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Report says S.D. ranks first in bison production

MITCHELL, S.D. - South Dakota still ranks tops in buffalo production, according to the latest available statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Those recently released numbers, for 2009, show that South Dakota has 38,500 buffalo -- more than double No. 2 ranked Nebraska, which has about 18,000 head, and well ahead of No. 3 North Dakota, which has about 16,000 head.

The buffalo numbers contrast starkly with those for cattle. South Dakota ranks eighth in cattle production with 3.8 million, while No. 1 is Texas, with 247.5 million head.

South Dakota has held its No. 1 position in buffalo production since the National Agricultural Statistics Service added buffalo production to its agricultural rankings in 2004. Some producers dispute the census numbers, which are updated only every five years, but there is no other prominent census.

Government data show the greatest concentrations of buffalo are in Dewey, Harding and Perkins counties in northwest South Dakota, which have about 9,000 head combined; in Meade and Pennington County, with nearly 900; Marshall County, in the northeast, with 1,070; Custer, Fall River and Shannon, in the southwest, with about 3,800; and in Gregory, Tripp and Lyman counties, which have about 4,100.

South Dakota's pre-eminence as a buffalo producer can be traced to a 1966 sale of buffalo in Custer State Park, said National Bison Association Executive Director Dave Carter.

"If you wanted to plant a flag in the start of the commercial buffalo business, that would be the place to plant it," Carter said. "That was the year that bison first went into private herds of any significance."

Bruce Anderson, president of the Dakota Territory Buffalo Association and one of the state's largest bison processors, said that South Dakota's No. 1 ranking is secure. Actual herd numbers are down but are rebounding, he said, after tough back-toback winters that cut calving rates.

He called bison production an "ebb and flow" business, but one with solid long-term potential.

Carter said the government census is largely accurate but doesn't account for about 30,000 animals nationally that are under federal, state and municipal ownership.

Bison demand is exceeding supply right now, Carter said, noting that herd numbers are down because producers have been selling off animals to meet consumer demand.

"We're trying to get producers to hold back some heifers and start to build up their herds, because we need to get the numbers up," he said. The industry slowed during the current economic downturn, but overall, sales continue to grow, Carter said.

What that means to him, Carter said, is that people like buffalo and want to continue eating it, "and that's very encouraging." Carter said bison are in the "sweet spot" of consumer demand when it comes to a healthy and natural food that's produced sustainably.

For many ranchers, raising buffalo -- or more correctly, American Bison -- is a love affair that often moves from hobby to business status and back again.

Gregory Realtor Joe Duling has been selling buffalo for about 10 years from his Mulehead Ranch in the river hills west of Platte.

"We just like having them and watching them," Duling said, "and the river hills are a natural environment for them."

Duling runs about 50 buffalo cows and three bulls on his ranch, sells weaned buffalo calves and occasionally allows buffalo hunts.

"The key to the whole thing is that they take no management," Duling said. Buffalo require no inoculations or other medications, he said, and they calve easily on their own.

Bison calves sell for about $1.50 a pound, said Duling, adding that the price is currently up for buffalo. Buffalo meat is leaner than cattle beef and about 50 percent lower in cholesterol, and it's being touted as a health food by the diet conscious.

"I have people waiting in line," he said.

Duling credits billionaire Ted Turner with popularizing bison husbandry. Turner owns a buffalo ranch west of Pierre and numerous ranches in surrounding states that feed a string of Ted's Montana Grill restaurants that promote buffalo meats.

Buffalo are built for the toughest weather the Great Plains can dish out, and they require no additional feed, except some optional hay in tough winters.

Buffalo always stand facing into a storm, because their heads are covered with hair that's 3 to 4 inches thick, Duling said.

"And they really take good care of a pasture," he said, noting that one herd cleared a pasture of yucca plants and cactus. "Now it's full of sweet clover," he added.

"There are really very few bad things about them," Duling said, "but you've got to know how to handle them."

Peggy Christensen, of Wessington, said the majestic animals have a place in her heart.

Her parents, Naish and Myrn Heim, of Rockham, were longtime supporters and promoters of buffalo, and her late brother, Tony Heim, was elected to the South Dakota Hall of Fame for his tireless promotion of buffalo.

"He spread the word about buffalo across the U.S. and Canada," she said.

Peggy met her husband, John, in the early 1980s when he came to purchase buffalo at her parents' ranch.

The huge animals are a small part of the Christensens' ranching operation near Wessington, where the Christensen 3C Simmental cattle operation overshadows their buffalo interests.

"For us, right now, raising buffalo is a conversation piece," said Peggy, who was more active in buffalo production in her younger years. Girl Scouts and other community groups frequently visit to see the ranch's 50 buffalo cows, 37 calves and a few big bulls.

She agreed with Duling that buffalo require handling expertise and stout fences.

"They kind of go where they want to go," she said.

Most ranchers will admit that few fences will contain a 1-ton bull who is determined to roam. The animals can be occasionally aggressive, especially during breeding season. Fighting, hormone-crazed bulls can do a fair imitation of two bulldozers facing off, and competition for cows can sometimes get ugly, Peggy Christensen said.

Despite that innate propensity to roam, buffalo herds will usually return to areas where they were born, she said.

They also know how to fend for themselves. In deep snows, buffalo will use their huge heads to plow down to grass.

"My Dad would say that he often found buffalo munching grass they uncovered while the hay that was put out for them was left untouched," she said.

The Christensens believe that having a few buffalo around helps keep them in touch with their South Dakota roots.

"They're just beautiful animals, and having them around kind of makes you feel like you're in the Old West," she said.