Dan O’Brien, owner of Wild Idea Buffalo Co., has used his experiences in cattle ranching, nature conservancy and academia to create a unique livestock production business model that not only addresses animal welfare, but also land conservation and bolstering the historic American bison herd back to its once thriving state.
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, but that’s just a piece of O’Brien’s overall vision.
“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.”
Time to change
For years before O’Brien and his family made the decision to convert Wild Idea’s ranch to buffalo (bison), they raised cattle in the conventional way. The ranch sent its animals to feedlots and then to industrial slaughter plants. O’Brien followed his beef through all of the stages of the process because he wanted to maintain accountability for his animals. He told himself that beef cows were bred, selected and created for the feedlot model, but there came a point that it bothered him too much and his conscience no longer let him rationalize taking part in a method that he disagreed with.
“When we made the conversion from cattle to buffalo, I could not bring myself to subject these very different animals to the same treatment. I needed to come up with a better way,” O’Brien says. “I had to ensure they received the respect they deserved, the room to roam that their genes required, and to give them dignity in death, by humanely harvesting in the field, keeping the levels of stress hormones in the meat to nearly nothing.”
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. He 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.”
The company designed a 53-ft.-long mobile slaughter unit consisting of a skinning and evisceration room, a cooler with the capacity to hold 40 carcasses, water storage and an office for the meat inspector traveling with the harvest team at all times. An over-the-road tractor (semi) pulls the unit to each harvest. Wild Idea calls the unit “the mother truck.” While the slaughter unit is mobile, another vehicle is needed to humanely and naturally harvest animals in the field without upsetting the rest of the herd.
A pickup truck equipped with a hydraulic lift to pick the stunned bison and transport it to the mother truck for skinning, evisceration, splitting and cooling is driven by the shooter.
“Using a down loaded 30-06 shooting copper bullets, this is in no way a hunt,” O’Brien says. “Sniper is not the right word for our shooter. He is a very skilled marksman but the shots are very short. It’s his skill as a low-stress herdsman that makes him effective. The driver moves slowly into the herd, chooses an animal and shoots it between the eyes or behind the ear. The inspector rides along to ensure the stunning and bleeding is done with superior regard for humane treatment. When done properly, this technique creates no panic in the herd.”
The Wild Idea team looks for animals that weigh roughly 1,000 lbs. for harvest. This method aids the concept of letting the buffalo roam in a natural environment and promotes natural growth rather than trying to finish a group all at once.
“Different animals and sexes reach this weight at different times so we are able to harvest all year long,” O’Brien says.