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Serving: OH

Beginning farmers focus on bison

Slideshow: Ohio newlyweds grow their bison herd to 35.

When Carie Starr moved to the hills of southern Ohio in 2001, she wasn’t looking for a home where the buffalo roam. She just wanted a place in the country to move with her daughter after a divorce.

Her grandmother had left a plot of land to her mother, and it seemed like a peaceful place to park a mobile home and settle in, she explains.

But a few years later, when she was at a restaurant celebrating the start of a new job, she had her first taste of bison prime rib. “That was the best thing I’d ever eaten — so tender and flavorful,” she recalls.

These days, Carie eats a steady diet of bison ribs, roasts, steaks and burgers. Her mom’s 25 acres, plus another 25 acres leased from her aunt, have been fenced to create bison pastures and pollinator meadows. A little store with an Old West-style facade holds freezers stocked with bison meat and the huge mounted head of a bison bull named Henry. Carie spends her days managing the ranch, marketing meat and planning ranch tours. “This is what I always wanted to do; I just didn’t know it,” she says.

Shortly after that first taste of bison in 2006, Carie met Jarrod Starr, who shared her interest in bison. The two were married, and they began researching production of American bison, which are sometimes referred to as buffalo.

Quick start to ranching

One Sunday morning in 2008, they saw an ad in the Columbus Dispatch for a herd of bison for sale. They traveled to Mount Vernon, Ohio, “just to take a look,” Carie recalls. “It was like love at first sight.” But at that time, they were hardly set up to take on a herd of bison.

“We had no fencing, we had no barn, nothing,” says Carie. Even so, it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. “Within six weeks, we had fence built and 14 bison home.”

In the years since, Carie and Jarrod have grown their bison herd to about 35 head by buying and raising additional animals. Young animals they don’t want to add to the breeding herd go to the butcher at about 3 years of age and are processed into various cuts similar to beef. Older cows and bulls culled from the herd are butchered and processed as ground meat. Their goal is to send about 12 animals a year to “freezer camp,” explains Carie.

They started out selling the meat through farmers markets and now rely more on marketing through social media. They also sometimes sell entire animals to meat markets. Some buyers want hides and heads as well. Pastured laying hens add another income stream for the ranch.

Jarrod, who works full time for a solar energy company, contributes to the farm chores on evenings and weekends. Carie left her job as a lab safety coordinator in 2010 to work on the ranch full time. She’s currently working to expand into agritourism, offering wagon tours of the ranch’s bison pastures and pollinator plantings. She’s hoping to attract people who are interested in the bison, as well as bird and butterfly watchers. The ranch attracts monarch butterflies with a certified monarch way station, and it also attracts zebra swallowtail butterflies with pawpaw trees and other native plants.

Honoring ranch legacy

Carie and Jarrod’s last name, Starr, seems appropriate for a ranching couple. Their address on Lonesome Road outside of Thornville fits as well. They call their ranch Cherokee Valley Bison Ranch in recognition of Carie’s grandmother, who was half Cherokee. “We grew up going to powwows,” Carie recalls. Her grandmother once had her own harness racing business, and the land now used for the bison ranch was used for horse pasture and hay production. 

Bison are native to Ohio, and parts of State Route 40 were built along bison trails. The pastures at Cherokee Valley Bison Ranch recreate the plains once home to wild herds.

Raising bison is similar to raising beef cattle, except the fences need to be higher and people need to keep their distance, says Carie. To set the farm up for bison production, the Starrs fenced in five paddocks for rotational grazing, supplemented with hay. The first fence they built was 6 feet tall, with eight strands of electrified high-tensile wire. They were following guidelines for Western ranches, but bison raised in the West tend to be wilder, Carie notes.

More recently they’ve switched to six-strand fencing, which is adequate for calmer Eastern bison, she explains. Bison have been farm-raised longer in the Eastern U.S., so their genetics have shifted, and they’ve become more domesticated. That’s not to say the bison are tame, Carie adds. “Truth be told, the fences are a suggestion. If they wanted to go through, they could.”

Sorting out animals to sell or haul to the butcher takes patience, Carie says. They’ll put out feed in different pens, and then quietly open and close gates to separate groups until they are able to single out particular animals. “You have to know the herd pecking order,” she explains.

The Starrs are in the process of assembling a new corral and working chute for the bison. Structured like a cattle chute on steroids, it will give them to ability to pregnancy-check cows and more easily care for sick or injured animals.

Bison self-sufficient, mostly easy to care for

The bison don’t require shelter from the weather, and most management is hands-off, says Carie. “They’re pretty self-sufficient.” A bull can remain with the cows year-round, and the animals will naturally breed in the summer for late-spring calving after nine months of gestation.

The Starrs have found that running two bulls at a time helps with pregnancy rates. An older bull alone can get lazy, and small, young cows and heifers may shy away from a heavy bull. They normally use a younger bull in addition to an older bull. “It inspires them to stay on their toes and get the job done,” Carie explains. Fighting between the two bulls is usually minimal, she adds. “The younger bull knows his place.”

Like most livestock producers, the Starrs have had animals escape a few times. Normally, the escapees will circle around and stay near the rest of the herd on the other side of the fence. Then they can be lured back to the pasture with feed.

However, a high-strung or stressed animal can become uncontrollable, Carie explains. For instance, she and Jarrod once brought a couple of heifers and a bred cow home from an auction in Pennsylvania. They arrived back at the ranch after dark, and she wanted to let the bison out of the trailer to get a drink; but as soon as she opened the trailer, the bison took off. “They started running and kept running.”

Carie could hear the wires of the fence twang as the bison bolted through. Eventually, the heifers caught the scent of the herd and found their way back to the ranch. The cow, however, took off cross-country and toured the township. Every time anyone got close, she’d take off again, so she eventually had to be shot to keep her from hurting someone.

Although stressed animals can become dangerous, bison are generally calm and content animals, Carie says. “If they have enough to eat, they’re happy.” They do best when people let them have their space. She and Jarrod don’t go in pastures or paddocks with the bison and when they need to move or load animals they work slowly and calmly.

“When they get stressed is when they can do crazy things, like jump 6 feet from a standstill,” she explains. If, for instance, they are putting out hay for the bison, they put it in an empty pasture and then open the gate to let the bison in.

Like cattle, the bison learn the feeding routine. “We jingle a gate chain, and they come.”

For more information on bison production at Cherokee Valley, visit cherokeevalleybisonranch.com.

Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.

 

 

 

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