WHITING — “He’s a good boy, but of course, he’ll kill you.”
On a beautiful Vermont summer day, Jeanne Lamoureaux Wood was standing outside the eight-foot-high electrified fence with her husband, Bob, on their Whiting farm admiring their bull buffalo, Sparky.
There’s nothing like standing next to a buffalo to make you feel American. And very small. Having a buffalo on your farm is like keeping a bald eagle. They are, by their nature, symbolic of America. They are majestic, stoic and quixotic, and they harken back the Old West, Native Americans, sandstone, cowboys and wagon trains. They elicit patriotism. They are American.
And like so many things American, buffalo, or bison as they are more properly known, are valuable commodities. The Native Americans used every bit of the buffalo, from eating the meat and organs to using the hides for blankets and clothing, the bones for weapons, the horns for medication, and the manure for fuel. If you’re willing to take on the responsibility and the risk involved with raising buffalo, there is a market for the meat and the fiber from their thick coats. And it makes sense that, much like the Native Americans, pragmatic Vermonters see the value and multiple uses for buffalo, which may be a burgeoning market on a smaller scale, right here in the Green Mountain State.
Sparky does attract attention, and the three female buffalo on the farm — Freona, Veona and Lucky — do as well. Their pasture at Wood Roan Ranch sits along Route 30 adjacent to Bob and Jeanne’s farmhouse and barnyard. Across the road is a million dollar view of the Green Mountains and Brandon Gap.
And you just don’t expect to see buffalo driving through Vermont.
“People stop all the time,” Jeanne said.
People from New Jersey to Iowa, and California to Switzerland pull over to get a closer look.
Bob and Jeanne live on the farm with their son, Shane, 14. The farmhouse, barnyard and pasture sit on nine acres on the east side of Route 30, with another 25 acres across the road.
In addition to the buffalo, Bob and Jeanne keep two Jersey cows and a calf, eight horses, a flock of laying hens, two red Australian cattle dogs, and a gray pot-bellied pig named Daisy May.
They also maintain a sugarbush and produce about 45 gallons of wood-fired maple syrup for sale each season.
Sparky is two years old and about to embark upon his first breeding season. If he mates successfully, Bob and Jeanne will add a few buffalo calves to their farm anytime between April and July after a nine-month gestation period.
Bob and Jeanne estimate that Sparky weighs about 1,500 pounds, but he will continue to grow, topping out around 2,800 pounds. Buffalo are forever wild animals, Jeanne said, and it’s important to keep them contained. At a full run, they can reach 30-40 miles per hour. One off day, and a bull buffalo can seriously hurt or kill a human being in a matter of seconds. To that end, Bob created a pasture area by sinking 12-foot, 6x6-inch pressure treated posts five-feet into the ground and stringing eight strands of electric fencing, creating an electrified, eight-foot high fence.
“If they can get their head through something, they’ll go through it,” Jeanne said. “If they got out, I don’t think we could get them back in. They’ll run. We have the rifles ready. I think that’s what it would come to, unfortunately.”
Standing next to the fence, which has been temporarily turned off, with Bob scratching Sparky’s thick head of hair and feeding him sweet cracked oats, it’s easy to forget for a moment that the bull is a 1,500-pound weapon. Jeanne and Bob try to keep that fact in the forefront of their minds at all times.
“You can’t tame them, and you can’t trust them,” Jeanne said.
Sparky came from a ranch in Freona, Texas, and was thusly named when his mother was killed by a bolt of lightning. He was three months old at the time. Last August, Bob and Jeanne hooked a trailer to their pick-up truck and drove 2,000 miles to a Texas ranch owned by Bill Bollinger to pick up Sparky, another yearling bull calf, a female yearling calf, and a horse. At the time, Bollinger had about 100 head of buffalo.
They made the long, memorable journey home to Vermont. Buffalo always have to be in a controlled environment, be it a fenced pasture, a chute or a trailer. They aren’t animals you can take out on a lead for a stretch of the legs, which made for a long trip home with no sightseeing.
“It was an adventure and it’s still an adventure,” Jeanne said.
When they got back to Whiting, Sparky lived and the other bull was butchered.
“You can’t have two bulls,” Jeanne said. “They’d try to kill each other.”
Now Sparky has his harem of cows and it’s just a matter of waiting to see if any or all of them get pregnant. It may not be evident for some time. Turns out, buffalo like their privacy.
“They’re actually quite modest,” Jeanne said. “They might do it at night when no one’s looking.
They are also very close knit in the herds, even after the calves are born.
“They all stay together, 24/7,” Jeanne said. “They are very social. When a calf is born, the whole herd comes to see it. The bulls will not hurt the calves.”
Another little known fact: Buffalo are very susceptible to sheep diseases.
“They can’t mix with sheep, and you can’t pasture them too close to a sheep farm,” Jeanne said. “You want to be far away from sheep.”
But ironically, when a buffalo calf needs to be nursed away from its mother, it can’t have cow’s milk.
“You have to give them lamb’s milk replacement,” Jeanne said.
Buffalo also do not require any hoof maintenance, which is fortunate because they can’t be handled that way.
“The excess hoof just falls off,” Jeanne said.
FABULOUS FIBER, SWEET MEAT
There is another benefit to buffalo: highly prized fiber from the neck ruff they shed each spring.
Jeanne collected bags of the fiber in the spring just by scratching the necks of Sparky and Lucky. It’s very soft, and very durable.
And here’s a shout out to all you fiber artists, weavers and knitters out there.
“I’m looking for buyers,” Jeanne said.
Bison meat is considered “exotic” according to the USDA. It’s also gaining in popularity in restaurants around the country. It is a sweet and tender meat with a unique taste and fetches up to $8 a pound. Bison is very lean, low in cholesterol and high in protein. In 1997, the American Heart Association recommended buffalo or bison as more heart-healthy than chicken or beef. The meat is high in nutrients such as protein, zinc and vitamin B12, and is considered a healthier alternative to beef because buffalo do not store as much fat as cattle.
A three-ounce serving of buffalo meat has 93 calories and 1.8 grams of fat compared to 183 calories and 8.7 grams of fat in the same serving as beef.
The Woods can’t sell their buffalo meat unless they pay to have it butchered at a USDA-approved slaughterhouse. But right now, Jeanne said they are concentrating on breeding and selling calves.
“We don’t plan to get anymore buffalo,” Jeanne said. “Having just the four is plenty.”
NOT FOR EVERYONE
Having buffalo on her farm is a dream come true for Jeanne Wood. On the one hand, getting started was as easy as typing in “bison” in a computer search. But it’s been a learning experience for Jeanne and Bob, and they’re still learning.
As the summer sun shone down and a cool breeze blew through the farm, visiting time was over. Sparky left the fence line and headed out into his pasture. The electric fence was turned back on as the bull quietly grazed with his cows.
“I’d wanted to do buffalo for 30 years,” she said. “I guess it’s the beauty of them. Watch out what you wish for. There’s just something magnificent about them, but I know in my heart and my head that they’ll kill you.”