Bison Herds Are Growing In Wisconsin

This week's spotlight story from Diane Dryden

Bison Herds Are Growing In Wisconsin

With the continually changing commodities market, farmers have become hard-pressed as to which direction to head next.

Sadly the small family-run dairy farm is fast becoming a thing of the past and is being replaced by the mega-farms with five hundred cows and up to several thousand. Their dairy cows have computer-generated programs that measure their milk output, their feed, their health. More information is sometimes generated by specially made Fitbits that are attached to their legs.

Other farmers have sold their herd and started 'cash cropping.' Getting rid of their animals and only plowing, planting, and harvesting, and marketing. A growing number who currently cash-crop hemp.

A tiny percentage of dairy farmers have gone the 'value-added' idea by making cheese or yogurts or other milk-derived products from their own milk on their own farm.

In the 1980s, Lee and Mary Graese of Rice Lake, Wisconsin were in the business of health. They had both been raised on farms, Lee a dairy farm and Mary on a hog farm. Both were determined never to live that lifestyle again. Lee became a personal trainer who went on to set the American Record in the Dead Lift competition. He did this while entirely drug-free.  Mary became a dietitian deeply into nutrition and fitness.

So dedicated were they to living a healthy lifestyle, she began to seriously look into the foods they were eating. Lee also began to talk about his dream of owning a ranch someday.

It wasn't long before they had combined their two dreams and bought a place in Brill, Wisconsin, that was 110 acres. Now they could raise their own meat and live a healthy life.  

Instead of raising beef, Lee, who had always been fascinated by the American West, suggested they look into the magnificent bison who roamed the NorthWest's vast landscape. They learned that the animals were called bison to differentiate between the name buffalo since the water buffalo also had a presence in world trade. It was used in pet food, and its milk was used in making mozzarella cheese in Italy.

Mary researched bison as food and discovered the undeniable health benefits of one hundred percent grass-raised meat. "There is an irreversible change in the fat profile is any amount of grain is added to their diet."

Lee learned of an annual bison surplus sale at Blue Mounds State Park in Southwestern, Minnesota. This piqued his interest, so he found a friend with a pickup and a stock trailer and headed west. They returned home with a two-year-old bull and a healthy eight-month-old heifer. Northstar Bison was born that day in mid-October, 1994. Little they realize then what their little hobby farm would look like today, twenty-five years and a herd of over eight hundred animals.

Needless to say, as the herd grew, so did their need for land. It wasn't long before they moved to the place they live now on three hundred acres. The spot was ideal because not only was it near the bustling and growing city of Rice Lake, but it was right off State Highway 53 and County Highway V.

The business grew as the customers grew in number. In a few years, they moved their small retail meat store, the one that was initially on the property to an off-site location.

Then they bought their own processing plant in another town. Now they do the majority of their business over the internet with many of their customers living on both east and west coasts. These are places where more people seem to be grass-fed with no chemicals ever conscience. Their first customers were cardiologists and their patients.

It takes two acres per head of bison for their grazing, and more acres for harvesting the hay they're fed during the winter.  By the mid-2000's, it became evident that they either had to find more land somewhere or contract with others to raise bison.

Daughter Marielle Hewitt, Lee, and Mary Graese, along with Marielle's husband Brett, are now all part of the business.  

And part of that business is the constant moving of the bison to new land. Moving them to replenish the soil as it is raising the bulls and cows for the market.

“We contract for ten years when we lease land,” she says, “because it takes five years to build a root system if the land had been tilled.”

By building the soil, she means that because of the heavy-weight of each animal, 2000 pounds for a bull, and 1,000 for a cow, the ground is pounded by their body weight, causing worms and bugs to come to the surface opening it up for rain and moisture. Other microbiology comes into play to break down the 'calling cards' they leave throughout the fields as fertilizer. Even the fact that they use their long tongues to 'tug' at the grass is an additional plus by aerating the soil, making the land sustainable for as long as they call it home.

"The bison move to a new pasture every 2-5 days and not returning to the same pasture for 45 additional days. This rest is essential for building healthy soils. The process of moving them is quick and sweet with the assistance of four-wheelers, one typically leads the herd, and the other four-wheelers follow."

When bulls are twenty-six to thirty months old, and the females are thirty to thirty-six months old, they go to market. When they reach the processing plant, they rest and graze for seven to thirty days to reduce their stress, which, in turn, changes the structure flavor and tenderness of the meat.

The bison are harvested in the field on Thursdays, and the meat is chilled immediately over the weekend. It's cut on Monday and mailed out, fresh, not frozen, on Wednesday to their internet customers. Marielle recommends the hump roast. "There's nothing like it."

By the way, the reason they have a hump is so they can swing their heads in both directions to sweep away the snow so they can eat. She also recommends that the meat is best when cooked low and slow. "Steaks are amazing when you just sear them on both sides, cover them, and let them rest until they reach 130 degrees. We send out cooking instructions with all our meat."

Thanks to President Teddy Roosevelt back in 1883 for creating the American Bison Society to protect these magnificent animals. Today the herd's number over 500,000, including 5,000 in the Yellowstone Natural Park in Montana and Wyoming.

NorthStar Bison is currently running a fifteen percent off sale that will go to the end of December. Discounted will be their ground bison, their patties, the New York Strips, the rib eyes, tenderloins, T bones, Porterhouse, and even those beautiful prime ribs will all be available at a discount. They're open 8a to 5p Monday through Friday in Cameron, and for further information, you can call 715-458-4300. They also have a FaceBook page, and their store is located at 222 Birch Avenue in Cameron, Wisconsin.

So the next time you find yourself humming that great American tune, "Oh give me a home where the..." change the word to bison. It won't fit, but at least it will be correct, and Teddy would have been pleased.

Last Update: Oct 29, 2019 10:32 am CDT

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