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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  • My Heart yearns to be a horseback, helping with this dynamic work.

    Bruce Tuxhorn
  • Wonderful story and pics. You folks are wonderful, too. :0)

    Liz Aicher
  • What a great story and beautiful photos. Look forward to hearing the next installment.

    Jay Garwood
  • Loved the article and the comments from everyone. The work performed by everyone is truly a blessing and I thank you all and will be talking you up this weekend as I treat some friends from Denver and Detroit to a Wild Idea BBQ in San Mateo!!
    God bless y’all.

    Mark Moench
  • Many thanks for all you are found and have done for the land, the prIrie and the animals. The pictures and explanations and comments are great, too.

    Cheves Leland
  • sure am glad you guys love getting up early early to round up those critters so that the rest of us can sit back after thoroughly enjoying a nice bison steak dinner. guess you really love what you’re doing as a conservator of the land and a protector of ‘the’ primal plains species to nurture us all back to health. just know that I’m appreciative of all your efforts and bless you with every single bite. love your dedication to what’s right and honorable. beautiful offering, Jill.

    Blake O'Quinn
  • I am an introverted thinker, if i can even be called a thinker. As I mulled this story about in my head throughout the day, something was a miss. Dan was not on his beautiful horse Winchester. There is absolutely something Wonderful about the relationship between a man, his saddle and his horse. I look forward to reading of the future adventures of Dan and Winchester.

    Bruce Tuxhorn
  • Like reading a warm hug to comfort one’s soul. Could almost feel the cool quiet air following the fading setting sun. Thanks.

    Gary Kaiser
  • I am native American. Cree and Huron. I applaud your respect for these our fellow beings who share our mother, the earth with us and offer themselves as sustenance. My prayers of thanks to all of you.

    Jacqueline Bagley
  • Thank you, Jill.

    Chilly here in Iowa this morning. Hope you get some warmer weather soon.

    Bruce Tuxhorn, thank you. Made my day.

    Scott Williams
  • Thank you, Jill. And the drones, yes, they might be helpful.

  • A truly wonderful story, and magnificent photos. My hat is off to you for your good work, and to Dan for his long term belief and efforts to bring back the buffalo and the grass prairies of old. Having read most if not all of Dan’s books, and speaking with him on many occasions, I know that he truly “walks the walk and talks the talk” . He is an inspiration to us all.

    john rankin
  • Edwina – Drones might be helpful. We’ll check it out.

    Bob – Perhaps it wasn’t clear in the story – but we always try to move before the first calf is born as we are aware of the ramifications. We simply couldn’t get to them to move them. There is plenty of summer pasture, we were NOT saving it, we just couldn’t get the buffalo moved due to the very wet conditions. The herd is a whole with old bulls, young bulls, old grandma cows, etc. It is our experience however that some of the females will go off and create a “maternity ward” for a bit during initial calving season. Apologies if this wasn’t clear and thank you for your concern.

  • My only point of reference is that I worked cattle a horseback for many years, and I remember the all important part of working the cattle with ease, encouraging them it was their idea to move forward and not getting any animal “hot”. Oh, but to experience the Great prairies a horseback and experiencing these beautiful indigenous creatures, with their newborns. I can use my 5 senses to feel my horse deeply seated under me, alert and sensing all that I am sensing, gazing upon the grandeur of the prairie coming to Life after a long Winters sleep, inhaling deeply the pungent odor of the buffalo, the grasses, the myriad flora and fauna, tasting upon the wind, the prairie dust as it roils up from the many hooves, and hearing the call of the songbirds amongst the grunts, bellows and breaths of the buffalo. Oh my, an ethereal experience Dan, Colton and company. Thank you for sharing. This old Cowboy’s heart is Ecstatic reading this account!

    Bruce Tuxhorn
  • Awesome – gives us city dwellers a glimmer of what it is like on the Prairie and rounding up the Buffalo…my hat is off to you and all that you do. I’m grateful for people like yourselves that give to the Buffalo, the land and to restoring what we so carelessly destroyed. Thank you for your hard work and dedication. We here at the Cole household stand in Awe of you and your mission.

    Patti Cole

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