Shepherd Farms finds turning grass into buffalo meat is where the real money is

by Allan Nation

CLIFFORD HILL, Missouri: Don't call Dan Shepherd's shaggy beasts bisons. They're still called buffalo at Shepherd Farms and here's why.

"You don't ask for a `facial tissue' when you need to blow your nose, do you?" Dan asked. "No, you say, `Give me a Kleenex.' You tell the average American you are raising bison and he'll always ask, `Is that something like a buffalo?'"

To Dan such semantic confusion is unnecessary and inefficient. Talk to Dan a few minutes and you can quickly surmise that he is not into political correctness and tends to call things the way he sees them.

For example, he doesn't buy into the hype that surrounds many alternative species including his own and doesn't think you should either. He thinks the move toward pen shows and prizes is ridiculous, that $3000 for a buffalo cow is too high and that putting weaned buffalo calves in a feedlot is a waste of animals, grass and money.

"Most people own buffalo strictly for their `entertainment value' and have no idea what they are doing or how to make any money with them," he said. "Frankly, many of the people attracted to buffalo raising are just downright weird."

With 26 years of successful buffalo raising under his belt, Dan believes he should be allowed some slack by the newbies and promoters. He's seen most of them come and go.

"The real money in any ruminant enterprise is selling them for meat. Breeding stock sales come and go but the meat business is steady and constant. I set my prices, not some guys in Chicago."

He points out that price he sets is approximately double what beef sells for. However, production costs are similar if not lower than beef.

Shepherd Farms is a 3000 acre former rowcrop farm that has taken to grass in a big way - Eastern gamagrass - that is. Gamagrass is considered the "ice cream grass" of all the North American native grasses due to its extremely high warm season quality. The gamagrass originally came as way to feed the buffalo in the summer when fescue toxicity was at its peak but has grown to be the primary cash crop for the farm.

Shepherd Farms is the largest supplier of gamagrass seed in the country and grass seed sales make up 90% of the farm's income. One time known for its poor initial stands, Shepherd's unique process of freezing the seed prior to selling it has tremendously increased planting year seed germination.

Some 500 acres is still farmed for grain on a crop share basis on the open ground between the rows of newly planted pecan trees. Pecans are sold both retail and wholesale.

Shepherd grazes 240 buffalo cows and their offspring on gamagrass and fescue. The cows calve in May and wean in January.

The bulls are pasture-slaughtered with a rifle (allowed under Missouri law), bled in the pasture, and the carcass quickly taken to a nearby federally-inspected locker plant for processing. The pasture slaughtering prevents the animals from becoming stressed and producing tough meat.

Carcasses average 550 to 650 lbs at an average yield of 60%. The meat is sold frozen and cryovac packed from an on-farm store to mostly local customers although some is sold nationwide via air freight to buffalo meat enthusiasts.

Buffalos also produce a variety of high priced by-products. These include the hide, cape and skull. Dan sells the skulls for $80 a piece for wall decorations. Tanned hides sell for $150 plus $10 per square foot. "People will buy anything from a buffalo," Dan said.

The buffalo cows breed at 3 years of age. Weaning weights range from 350 to 400 lbs and calf gains are slow until the animals become yearlings. "During the summer of their yearling year is when they really turn it on and double their weight," he said. Winter gains tend to be low.

While slow to get started in life, the productive life of a buffalo cow can be as long as 25 years. Dan said he felt a cow didn't hit her prime until she was 15 to 18 years of age. Calving problems are practically non-existent. Buffalo are extremely heat tolerant and do not need shade. "Hey, they are from the prairie where there is no shade," Dan said.

Because they have not been heavily selected for fertility, buffalo cows tend to "skip" breeding occasionally. Dan will allow his cows to skip once, but the second skip turns them into hamburger.

Buffalo are susceptible to the same diseases as cattle including pinkeye, brucellosis and TB and must receive the same vaccinations as cattle. In humid climates like Missouri, they are extremely susceptible to internal parasitism and must be wormed at least two times a year.

Dan described buffalo as "semi-domesticated" animals and describes them as "rambunctious." He said fences and working facilities have to be more robust than with cattle. He uses a five-wire, high tensile electric fence for his perimeter fence and two-wire electric fence for interior paddock subdivision. They first started using electric fence more than13 years ago and in that time they have built 15 miles of electrified fence and only 15 feet of woven wire fence (in a corral wing).

Dan said there is a market in weaned bulls and females for those who didn't want to get into the meat business. However, most of these sales were done by private treaty and marketing animals this way takes a lot of time and patience. There are a few auction sales cropping up around the country but they tend to be few and far between.

"If you are a person who might need cash money fast, you don't need to get into the buffalo business," Dan explained. "All alternative species are thin markets. This makes it hard to sell large numbers quickly."

He said that like most other things in life the degree of commitment you were willing to make to something determined the amount of success you would ultimately achieve. For example, he experimented with deer production but backed away when he realized he was not willing to make the financial commitment in fencing that adding a commercial scale deer operation would have required.

"I warn everyone who buys a buffalo cow from me that developing a retail meat market is a long hard road, but the money you get from it is real and it will last. The money you will get from seedstock sales can come easier, but it isn't real and it never lasts."

DAN'S TIPS ON GETTING INTO BUFFALO

Dan said to realize that all alternative species are a much higher risk than cattle because of the difficulty of selling a large number of animals quickly. "The more off-beat your animals are, the higher the risk," he said. The major risk is in the breeding premium paid over the meat value of the animal. "She's really only worth what she'll hang up on the rail," he said.

Dan said he thought there were two ways to get into buffalo raising. One is to buy 5 or 6 cows and a bull, try it and see if you like it. The other is to buy 50 or 60 cows and "make it work." He said 100 cows was the minimum commercial scale.

He recommended that you start with young cows and bulls of 2 years of age. Dan does not use a bull longer than 2 years and wants all of them dead by 4 years of age.

He said to buy the animals as geographically close to you as possible, and hopefully from the same kind of grass you will use. Bringing Western cows East doesn't work well because their rumens will not be large enough for the watery grass of the East. Weaned calves can go anywhere.

TIPS ON RETAIL SELLING

Dan said that the nice thing about having a pasture full of buffalo next to the highway is that they will naturally draw a crowd. Dan's wife Jan is in charge of the large on-farm retail store. Almost all of their meat marketing is by word of mouth.

Dan said to always start a retail program by developing a market for your ground meat because this will be your largest tonnage product. He said to concentrate on ground beef marketing and the steaks and roasts will naturally follow. Jerky and snack-sticks are good sellers. Recipes and slow cooking instructions are included with each sale.

Dan said they were careful to never allow one customer to buy over 20% of their product. He said it was much safer to have lots of smaller customers than a few big ones. Gift packs "for the person who has everything" are good sellers and are shipped all over the country by next day air in styrofoam shipping containers without dry ice.

Bulk sales of meat are marketed to family reunions, church and volunteer fire department picnics.

Other farm products sold through the store are sweet corn and pecans. In the rear of the store is a pecan washing, sorting and cracking operation that provides winter work for their two full-time hired hands. The farm currently has 8000 pecan trees.

Several acres of pumpkins are grown each year and given away to customers. Dan said people will drive 50 miles to get a free pumpkin. "They always feel guilty about getting something for nothing, so they all buy something." He said developing such marketing ideas was crucial to retail success.

For example, he noticed people slowing down and looking at a field full of small white flags that indicated where new pecan trees had been planted. To entice the curious into the store to find out what was going on, they erected a large sign that said "Flag Farm."

A downside to retail selling is the requirement to be available for the customer. He said he and his wife Jan were "on-call" 7 days a week with the exception of one week every winter they spend scuba diving in the Caribbean.

"The customers will always show up just as you are about to sit down to dinner," Jan said.

Dan agreed but added, "We've found that being willing to do the things no one else is willing to do is where the money is."

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