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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
The 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.
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.
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.