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The Weekly Magazine for California Agriculture

ISSUE DATE: August 12, 1998

Buffalo survive as symbols of American West

By Jim Morris
CFBF Communications/News Division

Charlie is not your typical problem nine year old. He's 2,800 pounds, can outrun a horse and scale a six-foot-high fence. Charlie is among the herd of bison at Star B Ranch in the mountains of San Diego County, one of many places where the animals are making a comeback. Rancher Ken Childs refers to the 60 head of buffalo that roam the sprawling 1,300 acres in Ramona as survivors.

``Mankind just about wiped them out for stupid reasons, but mankind was also able to bring them back,'' he said. ``It was about a century ago that the great symbol of the Western frontier was near extinction from hunting. President Theodore Roosevelt saved the species by proposing something unheard of at the time; a federal law aimed at beefing up their herds.''

Government protection combined the entrepreneurial spirit of ranchers did the trick. An estimated 2,500 buffalo now roam in California, with about 250,000 in the United States and Canada. The U.S. population a century ago had shrunk to less than 1,000.

Childs has two markets for bison; breeding stock and meat. He said the best buffalo heifer calves fetch up to $1,500 apiece, significantly more than a comparable beef calf. Lean, natural and protein-rich, buffalo meat returns up to two to three times the price ranchers receive for beef. Childs said he receives about $3.50 a pound for buffalo meat and up to $16 a pound for filet steaks from the animals.

Star B Ranch has an international flair. In addition to the bison in San Diego County, the firm has about 20 buffalo in Texas and contracts with several ranchers in Canada. All told, Childs expects the company will process about 1,000 bison this year, yielding about 450,000 pounds of meat.

In 1997, Star B Ranches processed 600 bison. Buffalo are processed at 18 to 22 months of age. A 1,000-pound to 1,200-pound bison yields about 450 pounds of meat. One-third of the carcass is used for burgers. Childs said his profits lie closely with how hard he works.

He said while he spends about 30 percent of his work week raising the animals, the remainder is spent developing products and convincing people to give buffalo meat a try. He said an average work week involves 60 to 70 hours, with work to be done all seven days. The mystique of the animal helps sales.

``People just have a romance involved with the Old West these days and buffalo played a big role in that. It s a great marketing tool,'' Childs said. He sells the meat to restaurants and retail outlets primarily in Southern California, though other markets are opening up.

Weight lifters are one set of steady customers because of the high protein, low-fat nature of the meat. Buffalo jerky is another product produced by Star B ranches, with a hot dog derived from the big animals expected in the near future. Buffalo meat is among the leanest available for shoppers. U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition information says bison meat has less than 2 1/2 grams of fat per 100 gram serving, less than beef, pork or skinless chicken.

Calories and cholesterol are also lower in bison than in any of the top competitors. The unusual animals draw attention from the entertainment industry. Childs herd was featured in the movie Hot Shots with Charlie Sheen in the early 90's. He says Sheen delighted in feeding a baby buffalo when not in front of the camera.

Repeated stampedes in 1994 were captured for a European television commercial. The buffalo put their hooves to Teflon cooking pans to show the pans, durability. Childs said the pans held up pretty well, all things considered.

Childs said he expects a bright future for the industry. Buffalo are subject to frequent news stories, particularly in light of the massive herd being assembled by television magnate Ted Turner and his actress-wife Jane Fonda. Childs acknowledges buffalo probably will never overtake beef sales, but he said he expects great growth over the next 10 years.

Childs said he has learned a lot of buffalo psychology since he first started the enterprise about 20 years ago. He said a balance of nutrition and providing the animals the freedom to roam have helped the well-being of his herd and his bottom line.

One of the most compelling animals on the ranch is a lighter colored buffalo. Albino bison are extremely rare and considered sacred by Native Americans. Childs said he hopes a careful breeding program will help perpetuate the lighter coat in future offspring.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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