The old folk song laments, “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam.”
For 140 years, that song conjured images of a home in the old west. These days, though, American bison are found all over the United States and Canada.
According to the National Bison Association, buffalo roam on bison ranches in all 50 states. Georgia Buffalo Inc. is one of those ranches.
This 47-acre ranch is on U.S. 17 in McIntosh County, several miles north of Darien.
“We have 25 head (of buffalo) right now,” business and marketing manager Sherry DiSimone said. “By 2015, we hope to have 200 head. We also plan to have a general store featuring our bison meat as well as local produce and the leatherwork of local artists.”
DiSimone, who also manages the company website, www.georgiabuffalo.com, said their company is “social-media driven,” thriving on social-media contacts, plus word-of-mouth through local restaurants and meat markets.
She said several restaurants, a natural foods store on St. Simons Island and meat markets in Darien, Ludowici and Richmond Hill carry their high-protein, low-fat meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently provided them with a sales and marketing grant to promote the health benefits of “America’s original red meat” — buffalo.
“Buffalo is very lean,” said DiSimone, who added that they plan to have video links on their website of chefs demonstrating how to cook bison in ways to maximize the flavor. “When we make bison blue-cheese burgers, I mix a lot of olive oil in the burger to keep the burger from being too dry. My kids love it. In fact, I recently caught two of my daughters trying to bribe our 4-year-old out of the other half of her bison burger after they’d eaten their burgers.”
Owner and operator Troy Bivens said he came into bison ranching after a lifetime in the construction business in Florida and Georgia. He moved to Brunswick 16 years ago and bought the land for the ranch about two years ago, but he didn’t release his first buffalo on the property until six months ago.
“I have an uncle in Minnesota who runs about 600 head on his ranch, and I have a friend in North Carolina who runs about 400 head,” he said. “I had helped them out on their ranches and got to thinking this was something I’d like to do.”
Bivens admitted that starting a buffalo ranch is more expensive than cattle ranching, noting that a bison calf costs around $1,500 compared with about $500 for a beef calf. And you can’t handle buffalo the way you do cattle, he said.
The National Bison Association reminds would-be ranchers that buffalo are not domesticated animals. They require special handling corrals and techniques that differ from cattle ranching. Bivens said when he and ranch hand Don Williams were preparing their first bison for slaughter, they had to be extra careful. They’ve learned to use low-stress handling to keep their bison calm, which helps create a healthier herd and high-quality meat.
Ranchers also have to watch out for predators. Bivens has lost three young calves in recent weeks. He suspects that coyotes are the culprits, but they’ve seen evidence of some large bobcats, too. He and Williams are devising ways to protect future calves.
“All of our bison are slaughtered between 24 and 30 months old,” he said, noting his bison are grass-fed and hormone, steroid and antibiotic-free. “Right now, we have to take them to Lyons, Ga., because local slaughter houses are unfamiliar with buffalo.”
Bivens said Georgia Buffalo Inc. plans to start doing guided tours at the ranch starting in May so future customers can have an up-close view of the buffalo herd. Following the tour, lunch would be provided.
The American bison was on the endangered species list a century ago, but according to the National Bison Association, there now are about 200,000 bison on private lands and another 20,000 on public lands. The bison industry started in the mid-1960s but gained momentum in the late 1980s.
The website said there now are more than 4,400 private bison ranches in the United States.