Rushville Rancher Profits from Buffalo

Jane Sooby

Jim Budd has an answer for cattle ranchers who can't make ends meet with low beef prices: raise buffalo!

Buffalo cost less to finish than beef cows, and the market is wide open with an unmet demand for both meat and breeding stock. Buffalo meat currently commands $2.35/lb. on the rail or $6/lb. in the box. Budd has penciled it all out: beef ranchers expect to get $350 for a calf, of which $300 covers expenses and $50 is profit (though Jim says that ranchers know they really aren't making that much profit). Budd averages a gross of $1400 per buffalo calf: $2000 per heifer for breeding and $600-800 per bull for meat.

It takes 2/3 as much cash to raise a buffalo as to raise a beef cow ($200). In order to make the profit that a single buffalo brings, 24 head of cattle must be sold. Budd believes that a cattle rancher faced with the prospect of going out of business would do well to consider trading in the cattle for some buffalo and take advantage of the current markets. He has no idea how long favorable market conditions will last, but feels that it's a good opportunity for now into the near future.

Buffalo meat is highly regarded as a healthy red meat because it is low in fat and cholesterol compared with beef and pork. Buffalo meat is so lean it doesn't marble. Denver, Colorado, is where most buffalo meat is consumed in the United States. The East Coast hasn't been tapped yet because there simply isn't enough meat to develop that market. According to Budd, the biggest problem faced by a major buffalo meat seller is "Who do we short today?"

"The market is so good right now, you don't need to worry about marketing," said Budd. "The market is the least of your worries. Care of the animal should be your main concern. Make sure he has feed. It seems like they don't need feed, but they do. A cow that's raising a $1400 calf—you can afford to feed that cow."

Budd has three ranches stocked with several hundred head of buffalo in northwest Nebraska. He lives south of Rushville and keeps some of his buffalo on the Sandhills ranch there. The rest wander around two ranches that cover thousands of acres of high forests and meadows along the western reach of the Pine Ridge. Four-wheeling through the forest, it's a thrill to come upon one of the three buffalo herds that roam the area.

Budd grew up on a ranch near Rushville and had been in the cattle business all his life until 10 years ago, when cattle weren't covering costs and he decided to try raising buffalo. Now, he won't look twice at cattle and said, "If someone came and offered me a herd of the finest Angus, I'd kick them off the place."

Though Budd allows his buffalo to roam a large area, owning land the size of a national forest isn't necessary to raise buffalo. Budd "wouldn't run buffalo on less than 160 acres." Because they are a herd animal, he "would never run less than 10 because otherwise they wouldn't be happy." Stocking rate varies with the quality of the land. Budd suggests that a prospective buffalo rancher look up the recommended beef cow-calf stocking rate for the area and multiply by 10 to get the acreage necessary for stocking buffalo. He keeps a 30:1 cow:bull ratio. His land will support a cow-calf pair on 15 acres and a yearling over summer on 5 acres.

Buffalo are easier on pasture than cattle, says Budd, because they roam and they graze all year around, reducing the stress placed on any particular area of the pasture. Because they move around so much, grass roots aren't stressed and the desirable grass species are re-seeded in the pasture every year. Budd feeds hay all winter beginning Jan.1 unless bad weather forces him to begin feeding earlier, and continues until spring when the buffalo start "chasing grass" and won't eat hay anymore.

The buffalo drink from creeks that run through the ranch. There are some small watering tanks left by the previous landowners which Budd scowled at as being far too small for watering cattle, much less buffalo. With the smaller tanks, calves are crowded out and unable to get a drink, reducing their gain. Budd recommends that no smaller than 20' tanks be used for buffalo, preferably 30' tanks.

Budd says that there is a misconception that buffalo cows only produce a single calf every other year. In the wild, with varying levels of stress and food availability, this may be so, because buffalo are more sensitive to nutrition in their reproductive success than cattle are. "But when we control it, they calve every year," said Budd. Buffalo cows don't mature as quickly as beef cows. They won't breed until they're 2 years old and don't calve until they are 3. The buffalo conception rate is also lower than that of beef cows. Even so, Budd gets an 80-85% calf crop from calving-age cows annually on a diet of hay in winter and grass in spring. With a full grain ration, Budd believes that he'd get a 100% calf crop.

Buffalo are natives to the Great Plains, adapted to the extremes in climate including the bitterly cold winters. They generally don't require the kind of care that cattle do during the calving season. "Cold just doesn't affect buffalo calves like beef calves. They don't even notice if the weather is 10-20 degrees below zero." Budd or his son fly over the ranch every day in a small plane during calving season, though, to check for the odd heifer that needs assistance calving, or a cow that has rejected her calf, or a broken fence.

Buffalo "breed on the sun just like any wild animal," said Budd. Breeding begins around July 15 and calving starts around April 15. By June 15, 90% of calving is finished. Bulls don't have to be separated from the herd, though as they grow older they tend to stay further away from the cows, calves, and yearlings.

Budd says it's a misconception that keeping buffalo requires 14-foot tall fencing. He keeps his in with four strands of barbed wire and a hot wire on the top. He also added another half grate to his cattle crossings to discourage the buffalo from jumping across them. Though buffalo have the potential to be dangerous, Budd has never had a problem handling them.

Buffalo are traumatized by being sold and shipped and sometimes try to return to their home after they are moved, one reason they may have a reputation as being hard to contain. Budd says that it takes a buffalo a year to adjust to her new home and that the stress of moving can interfere with calving. However, "once they get used to an area," said Budd, "you can barely drive them out of it. Once they get used to it, that's where they're going to be. They don't want to get loose and roam all over."

Corral design and structure are important. Budd has built new outer corrals made of woven wire with a wooden rail on the top. Crowding corrals should be "7' tall and substantial, so a 1200-lb. buffalo hitting it as hard as he can won't break it." Budd doesn't know how one would hold a ton bull. He says that buffalo are incredibly strong, twice as strong as cattle for their size.

Branding is becoming necessary as more and more ranchers get into the buffalo business. Budd described how they brand buffalo calves: "We run them into the chute just as damn fast as we can. Squeeze them into the chute, brand them, then let them go. The hardest thing on a buffalo is confining them in chutes. They can kill themselves when confined."

Brucellosis, despite all the publicity about this disease, is not a problem with buffalo. It affects only two buffalo herds in the entire United States and has never been found in any buffalo in Nebraska. Budd calls brucellosis "a political disease."

When buying buffalo, Budd looks for "depth, a proportionate hump, and good solid bones." Buffalo have a tendency to be cow-hocked and underslung in the back, deficiencies in his eyes. He looks for "black, straight bulls," the darker in color the better. Though now he breeds all the heifers he produces because they are so valuable, he predicts that one day buffalo traits will change once there are enough animals to start selecting out the heifers for breeding as well as the bulls.

Budd has four pieces of advice for a rancher interested in raising buffalo:

  1. Be sure that you have your fences how you want them before you get your buffalo.
  2. Be sure there's adequate water—enough for calves to drink, too. Make sure there's adequate space around watering tanks.
  3. Make sure you have at least 10 head or more.
  4. Learn the proper way to handle the animals so you don't cause them a lot of stress. Budd manages his herd so that no cow is ever chased—they go where they want to go.

To learn more about the buffalo industry, check out the National Bison Association's web page at http://www.nbabison.org

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