photos by Giovanna Zavell, edited by Autumn Meyer
There are bison* in all 50 states—Iowa included.
*Disclaimer: We at Urban Plains know there is a difference between buffalo and bison, but in this article they will be used interchangeably. Like many instances in world history, a European didn’t know what they were talking about, but we as a society decided to roll with it. The American Bison is a different animal than the water buffalo of Asia and Africa. But French fur traders, upon encountering the animal for the first time, called them “le boeuf” meaning beef. That eventually got twisted into buffalo. So, colloquially, we use both.
For Dan McFarland, bison are business. “You almost have to have a niche in order to stay on the farm,” Dan says. “In our case, it’s buffalo.” At Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch, bison are a tourist attraction — and a product to sell.
But before there was Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch, there was McFarland Hereford Farms. The McFarlands have been on the same piece of land in Fredericksburg, Iowa for generations. “There is land that has been in the family for over one-hundred-fifty years,” says Martha McFarland, Dan’s daughter and the ranch’s manager. “My grandma and grandpa lived there until the time of their death, and now Dad lives there.”
The farmhouse that Dan, an Air Force veteran and former high school teacher, shares with his dog and cats is more than a piece of McFarland family history — it’s where he got his start. Literally. “I was born here, in the bedroom where I sleep now,” Dan says.
For the family farm, 2017 is not the heyday. Nor were the ‘90s. “The beef industry was really bottoming out. It was getting harder and harder to get good beef prices,” Martha says. So the McFarlands diversified with bison. And, according to Dan, bison prices are good.
Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch keeps a bison herd of 40 to 50 at a time. Any more than that get sold off or become food. Bison are notoriously stubborn and it is nearly impossible to separate one from its herd. “We shoot them out in the pasture, because buffalo are so herd conscious,” Dan says. “When he or she goes down, all the other buffalo gather around. They’re kind of like elephants; they’re trying to get him up again.” But, the bison stays down. When that realization sets in, the herd takes a few minutes to say their goodbyes. Then “they go off being buffalo again.”
“When he or she goes down, all the other buffalo gather around. They’re kind of like elephants; they’re trying to get him up again.”
One bison at a time. That is how Dan and Martha get their meat. That has not always been the case. In the 1800s, bison tongues and hides were popular in the culinary and fashion worlds of Europe. So, bison across the North American continent were slain without a second thought. “Nobody knows how low their numbers went,” says Bud Koeppen, the president and co-founder of the Illinois Indiana Bison Association. “I’ve heard quotes as low as 325.”
There are still less than a million bison in the United States. But that’s an improvement. Ranchers, including Charles Goodnight in Texas, Samuel Walking Coyote in the north, and the Dupree and Philips families in Montana have been credited with bringing back the bison population. These ranchers collect orphaned bison calves, whose mothers had been killed for their hides and tongues, and raised them on western ranches. “The federal government leased [Scotty Phillip] some land. He built a 3,500-acre pasture to put these bison on,” Koeppen says.
Farm Life in Fredericksburg
Dan and Martha’s operation looks a little different. Their bison have 300 acres to roam and graze, which they share with a herd of Hereford cows, two burros and a mustang. But the bison are the main attraction. “They’re not aggressive, they’re just skittish,” Martha says of the bison. “Very, very skittish and very, very big.”
Dan, who gives the majority of the bison tours, makes the stress of human interaction worth it for his herd. Not only do the tourists ooh, ahh, and selfie; they also feed the bison dried ears of corn. When the herd sees the big red truck, they know it’s snack time. They gather round the bed and wait not-so-patiently for visitors to start feeding them. Bison are gentle giants when food is involved. They play nicely with guests. At most, a visitor might get licked if they don’t keep the corn coming.
“They’re not aggressive, they’re just skittish. Very, very skittish and very, very big.”
A bison herd is a hierarchical structure. The dominant bison, male and female, have no problem shoving their way to the front of the pack when it is time for a tour snack. Sometimes, it’s a nudge and wiggle to get their head into the bed of the truck. Sometimes it is a headbutt to the offending bison, with a flick of the neck to get them out of the way. That’s enough to shake a truck — and shake up a tourist.
Hand feeding a 2000-pound animal is a surreal experience, but tourists often get more than that when they visit Hawkeye. They vacation in Dan’s life. “There’s people that are strictly city people, and they look for a chance to get out and let their kids run and not worry about them,” Dan says. “It’s almost a vanishing way of life.”
Wide Open Spaces
Bison herds help the Great Plains thrive. “Ultimately, bison have evolved as part of the prairie ecosystem,” Martha says. Because bison are picky eaters, their grazing habits encourage biodiversity on grasslands, and their padded hooves are gentler on the ground — they are delicate, in a way.
But they are still huge. A full grown bison’s shoulders stand around 6-feet high. They weigh about a ton. Their horns can add another couple feet.
Despite taking up so much space in the pasture, bison maintenance doesn’t take up much space on the McFarlands’ calendar. “They’re so self-sustaining,” Martha says. “They just do really well on their own. We don’t need to mess with them a lot … They have less trouble calving than cattle do. They have a more resilient immune system.” The Hawkeye bison only have to be handled once a year, when they receive parasite prevention medication. But bison don’t particularly like being told where to move. Roundup can be trying: “That’s the day it’s a lot better to have cattle,” Martha says.
For the other 364 days, when no bison have to be rounded up, Dan and Martha get to enjoy interacting with these magnificent animals. “Buffalo are really intuitive and I think that’s one of the things I find amazing about the animal,” Martha says. “I have so much respect for the bison and so much awe.”
Not everyone shares Martha’s enthusiasm.“They have kind of a bad reputation. People think they are ornery,” Dan says, then indicates the 500-acre spread they roam. “When they’re out there, they’re laid back, they’ve got space.”
And Dan has his space. Living on his chunk of Iowa prairie, means waking up at 5 a.m., being Mr. Fix-It and standing eye to eye with bison. “And I don’t regret a day of it.”