Dan O'Brien is trying a new business model to change the way livestock live. 

RAPID CITY, SD – Dan O’Brien, owner of Wild Idea Buffalo Co., has taken his experiences in cattle ranching, nature conservancy and academia to create a unique livestock production business model that not only addresses animal welfare, but addresses land conservation and bolstering the historic American bison herd back to its once thriving state.

“Conservation and regenerative agriculture was always our main goal,” O’Brien says. “Meat was, and still is, a byproduct of those efforts. That was the trade-off — conservation and regeneration of the buffalo and all that makes up their ecosystem for meat. Meat pays for the conservation.”  

North American bison, or buffalo, possess a unique characteristic of wildness uncommon to their bovine cousins, beef cattle. Because the original wild herds were hunted to near extinction and populations were brought back through government interventions, the animals were never domesticated to farm life. O’Brien has found that the conventional cattle-style system of production and slaughter causes buffalo a great amount of stress. O’Brien has set up Wild Idea to alleviate his animals from those stressors associated with traditional harvesting methods.

“Tests have confirmed our belief that the stress hormones in bison subjected to normal slaughter techniques are extremely high,” O’Brien says. “Our field harvest technique produces no stress hormones (particularly cortisol). We prefer our animals to be left in the homogenous herd — males and females of all ages — until harvest. Instead of the bison being corralled, loaded into trucks and hauled to a slaughter plant, we bring the plant to the field.”

Mobile slaughter coupled with a marksman carrying a 30-06 rifle with a special cartridge, work in conjunction to produce and process 100 percent grass-fed and stress-free bison at Wild Idea Buffalo Co.

Staying small

To attain the primary goals of regeneration and conservation of the lands, Wild Idea’s meat production focuses more on maintaining a healthy herd and healthy land for the herd to live and thrive on. This year, Wild Idea will produce about 290,000 lbs. of saleable meat, according to O’Brien. Wild Idea’s perspective on ranching and bison production has allowed it develop relationships with other like-minded businesses, as well. In addition to its own ranch and bison, Wild Idea maintains working partnerships with other ranches and Native American tribal herds.

“On our ranch and sourcing partners’ ranches, we maintain about 800 animals (of all ages). This produces about 225, 1,000-lb. animals, but we harvest another 700 from other ranchers that subscribe to our protocols,” O’Brien says. “We do an onsite inspection to ensure this, as well as look at their ranching practice history.  We often know these other ranchers, or have been working with them to convert to 100 percent grass production. Their animals must be 100 percent grass-fed/finished, 100 percent hormone and antibiotic free, and we insist upon a 100 percent field harvest.”

Look for the full story coming up in the September issue of MEAT+POULTRY magazine.