---- — BLUE GRASS, Iowa (AP) — Just on the outskirts of Blue Grass, a herd of buffalo care for their young, chew on grass and wait for signs of spring — which will inevitably bring a new crop of calves to nurse.
Lyndall and Nancy Winter bought their first three bison in 1991 and have never regretted the decision. Today, Winter Bison is home to about 150 bison.
"We started our cattle work in the '80s when the market was high, but all of a sudden the markets dropped. It was hard to even make the interest payments on the cattle," Nancy told the Muscatine Journal (http://bit.ly/1hwq8rP). "We discussed how we could do something to not have this fluctuation of market all the time."
Both Nancy and Lyndall were working the cattle — checking on them every two hours during birthing season — and also working full-time jobs in town.
"By the time we did all that work, we were working for less than minimum wage," said Lyndall. The couple looked for alternative livestock, and Lyndall kept going back to bison.
"I grew up in the town of Buffalo Center, Iowa. Our school mascot was the bison. Once a year they'd bring some bison in to butcher at the local locker for the Fourth of July and have celebrations," said Lyndall. "They've always intrigued me."
Now, the farm usually has about 150 bison at a time. Some are bought, but most are bred naturally on their farm to one of their three breeding bulls. Lyndall said they slaughtered an average of six buffalo a week last summer to keep up with demand.
"The bison industry has come back over the years," said Lyndall. "Not too long ago we were down to less than 300 head (of bison) in the United States. Now we're close to a million head again."
Buffalo meat and other by-products, such as hides, skull mounts, buffalo bones and jewelry made of buffalo bone are sold in their store and at local farmers markets.
"Everything is marketable on the bison," said Lyndall, who has had Native Americans visit the farm to buy products and even use the bison in religious ceremonies.
"That was what kept them alive all those years. They ate the meat, used the hides for clothing or tents. Their bones were used for tools and sewing needles," said Lyndall about the importance of buffalo to Native American tribes. "There are groups that come out here from South Dakota or throughout Iowa. In past years I've had some health problems, and a medicine man made me a natural medicine rattle out of a turtle shell that had herbs in it."
Two bison on the farm, Thunder and Lightning, were bottle fed from birth and enjoy being petted. Visitors can hand feed them bread and the Winters have even used one in a parade. The rest are completely wild and very rarely handled. According to Lyndall, that is one major reason that the couple will never go back to raising cattle.
"They're hardy and they take care of themselves," said Lyndall. The cows — the term for a female bison — birth their calves without any human intervention and they even thrived during the relentlessly cold temperatures this past winter.
"They had better weight gains this winter, our bred cows look better. They love the cold weather. The calves are out running around and kicking up their heels."
"My gosh they did so wonderful!" said Nancy, who said she doesn't need to wake up every two hours to check on the bison, like she did when they were raising cattle. "Say their water freezes; they'll eat the snow and lick on the ice. What's neat is when you have a big snow and they're out there. They can be completely covered and all you see is their eyes."
Bison are easier to care for than cattle in a few ways. According to Nancy, they eat one-third the amount that cattle consume due to a second stomach that allows for the bison to draw protein from straw, which is a function that cattle lack.
Lyndall said most people are surprised to find out how much healthier bison meat is compared to other meats like chicken or beef. The bison also lack all growth enhancements, such as hormones, and eat only grain two weeks prior to slaughter to tenderize and sweeten the meat.
"It's lower in cholesterol; it's very lean meat, high in protein and iron. It's a sweeter flavor so it doesn't have that greasy, fat flavor like beef," said Lyndall.
According to the bison nutritional information from the USDA, per 100 grams of cooked lean meat, bison meat has 2.42 grams of fat compared to beef at 10.15 grams, or skinless chicken at 7.41 grams. It is also lower in calories with 143 grams, compared to beef at 219 grams or skinless chicken at 190 grams. Nancy says it's a good red meat choice for people with heart conditions or high cholesterol.
"We kind of laugh now because when we built this building we'd sit here and go 'Oh, I wonder if the buffalo meat is going to take off?' There were days no one would come in," said Nancy as she laughed. "Now we've both given up our full-time jobs. Whether you buy anything here or not, we love people to come out and see the bison. It's worth seeing the animals."
Information from: Muscatine Journal, http://www.muscatinejournal.com