Switching to bison saved their ranch
Shaggy beasts file nose to tail on prairie high ground, stark figures against a dark morning sky. Their hooves pillow dust as their silhouettes one by one merge into the blood-red rising sun. Monster bulls in rut belch out guttural pronouncements as they lumber beside bison cows and scampering calves. It is breeding season on the South Dakota prairie, and this herd of 1,000 buffalo is intent on one thing – following a rumbling feed truck that creeps along in the shadow of Slim Buttes.
Rancher Sandy Limpert’s big hands dwarf the steering wheel of the feed truck as his head, topped with a black cowboy hat, swings left then right, eyes watching carefully in the dim light. With gears grumbling in low range, the truck crawls among the scattering herd.
Limpert ranches buffalo with his wife, Jackie, his son, Brody, and his daughter-in-law, Samantha. He’s betting that, in time, his four grandchildren will become buffalo ranchers as well.
“It’s a wonderful time to be in the bison industry,” says Sandy. "The demand is huge, and we raise a quality product that people want. It’s a fun business.”
He wrenches the big truck around for another slow crawl through the herd. The Limperts used to raise beef and sheep on this vast stretch of ground. But no more.
“Selling cattle and sheep when they were priced high, and going into buffalo when they were low was a bit of a scary thing,” Sandy admits. “But Jackie and I knew what we were doing was not sustainable.”
At that time, the Limperts did custom farming, custom haying, sheep, and cattle. “I felt like I was 60 years old when I was 25,” says Sandy. “I knew we couldn’t keep doing it. I knew the ranch wasn’t making money, and if we wanted our kids to stay here and be part of the operation we couldn’t afford to keep doing the sheep and cattle thing.”
When they switched to bison 30 years ago, the market wasn’t developed yet, says Sandy. Not much was being spent on marketing and promotion of the meat. “Over the years, that has completely changed, and now there’s demand like we’ve never seen.”
(Watch a video about the ranch here.)
Bison are hardy animals that, given good grazing resources, reproduce well, says Sandy. He has noticed that bison cows will calve ahead of a storm or wait until one blows through. “Somehow, through evolution, buffalo figured out how to quit calving when the weather’s not nice,” he says. “When that storm breaks, the herd will have 100 calves in a day. Buffalo have a way of adapting to the harshest environments.”
He does not provide man-made shelters. “Bison will not drift with a storm,” he explains. “They’ll bed down on a windswept slope and face into the wind, and they’ll be there right through a storm. The cold does not bother them. When it’s -30°F. they’ll be out here playing. They love the cold because they’re built for it. They’re a tremendous animal. We fell in love with them a long time ago, and I’m sure they'll be here forever.”
Holistic grass management practices run the place. Bouncing along next to his dad in the front seat of the feed truck, Brody elaborates. “The most innovative thing we’ve done here on the ranch is to convert to holistic management. It was a really hard thing to buy into at first. You have to change your thought process.”
Brody shares his favorite line: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always have what you’ve always had.”
The family buys in. “Doing things differently worked well for us,” says Brody.
The first time Sandy went to a holistic resource grazing management meeting, he didn’t listen well. “I literally walked out because I didn’t think it could work here where we get such a limited amount of moisture,” says Sandy. The ideas eventually sunk in. “In retrospect, I think every banker should insist that young people borrowing money go to these classes. It changes your whole mind-set, your whole thought process.”
It’s not about how much moisture you get, it’s how much you can utilize, he explains. “We get plenty of moisture, but with wrong pasture management, most of that moisture runs down the creek.”
While Jackie and Sandy took their time with the new ideas, Brody and Samantha bought into it right away. “We didn’t have to fight each other on the acceptance of the philosophy,” says Sandy. “It is life-changing. It’s almost like having another ranch for free. It’s incredible what you can do, and I can’t wait for the years to come to see how much better it can get.”
Sandy offers up a little business history as he drives. “One of the main forces that drove us to get into the bison industry was imports from other countries of sheep and cattle. We had no control over our market. Our vision was to get into something that can’t be overproduced, can’t be imported, and with bison, we have that.”
There’s a limited amount of bison available for the meat market, he says. “The average consumption of bison is less than 1 pound per year, so that gives you an idea of the growth potential we have,” says Sandy. “Everybody likes to talk about bison, so it’s a natural draw. It has so much upside potential.”
He drives over the rocky terrain of Slim Buttes. “We can be doing this for many generations and improve the land, improve the water, and improve the resources,” says Sandy. “By improving the soil we improve the grass. By improving the grass, the bison love it and the bison treat us well.”
The Limpert bison are grass-fed and grain-fed. “A good combination of the two makes for some of the best meat in the world,” says Brody.
To entice the animals closer to the truck, Brody offers a range cube cake pellet that is about 20% protein. “Essentially it’s a management tool for moving the animals to pasture to pasture,” he explains. “It’s a treat for them.” In drier years, they give more of the cake pellets to supplement the grass. It also helps to flush the cows.
Out on the prairie, hundreds of bison dotted the landscape, walking in scraggly strings, headed for late-morning water.
In the winter months, the bison are rotated back through pastures that are dormant. “They will eat some of the funniest stuff that cattle won’t touch when it’s dormant,” says Sandy. “You’ll see them even chewing on sagebrush. They’ll eat cheap crested wheatgrass when it’s fully mature and nothing else will eat it. It’s in their nature to take less calories in the winter months. Winter maintenance is easy. That’s one of the reasons we fell in love with the animal. They take very little manpower.”
The family brings in the cow herd once a year to wean the calves and pregnancy test the cows. The cows return to pasture. “We turn the water tanks on ahead of them coming to a pasture and drain them when they leave; it’s a pretty simple system,” says Sandy.
The NRCS helped the Limperts with water management and pasture cross fencing. “It’s very expensive to run these pipelines and set the tanks and do all that work, but with the assistance of NRCS, it became possible,” says Sandy.
After years of rotational grazing, the pastures have yet to reach their potential, he says. He cites a statistic that for every 1% of organic matter improvement, the soil will hold a gallon and a half more water. “We are seeing more warm-season grasses that are higher in production coming in.”
The wildlife habitat on the ranch has improved, too. The mule deer are now down lower on the grassland. “I think that’s due to water resources that we’ve developed, as well as the grazing practices,” says Brody. “We have a lot of leftover grass every year.”
Leaning on the truck, Sandy sums it all up. “I wanted to raise buffalo so I could just sit on a hill and watch them graze. There has been a little work getting us there, but it’s so great seeing those animals fat and happy out in the pasture, moving to a new smorgasbord every few days. You open the gate, and we’ve moved that whole herd in five minutes. It’s a fun business to be in!”