provides a veritable top-notch salad bar for the buffalo. And our model allows our buffalo to eat the foods they evolved to eat, with the freedom to find and select those foods when they are richest in nutrients, throughout the seasons. And what’s amazing is understanding that the connection is so deep, it occurs at the molecular level.buffalo herd in spring on a green open prairie with wildflowersVitamin A

If there’s one vitamin ruminants need, especially in confinement, it’s Vitamin A. This fat-soluble vitamin is needed for good eyesight, staving off pinkeye, and preventing conditions like corneal ulcers and night blindness. Deficiency in Vitamin A can cause skeletal deformation, skin lesions, and reproductive failures. And since the body can’t naturally produce Vitamin A, it must come through diet.

The cool-season native prairie grasses and forbs that emerge in the spring are extremely high in beta-carotene, which the body then converts to Vitamin A. As the plants mature, the level of carotene drops considerably, as does the plant’s palatability to grazing animals. For ruminants raised in confinement, this drop presents real problems for the winter months. But for animals like our buffalo that are given the freedom to move across the land to where the most nutritious plants grow means access to cool-season grasses that stay green and rich in carotene through most of the winter.closeup of big buffalo bull with tongue out and licking his noseCalcium and Phosphorus

Phosphorus has earned the nickname “master mineral” for how critical it is to the body’s proper functioning. It’s necessary for strong bones and teeth, it plays a vital role in how the body transports and metabolizes energy, it helps the kidneys filter waste, and it aids in the growth and repair of cells and tissues. It is also important for milk production. Next to calcium, it is the most prevalent mineral in the body. In fact, phosphorus and calcium are closely connected. The wrong ratio of one to the other can inhibit the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. 

This ratio is difficult to maintain in ruminants raised in confinement. A longstanding practice of over-supplementing phosphorus has also wreaked havoc on our waterways, sparking an overgrowth and die-off of plant matter that deprives fish and aquatic plants of oxygen. 

Not so for Wild Idea’s buffalo. Because our buffalo have the freedom to roam, they find the grasses at the right stage of development, when rich in both calcium and phosphorus. In the heat of summer when the cool-season grasses go dormant, warm-season grasses pick up the slack. Remarkably, no matter the season, the grasses the buffalo eat provide a supply of calcium and phosphorus supply that doesn’t fluctuate wildly with the stages of plant growth. This means the free-grazing buffalo to get—and maintain—the right ratio of both minerals, with no additional feed or supplements required!wide shot of buffalo herd on a large prairie landscape Protein

It’s needed for cell growth and metabolic function. It’s needed for the growth and maintenance of bones, muscles, cartilage, and skin. It’s needed for the immune system. It’s needed for energy. 

The warmer days of spring ignite the growth of warm-season grasses and forbs (like bush morning glory and horseweed), which are especially appealing to the buffalo and high in protein. And despite the fact that protein content drops off considerably in warm-season grasses with the arrival of June, protein levels remain well above what is required for normal animal growth and some grasses, like big bluestem, are graze-worthy year-round.

Through it all, Wild Idea’s grazing model gives buffalo the freedom to move with the seasons, with the ebb and flow of nutrients in the native flora. It’s all a little like an intricately choreographed dance, with movements that might seem random to the casual observer, but that are, in fact, a beautiful, living embodiment of evolution. When the buffalo are allowed to eat for their health, that translates to the healthiest meat on the planet and for the planet, and for all of us.

Staff writer, Emily Spiegelman

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4 comments

  • Emily fully understands the O’Brien ideal for consummate health of all that lives on the prairie. thoroughly enjoyed reading this excellent work, as well as being altogether immersed by your expert photographs of the magnificent buffalo. absolutely beautiful.

    thank you for all you do.

    Blake O'Quinn
  • A very well written article and an extremely persuasive argument for Wild Idea’s approach to livestock management.

    Pete Johnson
  • Thanks for your commitment to providing the healthiest, cleanest and most humane meat source.

    Brian Neil Bohnhoff
  • That’s beautiful, I learned a lot!!

    Anne Clare

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