Bison ranch represents non-traditional ranching
Cheyenne – The opening sessions of the 2008 Society for Range Management Wyoming Section and the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s fall meeting in Cheyenne featured several speakers who highlighted non-traditional income opportunities for Wyoming ranchers.
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.
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com.