Raising buffalo started as a hobby for Jill Lagergren — a time-consuming, sometimes difficult hobby, but a hobby nonetheless. But over the past 15 years, the Lagergrens’ property has been transformed into a working, thriving ranch with about 40 buffalo.
And the Lagergrens can hardly keep up with the demand for local, farm-fresh meat, which sells for about $7 per pound.
“We sell the buffalo in quarters,” Jill Lagergren said. “We’re sold out for this year and practically sold out for next year for quarters of our animals.”
The ranch is completely family operated. Jill Lagergren and her husband Ed do much of the work, with their three children chipping in from time to time. Jill Lagergren said she wouldn’t have it any other way — being a buffalo rancher is her dream job.
This time of year is especially busy for the ranchers, with their 20 breeding-aged females giving birth to calves. So far, 12 calves have been born. The babies stick close to their mothers as they graze in the field.
“They’re very good moms, very protective,” she said. “If there’s something bothering them, they’ll get one of the aunties and one will be on each side of the calves and they’ll get them out of there.”
The calves are only about 40 pounds when born and are up-and-running right after birth. They’re a rust-orange color, which helps them hide from predators.
“The reason why they’re orange is because wolves are color blind,” Ed Lagergren said. “And if you’re colorblind, you can’t tell the difference between orange and green, so you can’t tell the difference between them and the green grass.”
But the Lagergrens’ herd doesn’t have to worry about predators, although there are sometimes bears and cougars in the area. The buffalo graze in fields surrounded by electric fences. And although the animals are wary of human strangers, there’s not much that truly scares them — as long as they’re near the herd.
“They’re a real herd-oriented animal,” Jill Lagergren said. “If one gets on its own, they get real panicky. They don’t like to be singled out on their own.”
She talks to the buffalo like they’re pets, not farm animals. She calls out to them, “Hi girls! You have such pretty babies!” as they graze in the fields. Most of the animals have names: Boss Cow, Lucky, Trouble. The bulls are named Thunder and Nickel, Nick for short.
The Lagergrens bring in new bulls every few years to introduce new genes. That way, father buffalo don’t breed with their daughters.
The herd is completely grass-fed, grazing in the fields during the summer and munching hay in the winter. The buffalo are never fed hormones. Jill Lagergren said most buffalo ranches feed their animals this way.
“They’re a plains animal, so the grass is really their most natural food,” she said. “We tried to feed them grain for a while, but they walk away from just about anything but grass. The consumers these days have pushed us to grass-fed because it’s a better finish. So we just let them be buffalo, we let them eat grass.”
The Elma area is surprisingly good for raising buffalo, she said — unlike in Montana or Wyoming, grass re-grows quickly here. In warmer, drier states, one buffalo needs about 30 acres of land to survive. In Elma, a buffalo can live off of two acres.
The Lagergrens’ buffalo are the same species tourists often see wandering around Yellowstone National Park. But Jill Lagergren explained that her buffalo aren’t true buffalo; they’re American bison. True buffalo are native to Africa, but most people refer to the American bison as buffalo.
The animals are extremely stubborn. They won’t move unless they have fresh grass as an incentive. When they do move, they’re extremely fast. Jill Lagergren said a buffalo can easily outrun a horse in a long-distance race. While horses are initially faster, buffalo have more endurance. The animals don’t gallop — they bounce like deer.
“Even a big hulking bull will do that boinging thing that you see a deer do,” Jill Lagergren said. “All four feet hit the ground and they bounce.”
The Lagergrens use as many parts of the buffalo as possible after they’re butchered. They send the leather to Geier Gloves in Centralia to make gloves and moccasins. Some people purchase heads for taxidermy, and others purchase buffalo hair to spin into wool for knitting.
“We’re not just about the meat, even though that’s how we make our money,” Jill Lagergren said.
Amelia Dickson, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 5637-3936, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org