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Bison business

Agriculture.com Staff 02/19/2009 @ 2:45pm

A recent junket to the tiny hamlet of Ree Heights (motto: population low, so drive slow), South Dakota was both educational and thought-provoking.

It delighted me to learn that Ree Heights has one of the last operational phone booths in captivity. I was informed that not only did the phone still work, you can even make local calls for free! This, I was told, is just one of the many "perks" of living in Ree Heights.

My wife and I visited for a spell with a nice woman named Candice, whose family runs the Thousand Hills Ranch atop the Ree hills. During our chat Candice revealed that her mother's land has an ancient buffalo jump. And no, this is not a place where bison practiced pole vaulting.

This got me to thinking about bison and the vast herds that formerly roamed the continent. It's hard for us to imagine the swarms of brown bovines that once stretched from horizon to horizon. Historical accounts tell of trains being delayed for days at a time by these huge herds.

What if they'd had cell phones back then? "Hi honey, I just called to say I'll be a little late. They say maybe a couple of days. Yeah, we're caught in another buffalo jam."

This also reminded me how I'd recently heard that the EPA was toying with the idea of regulating the methane emissions of our nation's 100 million or so cattle. I have a question. It's been estimated that there were as many as 100 million bison when Columbus stumbled onto the New World. Will the EPA also retroactively fine those pre-Columbian cud-chewers? What about deer, moose, elk, and other unregulated ungulates?

The American bison was hunted almost to extinction; those infinitely vast herds were reduced to just a few hundred animals. But if a guy knows where to look, he can still find a few prairie bison roaming the prairie.

About a hundred such bison live in my neighborhood. They reside at Harmony Hills Farm, which is owned by Mark and Sharon Stime. I stopped in the other day to visit with Mark and Sharon and to learn a bit about the bison business.

"We've been raising buffalo for ten years now," said Mark, the only guy I know who drives around with a salted buffalo hide in the back of his pickup. "We started out with heifer calves. A heifer can't be bred until she's 2 years old, and it's 2 1/2 years for her calf to hit slaughter weight. It was 5 years before we had any product to sell!"

How long will a bison live?

"A buffalo cow will last about twice as long as a beef cow. Twenty years is normal, and we've heard of them living as long as three decades."

That bull there is absolutely huge! What will he weigh?

"Sven is our herd's patriarch and is ten years old. He'll tip the scales at about 2,400 pounds."

It's been said that you can herd bison anywhere they want to go. How do you handle them? That is, without resorting to using a Sharps .50-90 buffalo rifle?

"A person quickly learns to be careful around bison. For instance, you never get between a cow and her calf with anything smaller than an Abrams tank. The bulls aren't too bad when they're young, but all bets are off during the breeding season when they have just two things on their minds: mating and fighting.

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