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Minnesota ranch may be home to rare 'white bison'

LUVERNE, Minn. - On a ranch approximately 3 miles north of Luverne, the buffalo -- bison -- roam. At Prairie Heights, owner John Bowron has a new addition to the herd that may possibly be the elusive great "white bison."Bowron stumbled onto the n...

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Bowron's lone "blonde" bison grazes in the field. The other 400 head in his herd are "brunettes." It is unclear if the blonde is a true white buffalo. Robin Baumgarn / Forum News Service
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LUVERNE, Minn. – On a ranch approximately 3 miles north of Luverne, the buffalo - bison - roam. At Prairie Heights, owner John Bowron has a new addition to the herd that may possibly be the elusive great "white bison."

Bowron stumbled onto the new cow at an auction in South Dakota. He isn’t 100 percent sure she is a white bison so for now, she is being referred to as a “blonde” until she undergoes DNA testing this fall.

“She was the last animal sold and I thought, ‘I had to come home with something,’” Bowron reflected.

Bowron said he was told that the previous producer in South Dakota had established a herd in 2000 with stock from two different sources, all of which the producer referred to as “brunette.” After a few breeding cycles, a new color joined the herd.

“Low and behold as he (the previous owner) got his herd put together from these two sources there were some blonde calves born,” Bowron explained. “I don’t know what percentage of his herd was blonde but it was way too many for what you might say be rare. It would seem it was a couple of recessive colors coming together for him.”

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Bowron is certain she is not albino and that perhaps she has cattle DNA mixed into her bloodline, creating the difference in fur color from the other 400 or more bison on his ranch.

Why bison?

Bowron began raising bison in 1996 after working with cattle in his veterinary work. While being a producer of either animal has similar responsibilities, Bowron ultimately chose bison.

“They are an amazing creature really,” Bowron said. “They are very smart, cunning. They know when things are different.”

Bowron said one of the positives of bison is that they are mostly independent when calving. Unlike cattle, Bowron said he does not have to wake up throughout the night to check on his bison like he would a cow. Bison have a nine-month gestation period and typically give birth in April and May. Bowron said it is almost as if the animals have programmed themselves to breed and give birth at specific times only to ensure babies are born when the weather is suitable.

“They are easy calvers and they’ve had to be in order to survive,” Bowron noted. “They are rarely calving in bad weather.”

Bison typically have singular births with babies weighing between 40 and 50 pounds - Bowron said twins are a rarity.

Looking to the future

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In the 1800s, bison were hunted to near extinction in North America. Thanks to the foresight of producers and ranchers then and the continued efforts of raising bison now, the Minnesota Bison Association estimates the number of bison in North America to be close to 250,000, removing them from the endangered species list.

As more consumers discover the healthier benefits of bison meat over cow meat, the demand is expected to continue. Bowron said getting started in raising bison can be difficult for a new producer due to the cost of the animals. He and fellow members of the Minnesota Bison Association have brainstormed ideas to increase interest in raising bison. If history repeats itself, bison producers may see another increase as cattle has become less profitable in recent years.

“A lot of people in the ’90s got into buffalo when the cattle market was depressed for a considerable period of time,” Bowron said. “When cattle became profitable, the number of people looking for alternatives kind of faded away. Cattle have become less profitable again. I don’t know how long that will last.”

Bison vs. Buffalo

Unlike buffalo, bison have a large shoulder hump and a massive head. African cape buffalo males are equipped with a head shield and horns that looks like a wig from the colonial period. Meanwhile, the Asian water buffalo has crescent-shaped horns that span up to six feet from tip to tip. The horns allow the buffalo to scoop up cool mud and throw it onto its back.

What is bison?

The National Bison Association encourages the name bison to differentiate the American buffalo from the Asian Water buffalo and African Cape buffalo. The American buffalo is not a true buffalo. Its scientific name is bison, and it belongs to the bovine family along with domestic cattle. The bison bull is the largest animal indigenous to North America. A bull can stand taller than 6 feet at the hump and weigh more than a ton. They are strong and aggressive, and can jump as well as deer, outmaneuver horses, and break through fences that would imprison other livestock.

“Beefalo” are 3/8 bison and 5/8 domestic cattle. (The natural result of a bison-domestic bovine cross breeding is a sterile offspring. It has taken years of research to develop this breed.) The advantages of this cross are fertility and easy calving. Beefalo gain weight well on inexpensive, high-roughage feed and are very hardy.

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How are bison raised?

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, there were approximately 200,000 bison in the U.S., more than 25 percent of them in North and South Dakota. Unlike the older, tougher animals the Native Americans ate, today’s bison are custom-fed and slaughtered at about 18 months, so the meat is as tender as beef. Some 20,000 buffalo are slaughtered each year (compared to approximately 125,000 cattle per day).

The National Bison Association estimates annual U.S. per capita consumption at .07 pounds per person.

Bison are raised on the open range and eat hay or grass. They are usually given grain during the last 90 to 120 days before slaughter.

Source: USDA

LUVERNE, Minn. - On a ranch approximately 3 miles north of Luverne, the buffalo - bison - roam. At Prairie Heights, owner John Bowron has a new addition to the herd that may possibly be the elusive great "white bison."

Bowron stumbled onto the new cow at an auction in South Dakota. He isn’t 100 percent sure she is a white bison so for now, she is being referred to as a “blonde” until she undergoes DNA testing this fall.

“She was the last animal sold and I thought, ‘I had to come home with something,’” Bowron reflected.

Bowron said he was told that the previous producer in South Dakota had established a herd in 2000 with stock from two different sources, all of which the producer referred to as “brunette.” After a few breeding cycles, a new color joined the herd.

“Low and behold as he (the previous owner) got his herd put together from these two sources there were some blonde calves born,” Bowron explained. “I don’t know what percentage of his herd was blonde but it was way too many for what you might say be rare. It would seem it was a couple of recessive colors coming together for him.”

Bowron is certain she is not albino and that perhaps she has cattle DNA mixed into her bloodline, creating the difference in fur color from the other 400 or more bison on his ranch.

Why bison?

Bowron began raising bison in 1996 after working with cattle in his veterinary work. While being a producer of either animal has similar responsibilities, Bowron ultimately chose bison.

“They are an amazing creature really,” Bowron said. “They are very smart, cunning. They know when things are different.”

Bowron said one of the positives of bison is that they are mostly independent when calving. Unlike cattle, Bowron said he does not have to wake up throughout the night to check on his bison like he would a cow. Bison have a nine-month gestation period and typically give birth in April and May. Bowron said it is almost as if the animals have programmed themselves to breed and give birth at specific times only to ensure babies are born when the weather is suitable.

“They are easy calvers and they’ve had to be in order to survive,” Bowron noted. “They are rarely calving in bad weather.”

Bison typically have singular births with babies weighing between 40 and 50 pounds - Bowron said twins are a rarity.

Looking to the future

In the 1800s, bison were hunted to near extinction in North America. Thanks to the foresight of producers and ranchers then and the continued efforts of raising bison now, the Minnesota Bison Association estimates the number of bison in North America to be close to 250,000, removing them from the endangered species list.

As more consumers discover the healthier benefits of bison meat over cow meat, the demand is expected to continue. Bowron said getting started in raising bison can be difficult for a new producer due to the cost of the animals. He and fellow members of the Minnesota Bison Association have brainstormed ideas to increase interest in raising bison. If history repeats itself, bison producers may see another increase as cattle has become less profitable in recent years.

“A lot of people in the ’90s got into buffalo when the cattle market was depressed for a considerable period of time,” Bowron said. “When cattle became profitable, the number of people looking for alternatives kind of faded away. Cattle have become less profitable again. I don’t know how long that will last.”

 

Bison vs. Buffalo

Unlike buffalo, bison have a large shoulder hump and a massive head. African cape buffalo males are equipped with a head shield and horns that looks like a wig from the colonial period. Meanwhile, the Asian water buffalo has crescent-shaped horns that span up to six feet from tip to tip. The horns allow the buffalo to scoop up cool mud and throw it onto its back.

What is bison?

The National Bison Association encourages the name bison to differentiate the American buffalo from the Asian Water buffalo and African Cape buffalo. The American buffalo is not a true buffalo. Its scientific name is bison, and it belongs to the bovine family along with domestic cattle. The bison bull is the largest animal indigenous to North America. A bull can stand taller than 6 feet at the hump and weigh more than a ton. They are strong and aggressive, and can jump as well as deer, outmaneuver horses, and break through fences that would imprison other livestock.

“Beefalo” are 3/8 bison and 5/8 domestic cattle. (The natural result of a bison-domestic bovine cross breeding is a sterile offspring. It has taken years of research to develop this breed.) The advantages of this cross are fertility and easy calving. Beefalo gain weight well on inexpensive, high-roughage feed and are very hardy.

How are bison raised?

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, there were approximately 200,000 bison in the U.S., more than 25 percent of them in North and South Dakota. Unlike the older, tougher animals the Native Americans ate, today’s bison are custom-fed and slaughtered at about 18 months, so the meat is as tender as beef. Some 20,000 buffalo are slaughtered each year (compared to approximately 125,000 cattle per day).

The National Bison Association estimates annual U.S. per capita consumption at .07 pounds per person.

Bison are raised on the open range and eat hay or grass. They are usually given grain during the last 90 to 120 days before slaughter.

Source: USDA

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