Back Forty Bison in DadCounty, Mo., is among the private farms and ranches across the U.S. that have helped restore numbers of these majestic animals. The farm, owned by John and Becky Roller, started with a herd of 13 bison in 2012 and now has 100 in four locations, such as this one on their “homestead” farm in Dadeville.
Becky Roller says her interest in bison was born from a desire to eat healthier—and find a good protein source that wasn’t just fish or chicken. Her interest has grown well beyond the meat, however, to a mission of conservation for both bison and their native prairie lands.
Dade County natives, Becky and John Roller, left, have known their ranch manager, Brock Toler, his whole life. None of them had previous experience raising livestock, so they’ve all learned about bison management together.
These two calves are among those born this spring. Bison calves normally weigh between 40 to 50 pounds and are up and walking or running with their mothers within a couple hours of being born. Bison cows are typically self-sufficient when it comes to birthing their calves. Female bison breed when they are 2 years old and have their first calves when they are 3. They can live to be 20 to 25 years old and have a calf each year, under the right conditions.
Managing bison means managing forage, Brock says. He and the Rollers have worked closely with MFA Precision Specialist Brandon Hebbert, left, to implement grid soil sampling and variable-rate fertilization on the farm’s pastures. Brock also is working toward renovating the former fescue-based pastures into a prairie-like grazing habitat that includes warm-season grasses, clovers and lespedeza.
Finding themselves with more bull calves than they needed, the Rollers began processing them into meat to sell to the public. Products include steaks, roasts, burger, jerky and snack sticks.
Bison are the largest land mammal in the U.S. A mature cow will weigh more than 1,000 pounds while bulls can top 2,000 pounds. Even though they can be some what tamed, they are not domestic animals and maintain their wild spirit.
More than 200 years ago, when Lewis and Clark were making their historic 8,000-mile trek that began in Missouri, American bison herds still grazed the state’s peaceful prairies. William Clark’s journal entries from June 1804 reference the explorers’ first “buffalow” sightings near Boonville and present-day Kansas City.
In 1818, explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft also encountered bison during his notable expedition through the Missouri Ozarks. In his journal, which became the first published account of the region, Schoolcraft marveled at “droves of bison” grazing in the tall-grass prairie that once covered about a third of the state.
Free-roaming bison would soon be a rarity. Even though these majestic bovine dominated the Great Plains landscape until the mid-1800s, with an estimated population of 60 million at its peak, only around 1,000 were left by 1890. Overhunting, habitat destruction and introduction of diseases from domestic cattle were the main culprits of the almost disastrous decline.
Thanks to private, federal and public conservation efforts over the past 100 years, however, bison have come back from the brink of extinction. The population has grown to some 360,000 in North America today, many of them thriving in relatively natural conditions in public parks, preserves and Native American lands. Around 184,000 or so reside on private ranches and farms, according to the 2017 USDA census.
Back Forty Bison in southwest Missouri is among them. John and Rebecca (Becky) Roller have raised American bison since 2012, beginning with 13 they purchased as an established herd from another producer. Today, their herd numbers around 100, counting cows, calves and four herd bulls, spread across four farms in the Rollers’ native Dade County.
“We had no previous livestock experience at all,” Becky said. “The bad part about that is you have a lot to learn. The good part is you don’t have a lot to unlearn. The way you manage cattle doesn’t always transfer to bison.”
Indeed, the enterprise may seem a bit unlikely for the Rollers, who had a diverse background before bison. They both worked in education for several years and then started and sold their own computer software firm. Becky also holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. Though mostly retired these days, they still offer consulting services “once in a while,” John said.
Their bison business was born after a trip to Yellowstone National Park, where about 4,000 head roam freely. John and Becky had a chance to see bison up close and marveled at the magnificence of what was designated America’s national mammal in 2016.“
It wasn’t long after our trip that we discovered bison meat had an extremely healthy profile,” Becky said. “We had been dieting, trying eat better as we were getting older and fatter, but were just burned out on turkey, fish and chicken. We were thrilled to have red meat again. So one day after church, I turned around to some friends of ours and suggested we raise bison together. We started out in partnership with them, although we have separate operations now.”
The Rollers didn’t jump into bison production without doing their homework. Becky said they spent about a year going to producer meetings, visiting farms in Missouri and other states and reading everything they could find about bison. They found the industry very welcoming and supportive.
“It’s a niche business,” Becky said. “I want to stress that. It’s never going to be competitive with cattle. It’s not for someone who’s in it for the short haul or trying to make a quick profit. It takes a while to become profitable.”
Those who choose to raise bison will usually find them to be relatively low-maintenance livestock, the Rollers say. Bison have less-stringent nutritional requirements than cattle. They don’t need help calving. In fact, they pretty much take care of themselves, just like they have for ages.“
Our bison are relatively tame, but they are not domesticated,” Becky said. “They still have that wild place in their brain, and you never know when it’s going to activate. They’re not afraid of us, but we’re very respectful of each other’s space.”
Back Forty Bison’s business model was built on the idea of bringing genetic diversity to Missouri’s breeding stock. In building their herd, the Rollers acquired animals from many sources, including Custer State Park in South Dakota, Antelope Island State Park in Utah, and private farms in Idaho, Kansas, Colorado and Texas.
“We noticed there was a lot of swapping animals back in forth among bison producers here in Missouri,” John said. “Because it’s a relatively small population of animals, before long the genetic pool gets fairly reduced. One of our goals was to have separate pastures with different genetics on each, so we could take a bull calf from one herd, heifers from another, and combine them with unique genetics to provide starter herds for prospective bison farms.”
So far, they’ve sold bison bundles to producers in Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota.“
We call it the ‘bison experience package’ because we really want people to understand what it means to raise bison,” Becky said. “New producers are always asking questions, such as what we’re doing for fertilizer, what we are planting in our pastures and what we feed them. We are willing to provide support and knowledge after the sale.”
After a few years in the bison business, the Rollers began harvesting some of the animals for their own consumption and eventually began marketing the meat to the public. They’re regular vendors at the Farmers Market of the Ozarks and the Springfield Farmers Market, offering a selection of bison products that include steaks, roasts, burger, snack sticks and jerky.
“We end up with leftover bulls, and that’s how we got in the meat business,” John said. “We’ll butcher about a dozen animals this year and next year probably about 20. Our meat has a very nice flavor for bison, which pleasantly surprises many folks.”
Bison commands a higher price in the market than beef, John added, but people are willing to pay a premium because of its health benefits. Bison is lower in cholesterol than chicken, it’s a great source of iron, and it provides the same protein as beef with less fat and fewer calories.
“It’s very lean, and the thing is to cook it low and slow,” Becky said. “People will taste bison and think it’s really tough. And it can be, if you overcook it. It doesn’t have the fat composition to withstand overheating.”
Focus on forage
From the beginning, the Rollers realized that pasture management had to be a priority because bison are adapted to a forage-based diet. Typical of most Midwest pastures, however, the forage available on their farm was predominantly fescue at the time.
“We’re really grass farmers,” Rebecca said. “It didn’t take long for us to figure that out. But when we first started, all we had out here was fescue and weeds. We were doing what everyone did because we didn’t have the knowledge yet about what we really needed to do. We just went out and spread fertilizer every year.”
That’s when MFA local precision sales manager Brandon Hebbert stepped in to help. Brandon worked with the Rollers and their ranch manager, Brock Toler, to enroll their pastures in MFA’s Nutri-Track program, which provides location-specific fertilizer recommendations through grid soil sampling.
Like his employers, Brock had no previous livestock experience. He’d been working as an electrician before he joined their operation four years ago.
“We all learned together,” John said. “Brock and Becky are both great investigators and interactors. We’re open to any ideas that make sense.”
Nutri-Track made sense to the Rollers. Precision fertilization fits well with their stewardship philosophy. Plus, all four of their farms have different soil types and nutrient profiles, so a general plant food formula isn’t the most effective.
“Our goal is to apply only what we need, where we need it,” John said. “We want to be profitable and efficient, but we also want to be sustainable. If we are going to use fertilizer, we are going to use it very responsibly. Nutri-Track helps us do the right things.”
This is the farm’s fourth year in the program, which is set up to take new soil tests once every four years. That means Back Forty Bison’s acreage is due for re-sampling next year. Brandon said he’s excited to see how the soil profile has changed since the last report.
“You can tell these pastures are in better shape than before we started Nutri-Track,” the precision specialist said. “But while you can visually see a difference, understanding what’s below the surface is what really tells the story.”
Pastures into prairies
Since he came on board, Brock has been working with the Missouri Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Conservation Service to restore a more natural forage habitat for the bison. The goal was to have 25% warm-season native grasses, which he achieved this year with planting of additional prairie at the Dadeville farm. Back Forty Bison now has 300 grazable acres divided into 10-acre paddocks for rotational grazing.
“With all our pasture movements, we try to mimic nature as much as possible,” Brock explained. “We’re not intensively grazing them in super small paddocks, but we’re still controlling a little bit of what they can do. They rarely overgraze. They’ll eat, and they’ll move. Makes my job easy.”
Along with the native warm-season grasses, Brock interseeds white, ladino or red clover and lespedeza into the pastures each winter. He uses the “frost-seeding” method, broadcasting the seeds and allowing the natural freezing and thawing action of the ground to work them into the soil.
“We want our pastures to be like a buffet, a forage polyculture,” he said. “We want to get away from traditional monoculture fescue pasture. Bison will eat fescue, but they prefer diversity in their diet.”
Brock also has implemented cover crops on some of the pastures. This fall, he drilled in a mix of winter oats, rye, barley, triticale, crimson clover, hairy vetch, turnips and radishes. He says the cover crop will prime the soil for a new diverse prairie field planned for 2020.
Mature bison cows weigh more than 1,000 pounds, while bulls can top 2,000 pounds. Despite their bulkiness, the colossal creatures can run 35 miles an hour and jump 6 feet. Even with their spectacular size, the bison are content to stay within polywire electric fences, Brock said. The Rollers call them “happy fences.” Palatable pasture is the key.
“There’s not a fence out here that they couldn’t go over or through if they wanted to,” John said. “We just try to make sure they don’t want to. As long as they’re happy inside, they’re generally going to stay there.”
Most of the farm’s fertilizer is applied in the fall, which helps extend the grazing season and prepares the forage for gradual green-up in the spring.
“What happens in the spring is that everything gets so stinking green so quickly, and it’s hard on the bison,” Brock said. “We don’t need that extra kick in the spring. I’d rather have it in the fall.”
Conservation in action
Back Forty Bison is taking part in a Great American Bison Diet Survey, which is being conducted by Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, N.D., through a USDA grant. The goal of the project is to take a snapshot of the plants that bison eat across North America by analyzing fecal samples of both wild and managed herds.
“Brock collects samples from our herd, sends them in, and they not only check what they are eating but also how efficient they are in their ruminant production,” Becky said. “That way, we know a little bit better about what nutrition is happening.”
The researchers are finding that, on average, 50% of the protein intake of bison comes from plants other than grasses, including legumes, forbs and even woody species.
“At first, we were going to spray herbicides across all our pastures to get rid of the weeds and undesirable plants,” Brock said. “But then the study results came back and showed these bison are eating like goats. They will eat things cattle won’t eat. So we just let nature work together out here.”
He and the Rollers also are working toward getting the farm certified as a Conservation Ranch by the Audubon Society. The voluntary program promotes management practices that provide habitat for grassland birds. Typically, these practices include some type of rotational grazing approach that increases pasture plant diversity and vigor, resulting in higher-quality grassland habitat across a ranch.
The reward for achieving the certification is the right to label their bison products as “grazed on bird-friendly land.” Brock expects the farm to be certified by the end of 2019.
“I’m usually obsessive about keeping our pastures cut down, but we’ve let them grow up this year for the birds,” Brock said. “It’s another way to be good stewards of the land.”
All of these efforts are part of Back Forty Bison’s commitment to not only conserving these iconic American animals but also the land they inhabit. That commitment is spelled out in the farm’s tagline: “Bringing ’Em Back.”
“If you go back to when the bison roamed the great prairies, they helped support an entire ecosystem,” Becky said. “Because of the way they grazed, they built prairie habitat for other wildlife. Our goal is to eventually get to a point where they are doing their job and earning their keep in maintaining the prairies we’re building here on our farm.”
For more information on Back Forty Bison,visit online at back40bison.com or call 417-995-4485. To learn more about MFA’s Nutri-Track program, talk with your local precision specialist or visit mfa-inc.com/PrecisionAg/Nutri_Track.
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