Bison are big, thundering, majestic beasts. They are also damn tasty, too. Ever since we moved to DC, I have been a fan of Cibola Farms. They are the only farm at the Dupont Circle farmers market that regularly offers bison and they have a tremendous variety of cuts. It wouldn’t be possible to make my bison brisket chili without them! But despite my love for both bison meat and farms, I had never been to a bison farm before.
It used to be that millions of wild bison roamed a large portion of North America. Grazing on grasses, depositing manure and playing a keystone role in the ecosystem of the Great Plains. Their natural range once stretched from just west of the Appalachian Mountains to northwestern Canada and northwestern Mexico. By 1910, there were only an estimated 2,100 bison remaining in North America.
Of the remaining American bison today, 30,000 are part of conservation herds that speckle reserves across the United States and Canada. The bulk of today’s bison population is managed as livestock. There are more than 500,000 bison that are privately owned and managed. Farming bison is the only way to keep their numbers up and maintain the necessary genetic diversity.
Although there aren’t any official records kept, Cibola Farms likely has one of the largest bison herd in Virginia. The herd size ranges between 250-300 individuals at any given time. Last week, Allison and I made the trip out to Culper, VA and Cibola Farms to meet the bison.
The farm is roughly a 90-minute drive from DC. When we arrived at the farm, the Cibola folks ran through the ground rules (e.g., don’t go into the bison paddocks, don’t try to pet the bison, etc.) and gave us a map with the location of the herds. From that point on, we were off on our own.
It was a lot of fun wandering the farm. They have a little “farmette” with some laying hens, guinea fowl, pigs and dairy cows. It makes for a nice opening act before getting to the headliners.
The bison aren’t hard to spot. They are held in large paddocks all around the 500 acre property. I was awestruck by the amount of infrastructure the farm had—most notably the Temple Grandin-style corral system for loading the bison in a way that limits the stress on the animal.
Although I think they are amazing animals, I don’t think I will ever have bison at Gold Shaw Farm. Some of that assessment is based on the fact that I don’t think we have the necessary acreage to get to scale. Most of that assessment is based on the fact that the idea of managing a one-and-half-ton bull in a humane way terrifies me.
That said, I am really impressed with how Cibola operates. Their views on the grass vs. grain debate are very thoughtful. They also have rotational grazing system for the bison. In an email, I asked Rob Ferguson, one of the farm’s owners, how they move the animals. His answer gives a nice glimpse into the work of a bison farmer:
“Moving herds is really easy, once you have them trained to a five-gallon bucket with a little grain in the bottom. “We use ATV’s, but not to round them up, but rather to be able to move as fast as they will move once in stampede mode. Bison seem to need to stampede everywhere that they move, as the last few don’t want to be left behind and start running. “If you position yourself near bison that need to be moved and just sit there for a few moments, they will move away from you because you create a level of discomfort for them, and they always move toward where the rest of the herd is located. During grazing season, the herds move very easily, as they are ready for the fresh grass that they know is coming.”
If you’re in the DC area, I would strongly encourage you to make the trip out to Cibola. It’s not everyday that you can witness the awesome and inspiring profile of the American bison roaming the hills and munching the terrain.