Six years ago, as a young female farm entrepreneur, Ashleigh Lerg made the bold decision to make a road trip the day after Christmas to buy 15 bison calves from a North Dakota farm and a bull calf from an operation in Indiana.
It wasn’t a swift or easy decision for this fourth-generation farmer. The bill for the calves alone was $26,000, a portion of the $150,000 shelled out just to get started in this new venture.
Lerg spent five years researching the idea of bringing bison production to her family’s farm in northeast Clinton County, Mich. She’d attended numerous roundups, worked with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to help pick and provide perennial seeds for forages, and joined the National Bison Association and the Indiana Illinois Bison Association, where she served on the board.
“I had written out about five or six pages of questions,” she says. “I read the producer’s manual and talked with other bison farmers.”
Another big expense in getting started — about $50,000 — was the high-tensile fence. Lerg worked with a group of Amish builders to set up the 8-foot-high posts with 12 strands of galvanized wire. “And the gates are beefed up, too,” she says.
New kind of agriculture
Ashleigh, 32, is the owner of Humble Beginnings Ranch LLC and works in cooperation with her parents, Kim and Roger Lerg.
The Lerg family operated a dairy farm about 20 miles south of their current farm until the state used eminent domain to claim the land for construction of the Route 127 bypass of St. Johns. They bought the current 997-acre farm in 1995, and Roger is farming all but about 300 acres that Ashleigh is now managing. She’s grown her bison herd to 80 head, which added 23 new calves this year.
While Roger is a conventional farmer raising corn and soybeans, Ashleigh, with the support of her mother, is practicing regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture is an emerging concept for managing agricultural land. It seeks to combine the best conventional, organic and biological farming practices into a system that improves productivity while enhancing ecosystem services. It primarily focuses on improving the health of soils by following basic soil health principles.
The goal is to improve soil rather than just sustain it in a degraded state. Regenerative agriculture strives to minimize soil disturbance, maximize soil cover, incorporate diversified rotations and perennial crops, utilize livestock manure, and enhance biological activity in the soil.
“Bison not only supply some of the most nutritious meat, but they also regenerate the land,” Kim says. “Not only is their meat healthy for us, they promote healthy soils.”
To help build the soils, Ashleigh has planted a little less than 150 acres to native, perennial warm-season grasses. The next 150 acres will be planted in native, perennial cool-season grasses and forbs. “They are regenerative because they put in deep roots — up to 20 feet deep,” she says. “Some people look at the grasses as weeds, and it’s brought some consternation from conventional farmers. But the good news is, we shouldn’t have to plant that again. The bison and other wildlife love it.”
There are five paddocks she’s grazing. The native grasses take four years to grow before being ready for pasturing. Cover crops are added annually after grazing. “We always want roots in the ground helping life underground," Ashleigh says. "It’s proven to help bring dirt back to soil. Prairies are starting to use the bison to bring back the prairies — to help heal it, instead of us destroying it."
The farm is not certified organic, but it uses no sprays and the grains are non-GMO. The bison are solely grazed and supplemented with hay when necessary. The grain is used to supplement the Tamworth hogs on the farm. Animal diversity is another component to being regenerative. “Diversity means we really can’t talk about one aspect of the farm without the other,” Ashleigh says.
The hogs are an Irish heritage breed that have not been modified for more than 200 years, Ashleigh explains. “They are great foragers, which is what I was looking for,” she adds.
Also on the farm are Muscovy ducks and more than 450 free-range chickens. “They are our cleanup crew, which helps sanitize our fields,” Ashleigh says. “We put them in with the bison, and they spread out the manure while eating mosquitoes, larvae, flies and other bugs.”
Kim says they were initially concerned about the ducklings being stepped on, but happily, they have not lost a single animal that way.
An old livestock trailer is being used as a chicken transporter and hotel that moves into the pastures following bison.
“We really had a fly issue with the bison until we started using the chickens and ducks, and now nature takes care of it,” Kim says.
This fall, Ashleigh used the farm’s Facebook page to shout out for used and now unwanted pumpkins. “It’s a way to keep them out of landfills, and the pigs, chickens and bison all love them,” she says. “Pumpkins are a natural dewormer.”
In the fall, she moved the pigs to a pen near the road where visitors could easily throw the pumpkins. She also had a route through a subdivision, where she picked up pumpkins. “Everyone was wonderful, and not only did we get pumpkins, we also got straw bales for compost, and cornstalks for the bison. People like the idea of pigs being on pasture.”
Extra eggs from the chickens are boiled and fed to the pigs, as are downed apples from nearby orchards.
Looking ahead, the family is working on a plan to manage the woods, removing dead elm and ash trees, and adding ponds as water sources.
Ashleigh made her first harvest of four bison last year. They also sell bundled pork, pastured chickens and eggs.
Because bison are considered an exotic animal, field kills are allowed by law. “We kill them here and bleed them out,” Ashleigh says. “We do not want to have the stress of loading the animals on the trailer."
The carcass is then taken to a state-inspected processor in Rosebush, Mich. A full-sized cow weighs between 900 and 1,100 pounds, where bulls weigh as much as 2,500 pounds or more.
It takes two and a half to three years to grow a bison to harvest. Ashleigh’s goal is to have a couple hundred bison. This year, two younger bulls were processed. “We market the meat ahead of time and most of the meat, so far, has been sold within the family,” Ashleigh says. “We keep all the best steaks and roasts, and the rest is ground unto bison burger.”
What’s it taste like? Kim says, “Delicious. It’s sweet and very nutritious, but you don’t want to cook it as much as beef — not more than 150 degrees.”
Looking ahead, the mother and daughter duo would like to market to restaurants, but will be selective. “We want restaurants that will cook it correctly, because we want the consumer to have a good experience,” Kim says. “We don’t want you to get a bad bison burger.”
Ashleigh likes that every part of the animal is used. The hides are tanned. “One is going to be used for education in the Fenner Nature Center in Lansing, and two others are going to Mount Pleasant — one is being made into a boat as Indians used to do,” Ashleigh explains. “The skulls are being used for artwork and painting, and even the bones of the bison are being used for medicinal purposes — cancer patients make bone broth soups.”
Groups of all ages have visited the farm. An old, refurbished and repurposed dairy barn is being used to store hay, but Ashleigh would like to one day host educational meetings about regenerative agriculture in the barn. Formerly a first-grade teacher, Ashleigh says, “Kids need a connection to their food source. We’ve had kids come to the farm, collect eggs and then we made sausage breakfast burritos.”
Ashleigh’s full-time job is at the VFW National Home for Children, where she works as an educational specialist with youth up to age 18.
“This year was the first year to have tours, and we had around 200 kids,” she says. “Next year, we want to do more.”
Michigan State University students also visit the farm, volunteering through their community engagement for sustainability class through Professor Shari Dann.
The Humble Beginnings Ranch has a Facebook page and is working on a website.
The long-term goal is to have a processing facility on-site, a store, and an educational center, as well sell bison bulls and heifers for breeding stock. “We want to inspire farmers, especially young people, to farm and look into regenerative agriculture,” Ashleigh says.