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