Preserving the West 777 Bison Ranch practices holistic management and conservation
Published on Jan. 18, 2020
The 777 Bison Ranch in Hermosa, S.D. wasn’t always a bison operation. In fact, the Hillenbrand family started out raising cattle until the skittish South Dakota climate changed their plans.
“My family bought the 777 Ranch in the early 1970s,” explains Mimi Hillenbrand. “We ran a cow/calf operation with black Angus and Hereford cattle, which was traditionally managed and grazed.”
“In the early 1980s, we bought our first 100 head of bison from Custer State Park, and we ran both cattle and bison,” she continues.
Mimi notes the first spring they had the bison, a horrible blizzard blew in.
“Several of the cattle calved during the storm,” she says. “However, the bison didn’t start calving until after the storm. We realized because the bison had evolved here, they were well adapted to the environment and more suited for the climate.”
Therefore, the Hillenbrands made the sensible decision to switch to an all bison operation.
Mimi explains around the same time they decided to make the switch to bison, they were introduced to Allen Savory and the concept of holistic management (HM).
“The first time I heard Allen Savory speak about HM, I was hooked,” says Mimi. “It made so much sense to me.”
From there, Mimi and the manager at the time decided to switch from a traditional management model to holistic management.
“We attended several HM courses and started planning our grazing to allow adequate plant recovery,” Mimi explains. “We set up plant transects to monitor range health and started making decisions based on the HM model.”
She continues, “HM encompasses the whole. It is not just about intensive grazing, it is a way to make decisions taking into consideration the land, the people and the animals.”
Conservation and carbon sequestering
Part of 777 Bison Ranch’s HM includes working with wildlife and planning their grazing with conservation and wildlife in mind, according to Mimi.
“When we build new fence, we make sure we have adequate places wildlife can cross safely and we don’t allow hunting of wildlife,” she explains. “We also do not put up hay, which has allowed our grouse population to increase.”
“In addition, we work with our local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office to improve our conservation efforts. They help us with such things as planting trees to increase cover and food for wildlife, and they also helped us make improvements with our stock tanks to make them more bird safe,” Mimi adds.
Mimi notes two years ago she became curious about how much carbon the ranch was sequestering and wanted a complete report on the health of 777 Bison Ranch.
“I wanted to see what 30 plus years of practicing HM had accomplished and what the differences were compared to traditional grazing,” she says. “A friend recommended Applied Ecological Services out of Wisconsin to do the work.”
She continues, “It took a year to collect and analyze the data. The results blew me away. In 30 years of practicing HM, we increased and created top soil, in some places up to six inches, our water infiltration improved, our plant diversity was three times higher than on traditionally managed land, our carbon sequestering was higher in both organic carbon and inorganic carbon, our soil health was really good and our forage quality/quantity had improved. The study had proved what my transects showed along with improvement in all areas.”
Preserving the West
On top of their holistic management and conservation efforts, 777 Bison Ranch is doing several other things to preserve the West.
According to their website, the entire 777 bison herd is DNA tested for the cattle gene.
“Cattle genes were introduced to the buffalo population at the turn of the century when they were crossbred with cattle to help them from going extinct. Cattle gene introgression into bison is less than one percent. However, we at the 777 Bison Ranch strive to keep bison as bison. Therefore, we genetically test all of our animals and keep our herd in the purest form,” reads their website.
Today, 777 Bison Ranch has one of the most genetically diverse herds of bison. They also mimic the way their ancestors roamed the Great Plains by rotating grazing paddocks and running a 100 percent grass-fed operation.
“We have several goals at 777 Bison Ranch,” Mimi notes. “We strive to raise healthy bison, care for the land and promote the diversity of plants and animals, to keep the people who work here happy, to be a part of the community and to be profitable.”
While there is a good demand and strong market for bison meat, Mimi explains raising bison is a lot different than raising other livestock.
“To raise bison, one has to be prepared to fix a lot of fence,” she says. “Handling facilities also have to be fortified and built stoutly, and the cost of infrastructures for bison cost more than for cattle and sheep.”
“Bison are still wild animals and their flight zones and pressure points are way more sensitive,” she adds. “Working bison requires more patience and understanding of the animal.”
Mimi further explains calving is easier with bison than cattle as they do not require help, and since bison evolved on the prairie they utilize forage more efficiently. She also notes it is important to find a vet that likes working with bison because many vets do not and not all processing plants process bison.
Despite these challenges, 777 Bison Ranch has evolved into a successful operation that works diligently to preserve the West.
For more information, visit 777bisonranch.com. Hannah Bugas is the assistant editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.