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Humane Field Harvest - How & Why

Note to readers: As we seek to know more about where our food comes from and how it is raised, it is perhaps equally important to know how it dies. It may even be our responsibility. If you'd rather not see, and are okay with just the knowing, you may want to stop reading here. Although the photos are not graphic they offer transparency to the process of Wild Idea’s humane field harvest. Jill O'Brien

It’s early. The sun has just started to show light in the sky when I force myself out of bed, gather my camera gear, and head out the door. The harvest crew has planned to arrive at the ranch around sunrise for an early start to meet the harvest goal of twelve animals for the day. If all goes well, it should be doable.

Buffalo Harvest Trailer
Once the moveable harvester arrives on the prairie the crew quickly gets into motion getting the truck set-up for the "pre-op" inspection, which is conducted by the state meat inspector. Our sharp shooter, Dallas Steen checks the sights on his rifle one last time to assure accuracy.

Smudging

The crew is ready to go and the inspector has given the green light to start the harvest. Without words the crew gathers. Dallas offers a few thoughts on what to expect for the day ending with, “Remember, safety first.” They then place their hands and the riffle in a circle. Someone lights a match and the aroma of sage fills the air. Each crew member rolls their hands through the smoke and Dallas waves the smoke over the riffle. This practice is called smudging, a tradition that the Native Americans use to remove negative energy and to purify. Because we work with and employ many Native Americans we honor their traditions.

Wild idea Bison Herd

Dallas and the inspector head out through the thousand acre pasture to find the herd in the shooter truck, which is a flat bed truck equipped with a winch for lifting the downed buffalo and transporting it to the harvest truck. An antemortem (before death) inspection is done by the inspector to insure the herd is in good health. A buffalo is then chosen for harvest, selected by age, size, and weight. Dallas is looking for a two to three-year-old animal, around 900 to 1,000 pounds.

The day has been going well, with the timing averaging about 45 minutes per animal. I jump in the truck with Dallas and the inspector around mid-day and head out to get animal number eight. 



Dallas moves around the outskirts slowly assessing his best shot at a couple of animals that meet the age/weight criteria. The wind has picked up and the buffalo are feeling a little frisky. He slows even more, moving the vehicle only when a possible opportunity presents itself for a successful shot. Time starts to drag and our small talk starts to bore us all. Silence settles in and we turn our attention to bird songs and the soft grunts of the buffalo that are grazing 30 yards away from us. We wait patiently. 

Buffalo Field harvest

An hour and a half later Dallas has a clear shot, he raises his riffle and even though I am prepared for the bang, my body jerks at the sound.

Buffalo Harvest

Humane buffalo Field HarvestThe animal drops instantly to the ground where it was grazing. Dallas moves the truck forward to the dead animal as the other buffalo slowly move away. The inspector inspects the animal before a slit near the heart is made to start the bleeding process.

Humane Field HarvestThe buffalo is then lifted and taken to the harvest truck, where it is skinned and eviscerated. The inspector tests the organs for any abnormalities. 

Sidebar: When I first took over the selling of the buffalo meat years ago, we had a lot of buffalo liver in inventory. At that time we were outsourcing our meat cutting to another plant, which processed about 60 head of bison a day. On one of my visits I asked their plant manager what they did with all of their buffalo livers, to which he replied, “What liver? We don’t end up with a lot of liver because not many of them pass inspection.” Oh, right, I replied, remembering the ill effects that grain and corn feeding do to the  livers of animals finished in feed-lots. Since then, with a little recipe development and the growing awareness of the health benefits, bison liver has become very popular with our customers.

Buffalo Humane Field Harvest
The carcass is then halved and moved into the refrigerated cooler on the harvest truck. The truck then goes back to our Wild Idea plant in Rapid City where the carcasses are unloaded.

The following week the carcasses are cut into fine steaks, roasts, ground, sausages, charcuterie items, and buffalo jerky by Wild Idea's artisan butchers and assistants.

On the day I was photographing we did not meet our harvesting goal of 12 animals, but that’s okay. Taking our time, respecting the animal, and keeping the herd content is more important to us than meeting production goals. It is important for the animal and for the food quality too. Humane field harvest eliminates high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone in the animal, which greatly affects the flavor and tenderness of the meat.

Lone Buffalo

At Wild Idea Buffalo Company we believe that there is no need for stress, no need for additional feeds, no need for corralling, and no need for transporting animals to chaotic slaughter facilities. Does it take longer? Yes. Does it cost more? Yes. But, allowing an animal to die with dignity is the right thing to do, for their spirit, and for ours.

 

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130 comments

  • It appears your doing your herd justice.
    I personally like my large game meat aged about 2-3 weeks.

    Ben Dyer
  • This is a splendid article and a splendid company. Please continue running this article, updated when warranted, every year. It is that good and that important.

    Doug Williams
  • Here you note that “Because we work with and employ many Native Americans we honor their traditions.” And, in your books it is clear that you understand and honor the ancient symbiotic relationship between American Indians and Nature…as One, you go backward to go forward. Wisdom!

    Thanks, once again,Dan,

    pat

    pat
  • Great job to all of you involved in the caring for, feeding, killing, processing,photographing, and culinary recipes. Respect is profound for animals and humans. Good writing and documenting, Mrs. O’Brien!

    Lucile Morehouse
  • It was profoundly enlightening to read about and see the pictures of the humane harvesting of the bison. We were very glad to see that you incorporate Native American traditions in the preparation for the kill as well as through to the subsequent processing of the meat for commercial sale. Thank you for this information. We more and more appreciate Wild Idea, and we are making plans to hopefully meet you in the near future.

    Jerry and Norma Reynolds
  • I appreciate your statement of “dying with dignity,” but somehow I fail to ‘completely appreciate’ how a bullet in the head is ‘dying with dignity.’ It reminds me, as a combat medic in Vietnam, the bodies of our soldiers who were wounded – dying due to bullets in the head delivered by North Vietnam soldiers. But as one of your comments read…if we are going to eat meat, then perhaps a ‘bullet in the head’ is the most ‘humane’ way to go.

    Douglas Shearer
  • Thank you, Jill! Everyone and everything deserves respect. So glad this is Wild Idea’s priority.

    Liz Aicher
  • Astrid, We turn some of the hides into robes during winter and we are working on tanning for other use. Heads are cured in the earth or by a local Native artist, which we sell on line and in our store. Other items are returned tot he earth, we also compost and it is working really well.

    Jill / Wild Idea Buffalo Co.
  • This is great ; I wish every animal in the world would be killed like this…. Just one question : what becomes of the skin, head etc ?? I hope you will have time to answer me. Have a good day

    Astrid
  • This is why I buy Wild Idea and tell all my friends.

    Willadee Hitchcock
  • I like the video showing how you harvest the animals and I agree with the way it is done no stress to the animal or the herd good practices thanks for sharing this with the people who buy the meat. I am also happy that you practice native american practices also again thanks for sharing.

    Kenneth Kirk
  • Which is why we honour you back by purchasing this meat. I’m astounded and grateful that I have access to such a spiritually nurturing source of food. It matters to me how I take nutrient from my world. And how it’s taken in my name. There’s no way to thank you enough for your choices. Money isn’t enough. I hope that if you or family is ever in need we will all step up to help.

    Rebecca
  • And yet another resounding Thank You for what you do and for sharing with your customers this process. Companies like yours are too far and few between. Thank you for giving me hope in imagining what the future of food production could look like if driven by principles like those of Wild Idea Buffalo Co. You folks are truly inspirational. My most heartfelt thank you.

    P. Wefald
  • Thank you for showing this process. I’ve read the book Wild Idea but it is interesting to see the truck and to see how the bison don’t seem to be stressed by the process. If only all our food was developed and harvested this way. I placed my first order today. Thank you to Melissa for suggesting this blog post to me. Good look and keep up the good work. Noreen Campbell, teacher-naturalist at the Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin, DE. Their mission is conservation, advocacy and education in environmental sciences.

    Noreen Campbell
  • thankyou for showing humane harvesting, will buy yours in the fall. So many horror stories about treatment of beef in slaughter houses and the deplorable feed lots,etc.Love eating buffalo meat and knowing it is healthier also. Karen wyant, retired organic farmer and grower of many kinds of meat animals for family use in ID and OR.

    karen wyant

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