Spooked and mulish, the buffalo calves huddled in the dark, somewhere in the back of the trailer. They weren’t coming out. Banging on the outside of the trailer hadn’t worked, so, after a few beers, Tom Lennox and his buddy decided Tom was going in.
Tom sidled along the wall of the trailer, thinking that if he gave them a little encouragement, the calves would run out. He quickly discovered he was mistaken. He found himself being kicked around by calves who will eventually weigh up to three thousand pounds, stand six feet tall, and pack immense strength.
When Tom came back out of the trailer, his buddy took one look at him and suggested they have another beer.
Tom decided the calves were coming out whether they liked it or not. So he went back in, this time armed with a piece of plywood.
The buffalo didn’t like that much, either.
“I was younger then, so I could do what I wanted to, and I thought I was just as tough as they were. But they are tough, a lot tougher than me, even back then. I found that out,” Lennox, Jonesville resident and owner of Stone Field Farm, said. “It was a learning experience for me, but now I know pretty much everything there is to know about buffalo.”
Thirty years have passed since then, and Lennox now owns a ranch with over 35 heads of American bison — buffalo is the slang for bison. He has started five herds for other farms as well. Lennox and his bisen have come to terms — when he goes out to feed them, they trail after him inquisitively.
Lennox is saving the buffalo from extinction — by eating them.
Before the European settlement of America, millions of buffalo once thundered across the Great Plains, from Texas to Canada. However, by the turn of the century, settlers had shot an estimated 50 million bison, thinning the immense herds down to a few hundred animals, according to National Geographic. By the time President Theodore Roosevelt made protecting American bison a national priority, the species teetered on the verge of extinction.
But in the 1970s, the bisen unwittingly rumbled into a renaissance. Their meat is healthy, and it became a fad with those who could afford to pay twice as much for meat as beef. Bison became profitable.
Lennox was among the farmers who met the rising demand for bison meat. He started his herd because he admired the buffalo as a child.
The Daniels family also joined the ranks of the ranchers after they inherited their herd when they purchased The Buffalo Ranch. Dana Daniels, 47, and Terrell Daniels, 49, keep 18 buffalo less than eight miles away from Lennox’s own ranch.
Keeping buffalo is a radically different enterprise than raising cows, as both Lennox and Daniels learned the hard way. If provoked, buffalo can jump six feet into the air, run at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, and smash through metal fences. They are immensely strong, fiercely loyal, and frustratingly stubborn, said Lennox.
“When we took over, we tried to do the nurturing effect because my wife is a school teacher. It’s kind of hard to make a 3,000 pound animal go somewhere he doesn’t want to go,” Terrell Daniels said. “[At first] we hollered, we screamed, we snapped whips, we shot guns, and then we figured that that wasn’t getting us nowhere. It was actually causing us more damage.”
By ‘damage,’ Terrell Daniels meant mishaps such as when a bison jumped onto and over the hood of his truck. Like Lennox, the Daniels’s ultimately resorted to bribing and enticing the bison with food.
Lennox turns a profit from the buffalo by processing three to four buffalo a year for meat, selling breeder cows, and selling the bones to Native American artists. The Daniels’ ranch only processed one buffalo a year. They used the buffalo as a tourist attraction by giving customers wagon rides to the buffalo herd, where they can feed the buffalo, said Dana Daniels.
“Some of them absolutely love the buffalo, others are totally grossed out because the buffalo will slobber all over your hand,” said Dana Daniels.
The bisen barely covered the cost of the winter feed, and so their horses were The Buffalo Ranch’s main source of revenue, Dana Daniels said.
“This has never been a money maker. We hope to cover our costs, but it takes her and me working full time to make sure this place is still running,” Terrell Daniels said. “It is for the kids. She works in a classroom, I work in an office. This is enjoyable for us, and as long as it stays enjoyable, we’re fine.”