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Bison: The Other Red Meat
By Marisa Helms
September 3, 1999
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Bison burgers, buff dogs, bison is becoming the "other red meat" for health-conscious Americans. Cattle ranchers across Minnesota are starting to raise the nearly once extinct animal in increasing numbers because they're low in fat and high in protein.

Some of these new bison ranchers try to mimic the natural prairie setting; grazing their herds on native grasses.

More and more ranchers are turning over some of their acreage to buffalo. Media mogul Ted Turner's ranches in Montana and New Mexico are the most notable examples of the buffalo boom. But smaller herds are cropping up all over the country.
THE J & L BISON RANCH is tucked away on the prairies of Kandiyohi County in central Minnesota.

Rancher Leila Arndt drives her blue sedan out into a field of high grasses. She's meeting up with husband, John, who has a small school bus full of tourists parked in the middle of a bison herd.

From the drivers seat John talks to his guests about reintroducing bison to the great plains.
Arndt: The reason we're bringing this great animal back is the fact that it's a health food. Otherwise, you might as well eat beef. It's lower in cholesterol than fish or poultry and very high in protein and lower in saturated fat.
Outside the bus, about 50 buffalo rock back-and-forth as they breath deeply in the hot sun. The herd will graze in this pasture by the lake for 30 days, until they're moved to a nearby 60-acre meadow. Moving the herd around the ranch ensures it won't deplete the grasses or the land. It's called management-intensive grazing.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture likes what the Arndts are doing. Minnesota's sustainable agriculture program has given the J & L Ranch a $9,000 grant to experiment with new, environmentally friendly farming practices.

Wayne Munson is the program's grant administrator. He's says bison ranching is environmentally sound because the animals have naturally practiced management-intensive grazing since they first lived wild on the prairies hundreds of years ago.
Munson: They were roamers and they'd always be moving toward new grasses, and as they'd roam they'd tear up the ground pretty good, but that actually strengthened the grasses then they'd come back even stronger after that.
Reintroducing native prairie grasses is also part of the Arndt's goal for J & L Ranch. They've already introduced cool season prairie grasses like timothy, bromegrass and orchard grass. Grant money will help plant big blue stem and switch grass, both warm season grasses.
The ag department's Wayne Munson says combining grasses allows for year 'round grazing, which is environmentally and economically beneficial.
Munson: Having the farm in grass all the time, protects soil from erosion, allows the forages to produce a lot over time. It lowers the cost of farmer to have a lot of farm machinery to go harvest the grass and bring it in then feed it to the animals. This way the animals can go out there and do the harvesting themselves.
More and more ranchers are turning over some of their acreage to buffalo. Media mogul Ted Turner's ranches in Montana and New Mexico are the most notable examples of the buffalo boom. But smaller herds are cropping up all over the country.

Some say that buffalo ranchers work half as much as beef operations for twice the profit. Bison are less labor intensive than cattle. They prefer to graze on pastureland all year round. The hearty animals do fine even in bitter winter weather and will dig through snow to eat the grasses underneath.

And as for profit, one head of cattle sells for about $700, but one buffalo can sell for up to $5,000.

This kind of profit-driven market worries some Native Americans. Louis LaRose is from the Nebraska Winnebego Tribe and is board president of the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative - the ITBC. He says there's some concern among ITBC members that non-Indian bison ranchers are exploiting the animals; raising them in feedlots like cattle and ignoring the sacredness and majesty of the bison.
Larose: In the method they use, there's no consideration for the relationship of bison to the earth and the relationship of bison to tribal people. They shoot 'em in the head, they destroy the skull for use in ceremonies, they take the horns off.
But LaRose says he can't find much fault with the Arndt's J & L Ranch. LaRose is putting together a bison restoration curriculum at the United Tribes Technical College in Nebraska, and is interested in sharing information with all kinds of ranchers about how they operate.

At the J & L Ranch in central Minnesota, the great American bison is on a pedestal. The Arndts live, breath, eat and even wear buffalo. When guests come for a tour, Leila Arndt wears her buffalo-patterned shirt, hat and earrings, and - if you're hungry - she'll feed you a buff dog or burger. The Arndt's are part of a growing movement of those who believe there are economic, historic, and spiritual benefits in restoring the great American bison back to the prairie.