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Expansion reflects booming bison industry

Staff writer

Change is coming to Coon Creek Buffalo near Goessel in the way of a major expansion. Owners of the ranch, Vernon and Angela Base, recently confirmed a contract was in the works with Grandma’s Horn, a national restaurant syndicate, to provide 2,000 pounds of American bison meat weekly to the company.

“This industry is going like gangbusters,” Vernon Base said. “We will be stocking up to 130 head here at these facilities to meet the demand.”

Base partners with Coffeyville rancher Ed Keith, a bison owner for seven to eight years.

“He doesn’t have good working facilities and I am limited on grass and pasture, so by combining our operations we can meet this growing demand,” Base said.

Base purchased his first bison calf in 1987 at Maxwell Game Preserve’s annual auction near Canton.

“I paid $190 for that young weaning age heifer,” he said. “My goal was to halter break her and use her for petting zoos, but that didn’t work out too good.”

Base said bison are much easier to raise than cattle, but never accept human companionship unless they are pulled from the mother at birth.

“If they get more than 24 hours with the cow, they will never be tame,” he said.

Though they do not particularily like humans, Base said the animals are very territorial and learn their boundaries quickly. Then it is easy to keep them on their home turf, or add new animals to the herd.

“It’s important to have good fences,” he said. “But our exterior fence is just regular cattle fence, and we don’t have trouble with stampedes or wild animals. They are really very laid back and easy to care for.”

Base said when bison are forced into tight spaces, that is a whole different story.

“They don’t like to be moved or forced into confinement,” he said. “They are very protective of their young and each other and our corral pens have to be very solid.”

Base’s Coon Creek Buffalo herd usually averages around 20 to 30 head, but will expand to 130 head before the end of the year to meet the growing demand.

“We brought in 60 new ones just yesterday,” he said. “They are coming off grass and looking like they need some feed because the grass situation hasn’t been good in many areas this year.”

Base said he can feed three bison on the same dollar amount it would take to feed one cow.

“They are very economical to feed,” he said. “They do best on grass and hay and need very little grain.”

He said it takes about two years to raise a bison calf to butcher weight, around 2,000 pounds.

“The first five to six months the cow does all the work,” he said.

Bison milk is especially rich and the cows do not get large, heavy udders, like some cattle.

Base said that the cows wean the calves themselves, pushing them away or refusing to feed them. From that point on, the weaning age calves just eat grass.

“Sometimes I will put out some beef cubes or something like that if I need to move them into a pen or different pasture,” Base said. “You can’t really chase them so you have to entice them to a new area.”

Base also said he feeds a special grain mix formulated for the bison’s needs for the last 30 days before butchering, just to finish them off a bit. Most of his feed expense is in the round hay bales used to supplement the herd in fall and winter when pasture grass is in short supply.

“One reason bison meat is so healthy is because of the low grain input,” he said. “We don’t want to mess with that.”

According to Base, bison meat is among the top five sources of digestible iron for humans. The meat is also high in omega3 minerals which allows the human body to make use of other minerals.

“The last time we tested a carcass (at a lab in Hutchinson), it was 95 percent fat free,” Base said.

In addition to providing meat for Grandma’s Horn restaurants, Coon Creek Buffalo is also a source of steaks, roasts, burger, ribs, jerky, summer sausage, and other cuts of meat for local and regional customers. All of their bison are processed at Krehbiels Meat Market in McPherson.

“They are set up to handle our large animals and have the special stamp required for processing buffalo,” Base said.

Base often brings home the skulls and hides after taking in bison to be processed. He cleans up the skulls and sells them when traveling to stock shows or picking up new stock.

“I always have one in the trailer when I go somewhere,” he said. “I hardly ever come home with it.”

He said he gets about $75 to $80 for a cow skull and $100 to $150 for a bull skull.

Bison hides also sell well and Base takes those home for processing on request. He does not tan them himself but knows individuals with that talent.

“We have a full bison hide on our bed,” Angela Base said. “It keeps us very, very warm.”

Vernon Base, who is also employed full time at Excell Industries in Hesston, said that raising bison is something he has always enjoyed doing.

“I’ve been hooked ever since I got that first calf,” he said. “They are disease resistant, have such a tenacious will to survive, and are so adaptable to their situations. I have a lot of respect for them.”

Prices for bison have risen considerably since Base became involved in the industry. A calf similar to what he purchased about 25 years ago for $190, now sells for over $1,000.

He sells breeding stock to others but at this time is concentrating on building up his own herd to meet the demands of this expansion venture.

The couple also raises and shows Watusi cattle, but the bison herd takes center stage during the fall and winter months. They recently moved a house into the bison pasture and plan to relocate Angela’s flower shop business there in the near future.

“Nothing is better than looking out your window at the buffalo,” Vernon Base said. “At our new house their fence will be only 30 feet off our front porch. That should be interesting.”

Last modified Nov. 16, 2011

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