BREWSTER, Minn. — When Russell and Ann Obermoller’s youngest son, Kurt, told them he wanted a career in farming, the rural Brewster couple knew they’d have to grow more than corn and soybeans to increase their earning potential.

And while most farmers might consider raising beef cattle or hogs, the Obermollers chose instead to raise bison.

That was four years ago. Today, the Obermollers have a successful home-based business raising bison and marketing the meat under their label, Brewster Bison.

While neither Russell nor Ann had experience in raising livestock, Kurt and his cousin fed out bottle calves on their ag teacher’s farm while in high school.

“(Kurt) really likes livestock,” Russell said.

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As bison rose to the top of their list of options, the family turned to the Minnesota Bison Association for information.

“They have so much information on how to get started and what you need,” Russell said. “The people in the association are really great about helping with questions and getting you hooked up with someone.”

For the Obermollers, help came from rural Wilmont bison grower Eric Joens, who has been a great mentor, Russell shared.

“Eric was telling us some things he learned — he saved us a lot of mistakes,” Russell added.

The Obermollers purchased their first bison in February 2018 while Kurt was still attending vo-tech school. The 10 bred cows came from the Rapid City, South Dakota, area.

“My two- to three-year plan was to get to 25, and we hit 25 in about six months,” Russell said. “It’s grown a lot faster than I was expecting.”

“The demand is there for the meat,” Ann added.

Today, Brewster Bison is home to 26 cows, with two breeding bulls they purchased from Joens. They feed out all their own animals for either breeding or processing. To supplement what they calve on their farm, they purchase additional calves to feed out for processing.

Bison cows have a nine-month gestation, and typically calve once a year. Unlike cattle, however, bison cows can produce 20 to 25 calves in their lifetime.

Each calf takes 30 months to feed out to market weight, with heifers reaching 900 to 1,000 pounds in that time, and bulls reaching 1,100 to 1,300 pounds.

As they work to improve the genetics in their herd — with a goal to produce the highest quality bison meat — the Obermollers are focusing on animals with good length of body and muscle mass.

Herd mentality

Bull buffalo on the Brewster Bison farm operated by Russell and Ann Obermoller Thursday morning. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)
Bull buffalo on the Brewster Bison farm operated by Russell and Ann Obermoller Thursday morning. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)

Earlier this month, under a beautiful blue sky and white, puffy clouds, the Obermoller’s bison herd had congregated at the far end of the pasture. Russell drove the truck out to where they were, chewing on grass or simply relaxing in the sun.

It was a majestic sight.

“They are so powerful and yet they’re so agile,” shared Russell. “They can be running at full speed and just flip around and go the other direction.

“I’ve seen them jump straight up five feet in the air,” he added.

“You can waste a lot of time looking at them,” added Ann. “They’re definitely a herding animal.”

The Obermollers tend to keep their distance and leave the animals alone in the pasture, which is separated from neighboring corn and soybean fields by a 6-foot-high electric fence.

“They’re a hard animal to keep in when you push them,” Russell said, adding that he has had calves squeeze through the electric fence from time to time.

Calving time on the farm is especially enjoyable to see.

“When they’re born, it’s not even five minutes and they’re standing,” Russell shared. “Within a half-hour, they’re running with the herd — and keeping up.”

While the Obermollers said the animals are happy as long as they have food and water, they have had a couple of “ornery” cows in the herd that had to be culled for safety reasons.

Marketing meat

Bull buffalo on the Brewster Bison farm operated by Russell and Ann Obermoller Thursday morning. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)
Bull buffalo on the Brewster Bison farm operated by Russell and Ann Obermoller Thursday morning. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)

What appealed most to the Obermollers when they considered raising bison was the leanness of the meat and the demand for it among consumers.

Their initial plan was to sell all of their meat through a processor in Cannon Falls who, in turn, sold the meat to restaurants. That was before the COVID-19 global pandemic struck.

“The restaurants closed and they cut off everyone they could,” Russell shared. “So we started selling direct and Ann does most all of that.”

Ann has marketed their bison meat to a couple of area restaurants who are testing the popularity of bison on the menu, but the largest share of meat is sold directly to consumers.

“We sell a lot of quarters and halves,” Ann said. “Now, since we’ve been (selling meat) a year and a half, we have repeat customers. We have one repeat customer that drives from Indiana. We also have customers in Duluth and Fargo.

“We’ve had a lot of compliments on (the meat),” she added.

The Obermollers sell their bison meat through Krafty’s Meat Market in Okoboji, Iowa, and also have freezers on their farm to store the USDA-inspected and labeled meat. Consumers can purchase meat in the same cuts they would purchase beef — rib-eyes, T-bones, roasts, ground burger, etc.

“We have a couple of butchers we use that do a real good job on jerky and sticks,” Ann shared.

Not all butcher shops have the facilities to process bison, so the Obermollers work with three they have found — Egan’s Market in Adrian, as well as butcher shops in Renner and Elkton, South Dakota.

“When you order a quarter, a half or a whole, you call in your choice of cuts,” Ann said. “We do the sirloin, ribeye and T-Bone, but we also have done the tenderloin and New York Strip.”

Since they began processing their own bison, Ann has transitioned to cooking solely with bison meat, rather than beef, for hotdishes, chili, tacos and burgers.

“The biggest difference in terms of flavor is the burger,” Russell shared. “We have as many people buy it for the flavor as we do the health benefits.”

“Preparing bison is a little different,” Ann noted. “It cooks at about one-third less cooking time. If you cook it correctly, it is juicy and is not a dry meat.”

While the Obermollers love a good bison burger, they both put bison roast at the top of their favorite meal — although Russell said he likes the steaks too.

“We have people that buy the steaks and that’s all they buy,” he shared.

Bison meat is quite lean, with just 2.42 grams of fat per 3.5-ounce serving. That compares to 18.54 fat grams from the same serving size of choice beef, 9.21 fat grams from pork, 7.41 fat grams from skinless chicken and 6.69 grams from salmon. It also has the lowest calories and cholesterol per serving, while having one of the highest levels of protein and vitamin B-12, and the highest level of iron.

In addition to selling bison meat, the Obermollers also sell bison hides and skulls.

As for the future of the operation, Russell said he is about maxed out on animals for his pasture, but Kurt now has his own pasture and will be expanding the herd on his farm.

Consumers interested in purchasing bison products can learn more through the Brewster Bison Facebook page, or by calling Ann at (507) 360-8832.