Cold Creek Buffalo: Meyer strives for efficient bisonWritten by Gayle Smith
Meyer grew up raising and showing hogs, and was in the hog business and later in the beef business as an adult. He first became involved with bison after a friend asked if he would consider diversifying into the animal. With no opinion either way, Meyer attended his first winter conference on bison during the stock show and came away interested.
He started in the bison business part-time in 2002 and moved into the business full-time in 2005, when he had the opportunity to lease the Terry Bison Ranch and purchase the herd. Today, Meyer runs around 800 mother cows and finishes 3,000 to 3,500 bison each year in a feedlot at the ranch. Most of the finished bison are sold to Rocky Mountain Natural Meats in Denver, Colo. “The opportunities have been rewarding for me in the bison business,” Meyer explained of his operation.
Meyer selects heifers that will mature around 1,100 pounds.
“I feel the most efficient cows are the medium frame, high capacity cows,” he said. “There are some 1,300 to 1,500 pound cows out there that may also produce, but I don’t feel they are as feed efficient.”
The bison producer said he likes to wean his calf crop in January when it’s colder, to avoid the hot-cold spell the area has in November. “It is also after the holidays and the bison conferences,” he added.
Once weaned, the heifers are placed on a high fiber weaning ration consisting of soy hull pellets, free choice grass or millet hay, with some corn and wet distillers grain. After 90 days on this weaning ration, Meyer likes to select his replacement heifers.
“I want the heifers I keep to have gained at least 195 pounds on the weaning ration,” he explained.
He also looks at conformation of the heifers, selecting medium frame heifers with good length, good feet and legs, depth and thickness from front to back, a feminine head and features and good bone and structure.
The heifers are then turned out to grass, with free choice grass hay or millet hay and a balanced mineral and vitamin supplement that has been tested for his area. He also feeds cake to the heifers during the second winter to make sure they are off to a good start.
The following March, he turns the heifers in with the bulls.
“We had been turning the heifers in with the herd,” he explained. “But, the last few years, we’ve been breeding them by themselves, and turning them in with the herd later.”
He likes to use one bull for every 18 cows.
All the cows and heifers on the ranch are vaccinated with Virashield 6 and 7-way every other year. He also worms the cows and heifers to eliminate any parasites. Meyer cautions other producers that pour-on wormers are inadequate on bison because of their thick hair follicles and the amount of dirt in the coat.
“If you use a pour-on, most of it will just runoff,” he said.
Producers can use a feed through, but in his experience, the animals carrying the biggest parasite load will be weaker and won’t fight their way to the bunk.
“I’ve found that Ivomec injectable works best, but you have to have a chute to work the buffalo,” he said.
In Wyoming, Meyer said producers are also required to vaccinate all their female bison for brucellosis before they are 18 months old.
“I would suggest producers who live in states where they are not required to have this vaccination give it to them anyway,” he said. “It just gives you more options if you ever have to sell them.”
The female bison are pregnancy checked and have to come in open twice before they are culled, he explained.
“If you cull the first time they are open, you will have a hard time getting them to the 15-year average – especially during a year like this,” he explained. “In my operation, I don’t feel like it is cost-effective to cull them the first time they are open because of the cost to develop heifers.”
If a heifer or cow is open, Meyer checks for body condition, injuries and makes sure they have weaned a calf. If the animal meets all this criteria, he notches the ear tag to indicate she was open. If she comes in open again, she is culled, he said.
Selecting breeding bulls
Meyer likes to performance test the bulls after they are weaned in March. They are placed on a feed test until fall, where he likes to see them gain 2.5 to three pounds per day. The yearling bulls average 750 to 900 pounds, and two-year-olds average 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. An ultrasound technician also collects carcass information on the bulls, including marbling.
“It took the ultrasound technician a while to understand that we don’t want marbling in buffalo meat,” he explained. “We don’t want to produce a steak that goes into the meat case and looks like a beef steak.”
Although bulls can breed a lot longer, Meyer only keeps them in the herd until they are between six and seven years old.
“Once they get beyond that, they become more lazy and independent, and they go through gates and fences,” he said.
Fencing for bison
Cheyenne – Fencing is one of the most important considerations for producers considering the bison business.
“Fencing is important because once they get out, it is very difficult to stop them,” Meyer said. “If you have to fence a ranch for buffalo, what it really comes down to is your comfort level. If you are a nervous person, you may want a better fence.”
On his ranch, Meyer has three different types of fence. The one he likes most are eight-foot posts holding up woven wire with two strands of high tensile wire on top.
“If they grow up in it from the time they are heifers, they will not force it,” he said.
During the winter, Meyer encourages bison producers to have a smaller place to feed and water the cows, especially if there is a storm. Although Meyer doesn’t typically see a lot of snow at the ranch, a few years ago, five to eight foot drifts pushed his buffalo through the fence and onto the railroad tracks.
“The UP railroad wasn’t too happy to see 600 to 700 cows standing on the railroad tracks for a few days after it snowed,” he said.
Meyer encouraged producers to determine what fence will work best for them, and try not to go overboard.
“Fencing costs for bison can break you,” he said.
Tribe votes against bison importationWritten by Christy Hemken
The Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation has been a part of that effort and this spring held public meetings and created a plan to bring Yellowstone bison to a part of the reservation from an area in Montana where they’ve been quarantined for several years and tested multiple times for brucellosis.
The ITBC now has a membership of 57 tribes, with a collective herd of over 15,000 bison.
In a recent General Council meeting of the Northern Arapaho, however, Ken Trosper, who’s worked closely with the issue, says the tribe ultimately voted against bringing bison onto their Arapaho Ranch land.
“The tribe wasn’t presented facts regarding brucellosis transmission, and that’s why the effort was voted down,” says Trosper. “They were being told our ranch would have to kill all its cows if we brought bison onto the reservation because of brucellosis, which isn’t true at all.”
“I don’t know how we’re going to move forward from here, but we’re going to do something,” he explains. “There’s a lot of contention right now among the people because of the way the resolution was presented in the Council. They didn’t understand it.”
Trosper says the resolution’s wording wasn’t very clear, and many people thought they were voting for the bison when, in fact, they voted against.
Work had already begun on fencing for a 650-acre pasture within the larger area, which runs along the west side of Wind River Canyon, designated for use by the bison.
Trosper says the tribe generally holds three General Councils each year, and he says the bison issue is ongoing. He hopes to bring the issue back to one of the two remaining Councils.
“The resolution that failed only pertained to ranch property, so that doesn’t exclude the rest of the reservation,” he explains.
Of maintaining their hold on the Yellowstone bison currently available, he says they can only be held for so long before they’re available to any federal or public agency.
“What’s sad about it is we went through all the hoops and won the bison, but we lost the chance because some guys that didn’t know the facts about brucellosis were saying things like cattle could pick up the disease from bison manure,” says Trosper, adding that none of those who protested the idea in General Council had been present at any of the planning meetings.
By not voting to bring bison back to the Northern Arapaho Tribe, Trosper says, “We’re turning our back on thousands of years of culture, and a lifestyle built on bison.”
Northern Arapaho tribe seeks bison for cultural, dietary purposesWritten by Christy Hemken
Northern Arapaho Bison Manager Ken Troster, who was hired by the tribe to investigate its options with bison, said the herd would be used for traditional ceremonial uses as well as to provide meat for the diabetic on the reservation.
Although project information says the ultimate goal of the Northern Arapaho tribe is to bring back bison as free-roaming native wildlife, their present focus is to establish a herd on a 32,207-acre unit that composes six percent of the Arapaho Ranch and runs along the western edges of Boysen Reservoir and the Wind River Canyon. Although the unit is partially fenced for cattle the enclosure needs to be upgraded for bison.
“The plan right now is that we’ll lease a ranch outside of Thermopolis that’s already set up for bison for the next few years until we can build the secure fence,” said Troster of the Red Canyon Ranch, which has housed bison for the last eight years.
The bison would come from a project in Montana led by the Wildlife Conservation Society, of which project founder Keith Aune is a part. He said the Society established their interest in bison through the American Bison Society.
“Our interest is in helping people develop projects with bison through our science-based organization,” said Aune.
Currently the Society has taken bison from the herd in Yellowstone National Park and put them through brucellosis quarantine with the goal of making them available for tribes and conservation interests nationwide.
“One of our main objectives in capturing these animals was a conservation attempt aimed at genetics,” said Aune, mentioning that North American bison went through a tremendous bottleneck in their history and their gene pool remains limited. “All bison in North America come from five privately-owned source stocks and two public.”
He said there’s an emerging interest in bison from Yellowstone because they’ve maintained their pure genetics. “Many producers began blending cattle with the bison, and there are a lot of federal and state bison herds that have cattle genes,” said Aune. He said there are only five known existing herds without cattle genes.
“They’re also important because they come from one of only three known herds that are 1,000 animals or more and that operate in a natural way,” he continued. “They’re unique in environment, management situation and genetics.”
The issue of primary concern to reservation-area ranchers with the bison reintroduction is brucellosis transmission. A Montana plan 10 years in the making resulted in three options for the excess Yellowstone bison: slaughter, quarantine or research. “That’s what drives Montana to figure out what to do with the surplus from Yellowstone,” said Aune. “It took a long time to come up with a procedure for quarantine, but it was designed and built by a suite of vets, epidemiologists and experts from federal, state and private interests that sat down and constructed the Greater Yellowstone Interagency Brucellosis Quarantine Plan.”
A six-year study from 1995 through 2001 analyzed brucella in bison. “We found the disease in bison is very similar to cattle,” said USDA APHIS veterinarian Jack Rhyan.
“There is one scientific issue we’ve always been concerned about – latent infection, or ‘heifer syndrome’ in cattle,” said Rhyan. “In cattle a calf can be exposed to brucella and become infected without developing clinical signs. It carries the infection and its blood tests are negative, but when a heifer becomes pregnant she might abort and that’s the first time you know you’ve got brucella.”
He said the protocol addresses that and requires bison heifers to get through their first calf and remain negative. “This project is a feasibility study designed to look at two groups of 100 animals each and take them all the way through to when we put them on tribal and public lands, after which we’ll survey them for another five years,” he said.
The bison that remain in the herd today have tested negative for brucellosis anywhere from nine to 15 times, and Rhyan said they’ll all be tested once more before transport. There are currently 21 cows, 16 calves and four bulls that meet the requirements of the protocol and are qualified for movement.
Wyoming Assistant State Veterinarian Jim Logan said the Wyoming Livestock Board’s (WLSB) concern with the bison importation is not a disease issue. “We’re absolutely not going to import brucellosis-infected livestock or bison into this state. It simply wouldn’t be done,” he said.
Logan said the bison would have to be imported according to Chapter 8 Import Rules. In this case the bison will be imported as livestock, not wildlife. “The bison will have to be brucellosis vaccinated to come into Wyoming, and most of them have already been vaccinated twice,” he said.
Once they’re in the state the bison will have to abide by Chapter 2 brucellosis rules and any USDA/APHIS rules regarding the disease.
“As long as the tribe complies with WLSB and APHIS rules, we don’t have any major concern with this from a disease standpoint,” noted Logan.
“We’re being extremely cautious, and through an agreement with the bison recipient we’ll test them once more after they calve one more time and then monitor them four years after that,” said Aune.
Logan suggested the tribe sign a management and animal health agreement with the WLSB and Fremont and Hot Springs counties. “It would have to be voluntary, but the reason to do it would be public relations,” he said. “It would also be an animal health step with a plan to prevent disease and deal with it should any kind arise in the herd.”
Logan also said that, through an agreement with the Wyoming Game and Fish, the WLSB has authority to lethally remove any escaped bison, whether they come from the reservation or elsewhere. “The Game and Fish does not want wild herds of bison outside the Shoshone, Bridger-Teton or Absaroka national forests, so if they’re outside off the forest zone they’re considered livestock,” he said.
“We have an interest in working with the tribes to create opportunities for ecologically and culturally sensitive management,” said Aune of the plan. “There are a handful of places in North America where the land and interest are there to consider this kind of a venture and with the Northern Arapahos we’d be matching up their interest in having a cultural herd with the availability of Yellowstone bison.”
If all goes as planned the Northern Arapaho tribe will receive their first bison at Thermopolis this spring.
Northern Arapaho Tribe’s plan to import Yellowstone bison ‘up in the air’Written by Christy Hemken
At the April 16 meeting of the Wyoming Brucellosis Coordination Team Logan gave an update on where the situation now sits.
“The Arapaho tribe and two others had applied with APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) to receive the bison from a brucellosis quarantine facility, and the Arapaho were the only tribe deemed ‘ready’ to take bison,” said Logan. “Legally, the tribe can go anyplace and buy bison free of brucellosis and import them as long as they meet the Wyoming Livestock Board’s (WLSB) import requirements.”
He said part of the hang-up has been APHIS requirements on bison coming from the quarantine facility, relating to fencing, commingling, testing, etc.
The tribe intends to pasture the bison on what’s known as Grazing Unit 32, a 32,000-acre fenced pasture near Boysen Peak on the west side of the Wind River Canyon. Currently the pasture does not have adequate fencing for bison.
“Their contingency plan was to make an arrangement with the Red Canyon Ranch northwest of Thermopolis that’s already set up for bison, and we took a tour of that and it looked good and at that point everything looked like it was a go,” said Logan.
However, that deal fell trough. In the meantime, the tribe has talked with owners of another ranch near the Red Canyon Ranch. “The latest information I have is they are in the process of fencing on that ranch to make it compatible with the bison requirements,” noted Logan.
In regard to concern about the 30 percent seroprevalence rate in elk on the reservation, Logan said the elk are quite a bit west of where the bison will be. “Game and Fish personnel say it’s very rare the elk from the Dubois area would ever go near where the bison would be pastured,” he said.
Before the bison are moved Logan said MOUs (Memorandums of Understanding) must first be signed between the Northern Arapaho and APHIS and the tribe and the WLSB. Currently the MOU between the tribe and the WLSB is in the hands of the tribe’s attorney.
“The concern of the WLSB, and the majority of producers in the area, isn’t a disease issue,” said Logan. “We’re pretty satisfied they’re clean, but we’re concerned from a management standpoint. We want to make sure the bison are adequately contained and don’t pose a threat, disease or otherwise, to wildlife and livestock interests in the area.”
In the MOU, Logan said the most pertinent item out of nine management points is that the bison will be considered livestock. “In the MOU they’re required to be maintained on tribal properties, and if they escape they’re subject to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Chapter 41 rules, which gives the WLSB authority to lethally remove them. That would be something we could fall back on.”
Although the tribe’s original plan was to move the bison to Wyoming in early April, now they’ve begun calving. “At this point the whole thing’s up in the air,” said Logan. “We will probably try to tour the new place to see the progress sometime in the last week of April.”
“The Livestock Board is not trying to facilitate this thing – we’re an interested party,” said Logan. “We’re trying, if this occurs, through the use of an MOU to have some ability to protect livestock producers in the area.”
Interested parties will meet to discuss the proposed project at 7 p.m. April 30 in Thermopolis at Big Horn Federal. The Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Hot Springs Conservation District and the Wyoming Livestock Board will sponsor the meeting. David Stoner of the Arapaho Ranch will be present, as will the fencing contractor.
Producers from the allotment on the south side of the mountain have already met, and he said they’re “very concerned about the proposition.”
Bison ranch represents non-traditional ranchingWritten by Christy Hemken
Among presentations on wind energy, using goats for alternative weed control and the organic production of beef, Roy Liedtke of Longreach Buffalo Co. shared how his ranch takes advantage of a niche market.
Liedtke’s bison ranch, located near Weston between Gillette and the Montana border, utilizes multiple species grazing, direct marketing and agritourism. Liedtke bought the ranch in 2001 in cooperation with two partners.
“We first began running the buffalo to get through the down years of the cattle cycle, and we also run beef cattle to get the most utilization from our pastures,” said Liedtke. The beef cattle run in pastures that aren’t contiguous because they’re easier to move and they also use pastures not fenced for bison.
“We don’t have any trouble running the bison and cattle together because we don’t feed hay, and it does improve range utilization,” he said, noting that bison graze more like sheep. “They stay on the ridges and don’t get in the trees and they’re really active.”
He said there are some real advantages to grazing bison. “The best thing you can do at calving time is go fishing,” he advised. “If you do try to go out there they’ll run away from you. They don’t want anybody around when they’re calving.”
He said he also doesn’t have to worry about them in the winter. “During a storm the beef cows will huddle down in the draw while the bison are up on the hill running around.” He said this is due, in part, to the density of bison hair compared to cattle.
“Bison also take less feed and water than beef,” said Liedtke. Bison drink 10 gallons per day in the summer and five in the winter, compared to beef’s 20 to 25 gallons in the summer. “Research in the rumen shows a beef’s rumen is really sloppy and soupy and a bison’s is more like a paste. They retain forage in their rumen for a longer period of time so they digest that material further.”
Liedtke also said there’s no need for a bull pasture, as the bulls separate themselves off, and the bison herd doesn’t need winter hay.
“Niche marketing can be a real advantage, and we couldn’t sell the quantity of meat that we do if we were just selling beef,” he said of their marketing approach. “It’s the natural appeal as well as the allure of bison meat.”
In the late 1990s the bison market was high, with heifer calves selling for $2,500 and bulls calves for around $1,100. “Then the number of animals caught up with the market and we were in a bad drought,” said Liedtke. In 2002 bull calves sold for $80. “When a niche market goes up it can go really high, and when it goes down it can go really low. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme.”
However, he said the multiple marketing approaches are beneficial. The ranch not only sells bison meat, but also heads, hides and hunts for trophy bulls.
Regarding the disadvantages of bison production, Liedtke says an operation has to have good facilities. “You can overbuild the fences, but out is out, and it’s not fun to get them back in.”
The ranch utilizes four-wire barbed wire fence with one smooth wire at five feet, or at least a foot above the top barbed wire, to discourage the bison from jumping the fence. The top wire also serves to prevent deer and other wildlife from getting caught up and twisted in the fence.
“The corral’s also got to be good, because the bison are big and fast,” said Liedtke. “When we move them we lead with a cake feeder or chase them with a four-wheeler. We used to use horses, but they tend to try to take them.” The ranch corrals stand seven feet tall and are composed of four-inch pipe and surplus conveyor belts.
Another disadvantage, said Liedtke, is there’s not always a ready market for bison. “They’re different from beef in that you can’t load them up and go to the sale barn, although there are more markets now than five years ago.”
Bison do gain slower than beef, but they’re also longer-lived. “The bison breed when they’re two and calve when they’re three and they’ll live and be productive to 30 years old,” explained Liedtke. “They eat less feed and take less water in the winter because their metabolism slows down, but that’s a disadvantage if you’re trying to put weight on them over the winter.”
The year the bison calves sold for $80 is when the ranch decided to get into the meat market, which added a feeder dimension to the cow/calf operation.
“Processing is the weakest link in this whole thing,” he said. Because the ranch sells meat across state lines it hauls bison to Miles City, Mont. or Belle Fouche, S.D., both of which are 150 miles away.
“Quality control is important for us, because we sell our meat directly to the public so if they’re not happy we hear about it,” he said. “Packaging is very important.”
Liedtke said inventory is also important, because their customers want access to meat year round. “The good thing is this gives us income the entire year. Most ranches don’t go broke on land payments, but because they can’t buy groceries. By spreading the income we can pay the bills so when we do get the check for the beef cattle we can use it to focus on the land payment.”
Liedtke offered this advice: “Set the price, and know your cost of production, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Know your premium over selling live animals. If it gets to the point where the premium isn’t big enough we’ll quit, because we don’t want to do this for the fun of it. We need to know when we’re making money and when we’re not.”
In addition to the bison and beef cattle the ranch has begun to offer itself as a place for people to bring their horses to ride. “There’s an amazing amount of people from Minnesota and farther east who travel to Wyoming to go riding,” said Liedtke. “The mountains can be a busy place, so some people like the fact they can come to our place and ride.”
Liedtke says right now the horseback riding is a small part of the business, but he think it’s something that could grow. “If you’re doing something you like to do and you enjoy it, it makes it a lot easier,” he noted.