Like so many small scale operations out there, this is not our full-time business. My wife, Ramie and I have two full-time jobs in town and two young children, Blake, age 8, and Levi, age 4, who are becoming more and more active with 4H, school, sports and everything else you can imagine.
Top that off with a ranch to tend to on the side. People at work ask how we do it---here’s how: there are a lot of late nights, early mornings, long days, and some of the best partnerships, friendships and neighbors you could ever ask for to get it all done. We have had days where you think, “Why in the world are we doing this when we have jobs?”
Then you sit on the back of the feed truck with your family on a spring evening watching the newborn calves play in the horizon of a Kansas sunset, and you quickly are reminded why we all do this.
In this chapter, we will share some of the things we have learned, advice that has been given to us, and mistakes we have made to get to the point of operating a successful small scale bison ranch.
Taking a few moments to watch your herd on the land is one of the benefits of bison ranching.
When we started our adventure in the bison industry in 2005, we were not any different than any other first timers. We had a small piece of ground, no facilities, not much for fence and knew absolutely nothing about bison. What we did have was a lifelong fascination for the animal and the desire to learn more. Getting started is no doubt difficult. With anything new it easy to get discouraged. Are you truly serious about it? Then make your own circumstances.
Don’t ever let yourself focus on why you can’t do something, but focus on how you can. The best advice we can give is to find your local bison association, join it, and offer to help.
Some will be reluctant to bring in a greenhorn to help work animals, but if you are truly interested, be persistent when asking. Offer to help at sales, ask to ride along during chores; these are all things that got us where we are today. You will quickly discover this is the most diverse crowd of people you will ever be around and everyone is willing to offer advice on what you should and should not do.
Many of these people (admit it or not) have made mistakes. Learn from that every chance you can. You will never know everything there is to know about bison and ranching, you don’t have to! Just know when to ask for someone else’s help or ideas. It can save you time and money!
Typically a small scale farm or ranch will be close to a populated area. A 200 acre ranch within 10 miles of a major city is a different ball game than a 2,000 acre ranch in the middle of nowhere. Kansas has a state song that we are all familiar with called “Home on the Range”, and of course our favorite line is “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam”. The key word in that line is “home”.
There is nothing worse than a call from the sheriff in the middle of the day when you and your wife are at your job in town, or even worse -- a call from your neighbor that your bull is standing in her garage eating flowers that she just bought, or licking the salt off her new car. (That bull is for sale, by the way!) Build a good fence. Sure, there are cheaper options out there. Will they work for you? Maybe? Will you have to come back and put insulators on your high tensile every time a deer jumps over it? Probably.
Fence is not any different than your animals; it is a long-term investment, so build it accordingly. We have built every kind you can imagine and have quickly learned that you don’t need a super max type pasture fence. We have a lot of five strand barbed wire and a lot of woven wire. Personally, I am a fan of the 48” woven wire on 7 foot T posts with a barb on top. Set good strong corners and put a wood or pipe post every 60 to 100 feet, and it will be problem free. It is the one and only fence that we have not had to go back and maintain frequently. Calves don’t get through it and cows don’t stick their heads through it to eat.
Make sure you understand your ecosystem. A key role in keeping your animals healthy, happy and in the pasture they should be in is by having plenty for them to eat and drink. If there is one thing I can’t emphasize enough, it is learn how to manage your stocking rates before you even turn an animal loose.
Every area is different, every pasture is different. Work with your local NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service), they will be one of your best sources to guide you on the type of grass you have, rotational grazing practices, and stocking rates in your area.
A small scale bison ranch today is by far different than what a large herd of bison saw 100 years ago. These animals migrated and rarely saw the same piece of ground twice. They had free choice to every mineral they needed and did not have a parasite problem.
This is not the case with a 40 acre farm or ranch; even with a good rotational grazing program these animals will still see the same ground more often than their system is designed for. Part of the challenge of bison, is the fact that they are never domesticated. They will always maintain a certain amount of wild instincts. Like any wild animal, they are designed not to show weakness when sick or injured.
By the time you notice an animal is looking bad, it can be very difficult to diagnose the problem and get them turned around. The best way we have found is to be very proactive and work with the animal to provide everything they could possibly need, which could include mineral, protein, and some free choice hay when needed.