By Carrie Campbell, for The Gazette
Last summer, my children got their first glimpse of bison as we drove through the Black Hills of South Dakota. While they gasped with delight as the huge horned animals walked right next to our SUV, my husband and I were relentlessly hissing safety precautions: Don’t touch them! Don’t shout at them! Don’t make any sudden movements!
On a recent wagon ride tour at Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch in northeast Iowa, our kids had the opposite experience: running joyfully from one end of the wagon to the other, calling out to their favorite bison, all the while feeding ears of corn to the animals. Several times, the kids ended up with “bison kisses” as the animals’ long tongues swept out to grab the food.
The ranch near Fredericksburg, less than an hour north of Waterloo, is run by Dan McFarland, 87, and his daughter Martha McFarland, 42.
Parts of the farm, which now covers around 500 acres, have been in their family since the 1850s. In fact, Dan McFarland sleeps in the room where he was born.
Martha’s four older siblings have helped out on the farm over the years, but she and her dad now run it together.
“I always knew I wanted to come back to the farm,” Martha said. “I don’t think I ever imagined growing up that I would be the one running it. But then you realize, well, it’s a family farm and who’s gonna do it, and I just love it,” she said. “I lived in Denver for a while, and it never felt like home the way that this place does.”
The family has been raising Hereford cattle since the 1950s, but in the early ’90s, when the cattle market was declining, they began raising bison to diversify their income.
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”At that time, people were becoming much more health-conscious,” Martha said, pointing out that bison meat is lean and is a health choice “when you’re looking at fat content and cholesterol.”
Visitors can buy bison meat (steaks, roasts, jerky, etc.) and meat from their grass-fed Hereford stock. You also can order meat and have it delivered.
Tours begin inside the small storefront. Maps of Iowa, the United States and the world hang on the wall, with pins showing where visitors have come from. All 50 states are represented, as well as every continent — including Antarctica.
“It was a woman who worked in Antarctica, driving a Caterpillar,” Dan recalled.
He generally is the tour guide, giving an average of five tours a week. His love for the history of the land and the bisons’ role in the prairie culture are evident as he shows visitors ancient bison skulls, a sled made from bison ribs and Native American artifacts.
Before heading out to feed the bison, Dan performs a traditional “smudging” ceremony, where he lights dried sage and uses a feather to cleanse each person and ensure the outing will be safe.
You then hop on a wagon pulled by Dan’s tractor and take a short drive across the road to the field where the bison graze. We had two buckets of ear corn to feed them, and the bison, very familiar with the sound of the tractor, came running as we entered their field. Because the herd follows a pecking order, it’s only the largest of the roughly 50 bison that approach the wagon, sticking their mouths through the slats and vying for attention. The smaller bison follow at a distance, and you can hear the mothers grunting to their babies when they stray out of sight.
The herd is able to roam on half of the ranch’s land. Most of the herd has been born and raised on the ranch and are content to stay in the fields. However, when the family bought their first bison from farms in Kansas and Minnesota, “they were always walking the fences,” Dan said. “They knew where home was, and they wanted to go home.”
Martha spends a fair amount of time checking fences, to make sure the bison can’t get out. Because bison don’t like to push through things, visual barriers — like brush along the fence line or cornfields — work well to keep them in. In addition, once a year she has an experienced group of friends help round up the herd to administer a parasite preventative. But other than that, the bison herd doesn’t require a lot of oversight.
“People come here and they think, ‘Oh, can I go hang out with you and work the bison?’ and I’m like, ‘the bison take care of themselves,’” Martha said. “They’ve evolved as part of the prairie ecosystem. You just don’t have trouble with cows having calves.
“One of the advantages of raising bison is you don’t split off the bulls from the cows,” she said. “You just keep them all together.”
An assortment of chickens, cats and dogs also call the ranch home. But Martha’s two dogs know not to go into the fields with the bison.
“I’ve never ever worried about a bison looking at me and charging,” Martha said.
She said the bison will give off signals if they are getting agitated, “and then you just stay back. But if a dog’s with me, they might charge my dog. I think it’s because it looks enough like a wolf.”
Most of the time, though, the animals are really gentle and “even a little chicken,” Martha said. One time a passing car stopped to look at the bison, and the couple’s little dachshund jumped out and chased the whole herd away. “They were so far back, I couldn’t even see my bison,” Martha said.
Martha is a board member of the Minnesota Bison Association and also works with Practical Farmers of Iowa, which encourages sustainable agriculture. She is working on a fencing strategy that will give the land periods of rest and help restore the prairie.
“What’s really important to me is that when the animals are living here on Earth that they live the best life that they can,” Martha said.
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She also feels strongly about keeping the farm in the family. While no one in the family is in line to take over after her, she said she has a nephew in the military who is close to the ranch and a great-niece whose family is building a house on the land and who helps out on the farm.
“We just have a real love obviously and a real passion for keeping the farm in the family,” Martha said.
Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch
• Address: 3034 Pembroke Ave., Fredericksburg
• Phone: (563) 237-5318
• Tours: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $5 for children. Call or email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a tour.
• Website: hawkeyebuffalo.com
Did you know
• While “buffalo” is the commonly used term, “bison” is the accurate, scientific name. True buffalo are the cape buffalo and water buffalo native to Africa and Asia.
• Like cows, bison don’t have front top teeth, so getting bit is one thing you don’t have to worry about.
• Bison herds have a pecking order; at the Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch, the top 10 bison get 90 percent of the corn during public tours.
• Unlike antlers, bison horns are never shed and continue to grow throughout their lifetime. The black horn we see is actually a hollow sheath covering a short bone that is part of the bison’s skull.
• Bison start shedding their fur in March.
• Bison meat, compared to beef, has more protein and less fat, calories and cholesterol.
• About 50 farms in Iowa raise bison.