The first thing is to make sure the fences are strong and high enough. Unfenced bison tend to go where they want.
“Our fences have to be at least 6 feet tall,” said Mike McDaniel. “A three-year-old buffalo can jump a 5-foot fence flat-footed.”
A few years ago, McDaniel — who runs the Horseshoe Mountain Bison Ranch with his wife, Janie — learned the extent of the animals' leaping ability in heart-stopping fashion.
“At the corral, I have an alley between holding pens that's just wide enough for the Gator. I had two cows in the alley and drove the Gator towards them, trying to herd them into the far pen. One turned around to face me and, before I knew it, from a dead standstill, literally jumped over the top of me and the Gator. I was looking up at this thing's belly and my heart went into my shoes. I couldn't believe it.”
“I was out here when it happened,” recalled Janie. “When that cow flew over him, Mike lost all his color.”
While caring for a bison herd, most problems aren't from aggressive animals, but from their sheer size and physical abilities.
“It's not smart to walk among them, even though I have,” said Mike. “The bigger, older animals can outrun a horse. Most of the time, they aren't aggressive at all, but they can still hurt you. You may be paying attention to one, and it gets startled by something and pushes by you meaning no malice. But it can hurt you badly anyway — knock you flying — because it's just so big.”
The McDaniels have run the bison ranch outside Greenbrier, Ark., since the mid-1990s. Currently home to some 70 bison, the ranch has served as the “active retirement” the couple sought when leaving their Vashon Island, Wash., home a decade ago.
“We were familiar with the area. Our daughter lived in Conway, Ark., so we visited every spring to float the Buffalo River and again at Thanksgiving,” said Janie. “We were getting close to retirement and property taxes on the island (a ferry ride outside Seattle) were going up and up. Our daughter had been on us, ‘On a set income, Arkansas is the place to come. Your money will go farthest here.’ She was right.”
Settling on bison
The Friday after Thanksgiving 1992, the couple drove around the outskirts of Conway and found the 100 acres they would live on and work.
“We fell in love with the place but went home knowing we didn't want to raise cows and didn't know enough about horses,” said Janie. “We knew nothing about farming or ranching! We knew we had to pick an animal that was largely self-sufficient. No way would we have been able to do this with cattle. We were kind of stuck about what to do.”
Soon, a small wagon came to Vashon Island selling buffalo burgers. While Mike ate, Janie spoke with the lady running the wagon.
“Her father, it turned out, had a bison herd near San Diego. All they did was travel the West Coast doing festivals and fairs selling burgers. She was talking to me about the animals, how easy they were to care for. We went home and started digging around for information.”
The McDaniels joined the National Bison Association in 1993 and continued their homework. “We visited ranches and talked to knowledgeable people,” said Janie. “By the time we bought this place at the end of 1993, we knew we'd work bison.”
When beginning work on the pine-covered land, Mike was so “citified, I started digging fence posts by hand. I got a post-hole digger and an iron bar because of all the hard ground around here. I was so green I didn't know you could get an augur for the tractor to dig holes.”
Picking animals for a herd was also an education. The McDaniels started small, buying only six-month-old bison. The first 21 animals were brought to Greenbrier in the fall of 1994.
“We kind of grew into the operation together,” said Janie of the first herd. “We didn't get uncomfortable with them until they got about two years old. Then, just because of sheer size (typically 800 to 900 pounds), the concerns came.”
In buying animals, Mike was so uneducated he hit on a tactic that seemed smart. At auctions around the country, he'd wait until the trophies were handed out and then bid on the winners. “I figured Best of Show animals were ‘can't miss,’ so we bought them. Luckily, it worked.”
The couple, who still work the herd solo, built a pasture yearly until reaching their current total of nine. The whole property is now in fences and pasture and the animals are rotated frequently. The operation runs three groups — two breeding groups and a meat group of young bulls.
“If these animals were in the wild, they'd roam at least a couple of miles daily,” said Mike. “Even though the grass is here, they want new surroundings. It's just in their blood. That's another reason we rotate as much as we do.”
There are 12 bison bloodlines in the United States. The McDaniel herd, with 28 females, represents six of those lines.
“We went all over to gather our animals,” said Janie. “And we're happy with where we are. We're not bringing new blood in. What we've got we'll breed with — we're self-contained. Our heifer calves are sold when weaned and bull calves are moved to the meat herd.
As natural as possible
At one time, Arkansas had bison running wild. “The environment here isn't prohibitive to the animals,” said Janie. “We do nothing with these animals on AI (artificial insemination). We want them to be as close to natural as possible. We could be organic in raising them except we worm them through feed. We must worm them if the herd is commercial.”
Scattered through the pastures are many trees. “When it's 100 degrees out, we want the animals to have enough shade,” said Mike. “We left clumps of trees in every pasture so the herd can be together and be shaded.”
The bison are fed every other day with a special blend of custom-mixed grain. Mike is careful to “make sure they get the proper portion of grains, vitamins and minerals. They aren't given antibiotics, steroids or anything like that.”
Getting the bison to move isn't terribly hard — just catch them on an empty stomach. “I put the food in a pasture they aren't in. They know what's going on and wait at the gate. All I have to do is go open the gate and they run into the next pasture.”
Bison like orchardgrass, fescue and ryegrass. Mike said they can do with less protein than cattle. “If they're in the 10 to 12 percent range for hay, they're fine. No need for alfalfa.
“As long as you aren't threatening them, they're not aggressive. But they can be hard to handle if you them put in a corral or try to send them down a chute. They're very hard to get into a trailer, for example — I don't make it a habit of hauling adults. When animals are hauled to slaughter, they're only about 30 months old (1,000 pounds). They're tough. Adults can bend 2-inch pipe, no problem.”
At the time the McDaniels got into bison production, live animal prices were bringing up to five times more than cattle.
“Up until five years ago, calves were going for $2,500. Now, we're lucky to get $800. About five years ago, the Canadian government stopped subsidizing startup bison ranching. Until the BSE (mad cow) thing, all of Canada's bison came into the United States. That drove the supply way up and price down. Now, prices are beginning to recover a little.”
In the United States, about 10,000 bison are slaughtered annually. That sounds like a lot, said Mike, “Until you understand 125,000 cattle are slaughtered every day. Bison is a mere fraction of the meat business.”
Still, the McDaniels' meat business has grown about 20 percent annually. This has kept their sales of animals down. “We really can't sell animals like we used to. We need them to keep up with meat production. We now sell just a few — maybe three or four this year.”
The lean meat is sold only on-site in packages or through a restaurant the couple runs. The restaurant is part of a visitor center open to the public on weekends.
“We don't charge admission,” said Janie. “We'd close before we do that. We have 800 to 1,000 school children come through before school lets out for the summer. Other adult groups come by. And there are probably up to 150 visitors every weekend.”
Best gets happy
Best, the operation's top bull, is a massive, shaggy beast with a black tongue at least a foot long. As Janie cheerleads for him, Best curls that tongue through the fence to snatch treats from her hand.
Even as a newly-weaned youngster in an auction field of 150, Best stood out, said Janie. “He was perfect. We already had enough bulls. But my husband saw him and wanted him, so we put him on the credit card.”
Perfect or not, a couple of years ago, Best wasn't bigger than the operation's dominant bull. In the ensuing fight, he was nearly fatally unzipped and the incident made the McDaniels expand from one to two breeding groups.
“We've learned as we go along,” said Mike. “And that was certainly a lesson. We shouldn't have had bulls so close in size in a pasture together.”
Unlike cattle, which come into heat every 28 days, bison only come into heat for three days annually. The bison breeding season is normally in August or September, so cows normally calve in the spring through June.
“During the rutting season, you have to be concerned with any fighting bulls,” said Janie pointing to the larger breeding group lazing around a pasture. “We've actually got two bulls in this group now. But because they are such different sizes — one is 400 pounds larger — the smaller bull won't challenge.”
When Best got into a fight he was only 50 pounds lighter than his opponent and itching for a tussle.
“They might have killed one another,” said Mike. “There was 4,000 pounds of muscle and fury rolling around and it was frightening to see. They can take out trees, fences, anything. Best had been hooked around his shin and cut all the way up to his head. The horn hooked him and stripped the skin away from his skull. He'd also been gored in the side. It was ugly. “
All that is old news to Best, who's now in top form. With his own breeding group, the bull now has five “girlfriends” to keep him company. Several are expected to give birth soon.
“He's very happy now,” said Mike. “And in his circumstances, I'd be happy too.”