From hobby to full-time work and back, a herd of bison has been keeping John and Linda Hagberg of Sugar Grove busy for 15 years.
John’s parents had a dairy farm.
“He swore he would never go back into cows,” Linda said.
John got it in his head to go with bison instead.
“We went to Edinboro and bought two of them,” Linda said.
Later that same year they dramatically increased the size of their herd. “We went to an auction and got six more,” John said. “Two pregnant (cows) and one bull. He became our breed bull.”
“It was a hobby at first,” John said.
But the herd grew into real work. “We got up to 60 animals,” he said. “It got crazy.”
“It was a lot of work,” Linda said.
Raising bison has benefits.
The meat is very healthy, according to the Hagbergs. “It’s very low in cholesterol, very high in iron,” John said.
“The only meat lower in calories and cholesterol is elk,” Linda said. “It’s even lower than chicken.”
But bison are not for those looking for a quick buck. “It’s very intensive – handling and feeding,” John said. “It’s not high-profit.”
The animals, particularly bulls, are fast, agile, and strong. “They’re super fast and they can turn on a dime,” Linda said.
A bull can weigh 2,000 pounds and stand well over six feet at the shoulder.
“They can run 30 miles per hour for an extended period of time,” John said. “He’ll hook an 800 to 1,000 pound bale of hay, toss it up in the air, and hook it on the way back down.”
In the past, the Hagbergs have witnessed a bull’s ability to escape the fence. “He could walk over and push his way through it or pick himself up on his hind legs and be over it,” John said.
Another time, while the Hagbergs were separating some animals for slaughter, one decided it didn’t like what was going on and “went through 10 strands of high-tensile fence wire,” John said.
Instead, when they are not impatient for food or pushed too far, they choose to stay within the confines with all the other animals.
“They’re very herd oriented,” Linda said. “If one of them gets out it’s not going to go anywhere.”
Herd mentality seems contradictory in the case of a sick animal. “If there’s something wrong with an animal, they’ll drive it out,” John said. “It’s not part of the herd.”
“But, you try to take them out… they stand there and snort at you,” Linda said.
Bison grow more slowly than cattle. “It takes 24 to 30 months to get them to slaughter weight,” John said. “You can run a beef cow in 11 to 12 months.”
They also yield a lower ratio of meat to body weight than cattle. “If we get 50 percent yield we’re very fortunate,” John said.
Although the animals weigh about the same as cattle, they carry less meat. “So much of the weight is the head and shoulders,” Linda said.
With only 22 animals now in the herd, the Hagbergs aren’t selling meat regularly.
The herd is so protective that singling out animals for slaughter can take days, in addition to weeks of treating the bison with grain. “For all intents and purposes, they’re grass-fed animals,” John said. “Grain – it’s candy. It’s a way to make them do what they don’t want to do.”
Visitors, whether human or other animals, are not welcome in the bisons’ territory. “Coyotes are not a problem,” John said. “Bear are not a problem.”
When people go inside with the bison, they go with big machines. “They are wild animals,” John said. “You don’t turn your back on them. Ninety-nine percent of the time we have a tractor or a truck… something we can get under if something goes wrong.”
In addition to the meat, bison hides and skulls are valuable, although the market for both is down, according to John.
The hides are very protective and the animals, even the young, do not mind cold weather.
John said he couldn’t find one of the 1,000-pound animals one day. He had counted and re-counted several times, coming up one short each time.
Then, a pair of ears moved where he had previously only seen snow.
“Their hides are so heavy the snow doesn’t melt on their backs,” he said.
The heifers in the herd dropped four calves last October and November. The Hagbergs expected to lose at least the one that was born last November on a day the temperature was 4 degrees.
All of the calves survived. “They did great,” Linda said.
The bison live for up to 25 years and can breed for about 20.
And they are still teaching their humans.
“After 15 years, we’re still fascinated by them,” Linda said.
“We’re still having fun with it,” John said.