Big Bull
Bison (buffalo) have not been domesticated and prefer to live outside year round.

Limited production

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 to 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.”

Of the meat that Wild Idea harvests and processes, 60 percent is sold at retail and 40 percent goes to wholesale customers.

Wild Idea’s online retail store offers steaks, ground bison and burger patties, roasts, ribs, brats, hot dogs, sausage, charcuterie, jerky, snack sticks and a variety of delicacies including tongue, liver, heart, soup bones, kidneys, oxtail and bull fries. Meaty dog bones, raw ground pet food and pet jerkies are also available. Wild Idea ships direct from its facility via UPS or FedEx. Purchases are packaged fresh and flash frozen.

“Natural and organic grocers, and select restaurants make up our wholesale customer list,” O’Brien says, and admits that environment can pose a challenge. “It is difficult to be profitable in that arena.”

The byproducts pose another challenge for Wild Idea, but the company’s desire to do the right thing maintains its drive in all facets of production.

“We have been working on this since we started. Developing profitable markets is very difficult,” O’Brien admits. “We have some hides tanned for robes and sell horns and skulls. We compost the rest of the byproducts returning those nutrients to the ranch where they were produced. The compost is valuable but we are always looking to add value.”

Wild Idea’s dedication to the environment and holistic ranching practices secured a partnership with a known company in the environmentally-conscious marketplace. Patagonia Provisions, a branch of Ventura, California-based Patagonia Outdoor Clothing and Gear conducted a search for the most environmentally and socially responsible bison jerky supplier and found Wild Idea Buffalo Co.

“We underwent many audits ensuring we met their high criteria,” O’Brien says. “They like what we are doing and have been very supportive.”

However, exponential growth and multiple partnerships with large, name brand companies don’t appeal to Wild Idea. Those things were never part of the plan. Wild Idea’s interests revolve around doing business with people that share the same beliefs and concerns that the team at Wild Idea subscribe to.

“We intend to keep Wild Idea a small, family owned business. We want our customers to know us,” O’Brien says. “Their trust is imperative for our business model. They need to know that they are not dealing with a huge corporation.”

 Short Back Ribs
Consumer demand for bison meat has seen steady growth in recent years. 

Lifelong learning

Dan O’Brien is a busy man, and he has been for many years. The author of numerous novels, memoirs and literary explorations and non-fiction works, he’s won two National Endowment for the Arts’ individual artist’s grants, two Western Heritage Awards and a Bush Creative Arts Fellowship. He also teaches ecology and serves on the Black Hills branch of The Nature Conservancy while tending to his ranch and animals. O’Brien remains humble in light of his achievements, but still uses his skills and experience for the good of Wild Idea.

“Academics and writing do a poor job of preparing a person for business, but I am learning,” he says. “Writing books and giving conservation talks is a unique advantage. All sorts of media are important in today’s business climate. People are hungry to learn about where their meat really comes from, how it is treated, and what effects production has on the environment.”

His strong work ethic and dedication to the vision of Wild Idea provide the focus to continuously make Wild Idea Buffalo Co. the company it is while improving it every day.

“The execution of this wild idea was more difficult than the conception. The only infrastructure we had was the cattle/feedlot model, so we had to invent protocols and processes that met our goals. Then we had to invent the machinery to do the job,” he says. “We are still perfecting all of it.”