Family farm bets on raising hardy bison
Demand exists for meat, hides and skulls of animals
By TAMMY REAL-McKEIGHAN
HOOPER, Neb. (AP) -- Randy Egbers knows better than to try to outrun a bison.
So the Hooper man stood very still in the middle of that corral when a heifer with a calf suddenly raised her tail.
That was a warning.
Egbers lifted a 6-foot-long stick and held it toward the heifer's head.
"I knew it wouldn't have done any good to run," he said.
And he didn't need to.
The heifer made a lunge forward, but put her tail down shortly thereafter, then turned away. Egbers put down his stick and walked to the fence.
He and his wife, Pam, decided they'd done enough sorting. They'd return the next day to separate bison that would go back into the field from those headed for a trailer and off to be butchered in Wausa.
In the meantime, they'd have another story to add to their bison-raising experiences. The Egbers are organic farmers, who have raised bison since 1999. And what began with five bred heifers has grown to a herd of 22. Customers purchase meat from the Egbers or at stores in Omaha, Lincoln and Fremont -- and the area residents believe the demand for bison will increase as people seek healthier lifestyles.
"We get new calls all the time," Pam said.
The Egbers also believe that raising bison the organic way is especially good.
"It's healthier meat because it's raised naturally," Randy Egbers said.
Never thrilled about using chemicals on crops, the Egbers began talking with friend and organic farmer Delbert Hollman in 1990.
"We started visiting and he introduced us to how to do it and how to get certified," she said.
The Egbers were raising organic beef when they decided to add the bison. Their bison isn't certified organic but are raised that way. They are on certified organic ground and graze in the pasture.
"They're only grass-fed. We don't give them any grain," she said.
In the winter, the bison are fed alfalfa or brome hay.
The Egbers take bison to Wausa where the animals are butchered and processed. The meat is USDA-inspected and packaged.
They typically have taken two to three bison in for butchering about once a year. They try to do so when the hides are good and can be sold.
Besides the hides, customers also buy the skulls. They also purchase the bones for soup.
"We try to utilize as much of the buffalo as possible," she said.
But it is the meat that draws customers.
Bison meat is lower in fat than most meats and less than half the fat is saturated, states the Straight Arrow Bison website.
Grass-feeding the animals also offers other nutritional benefits, said Karen Bredthauer of Straight Arrow Bison Ranch at Broken Bow.
Demand for the animals, themselves, also appears to have increased. In the fall of 2009, 375-pound bull bison calves sold for $60 each at sale in South Dakota. A year later, the same type of calf sold for $1,200, Egbers said.
People even have called to ask whether the Egbers want to sell their herd.
The Egbers said they haven't made any decisions about that, but add that raising bison is different from beef cattle, which are more domesticated.
Instead of pushing a bison like a beef animal, owners need to lure them to different places. So Egbers puts a bale of hay in a corral, where the bison are supposed to go. He leaves the animals in there for about a day.
He then sorts out the animals that are meant to return to the field. The third step involves getting those animals intended for the butcher into the barn and then loaded onto a trailer. Egbers uses handfuls of hay to draw the animals to the trailer.
He has to be careful.
"There's no way a person can outrun them," he said.
Despite that, the Egbers enjoy the bison, who they describe as family oriented. They remember the man who looked at a piece of artwork depicting the animals. The man pointed out individual family units within the herd.
One recent, cold morning, the Egbers were outdoors with the bison. Randy had used a tractor to haul hay to the animals.
Skies were sunny as the animals stood on snow-covered hills chomped their food. The fur on some bison faces was dark. Others had fur that looked almost red. At one point, a calf scampered closer to its mother.
The bison can stand the cold better than beef cattle. Egbers recalls one November when the first sleet and snow of the season hit. Their cattle shivered in the snow, while the bison bounced around in it.
Pam remembers the time they sold one bison bull, nicknamed "Big E."
"I was attached," she said. "It seemed like we were killing a whale. He was so nice, but he was big enough to go and we had to keep selling."