Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wild Idea Buffalo

There was a time when as many as 50 to 60 million buffalo roamed the great plains from Alaska to Mexico.
I haven't been eating a lot of meat lately, but every week I cook up a ton (ok, it's really just 3lbs) of grass-fed beef or buffalo for Francis.

I read this article in the weekly Natural Grocers mailer about the Wild Idea Buffalo Company. The ranch is run by Dan O'Brien who is doing what I wish all ranchers would have the courage and insight to do. Here's an excerpt from the article by Lindsay Wilson.

"Buffalo may look a little like cattle, but they act very differently," O'Brien explains. Take grazing, for instance.

"The grasses out here evolved to be grazed by buffalo; the way the buffalo graze for a bit and then move on, this movement is what allows the grass to thrive, and when the grass is thriving, the birds are thriving, the bugs are thriving, the mammals are thriving, the microbes in the soil are thriving," O'Brien says. "It's all connected. But now the grasses are being grazed by cattle and that's putting stress on the plant life, and in turn, the entire ecosystem."

In addition to their beneficial grazing patterns, O'Brien explains that buffalo easily endure what he calls the "animal-stress triumvirate" of the northern Great Plains–heat, cold, and wind. For example, a cow will start to lose weight at about zero degrees Fahrenheit, but a buffalo can stand temperatures up to minus 30 degrees, about as cold as it ever gets in South Dakota; the extreme temperatures just don't affect them. "The cattle can hardly survive in the cold, and the calves certainly can't," he says. "When you raise cattle–and I've done it–you're forcing a species into an environment that they just aren't suited to." But the buffalo, they belong on this land


O'Brien describes some of the changes he noticed in the environment once buffalo replaced cattle on his pastures in Buffalo for the Broken Heart:

"Unlike cattle, which dwell under trees for the shade in summer and wind protection in winter, we never found buffalo spending time in the wooded draws. As a result, the ground was not compacted and barren under the trees. The rare wooded plants of the prairie were not stressed the way they were when the pastures were grazed by cattle. In just one summer of buffalo grazing the bushes grew more lush than I'd ever seen and our grouse and songbird populations seemed to soar. The buffalo also refused to stand around water holes like cattle insist upon doing. The grass around the ponds was thick and unsullied. The water was not fouled by animal waste. The ponds became better places for other animals to live."

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