This week I have the pleasure of introducing you to one of our network ranchers; Jean Buchanan. Jean is a Northstar Tribe member to the core, her culture is our culture, so we go together like peas and carrots. Jean has a long history in agriculture but was only recently (as in within the last 10 yrs which is recent for us :)introduced to bison. Her intrigue only grew and it didn't take her long to decide she'd love to spend her summers with her own herd of bison on her own place located about 25 miles northwest of our ranch headquarters here near Rice Lake, WI. Jean has a wide and interesting array of skills which include amazing pen and ink illustrations, managing her little farmstead rental, in addition to caring for her herd or prepping for her nextbison herd during the dormant months. I asked Jean a few simple questions to help give you all more of a glimpse inside and hopefully a connection to those within the Northstar ranching circle. Like all of our producers, Jean is a special breed made of true passion for nature in it's purest, most thrivant capacity and we appreciate working alongside her in raising these majestic bison to the best of our current knowledge and abilities. Now, Jean's unfiltered words...
How did you decide you wanted to try raising bison?
I got the opportunity through my acquaintance with the Graese (Northstar) family. They were looking for like-minded farmers who might graze their bison and I was looking for a new opportunity for my farm. I had experience with draft horses and dairy and beef cattle, but not bison. Northstar’s mentorship made the planning and fencing feasible. But it was their obvious love of bison that made me want to experience living with a herd.
What has been most surprising about your experience?
How different bison are from cattle. I’m still learning who they are. I tell people, “They’re wild, like a deer,” but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The other part of the story, I think, has to do with the herd mentality of bison. It’s the way bison survive. They’re organized around a leader or leaders, who are the most experienced bison in the herd. The bison have a hierarchy that respects the largest, oldest and most experienced bison. They communicate with one another, mostly by body language, and this means that the smallest and youngest can be part of a more experienced group if they get along with everyone else. The effect is that the pecking order favors the leaders, but it also ensures protection within the herd.
What is your favorite part about having the bison on your land?
Watching them. I realize that they are finely tuned to their way of life, yet it takes observation and thought to understand their ways. And I need to understand them to know how they may react to my day-to-day management.
How has your farm changed since the introduction of bison?
It functions much more like an ecosystem. I have nine pastures that I graze in rotation from mid-May to November. I must help the grass prosper throughout the growing season, which means I can’t let the bison over-graze it. If I keep the plants growing well and the bison clip and fertilize them then tramp the refuse so it contacts the soil, decomposes and feeds the soil microorganisms, we’re working with nature. Bugs, birds and mammals flourish in the pastures and pasture margins. Rain can penetrate the sod and run off is controlled. Everyone thrives.
You’ve worked with bison for 5 years now. Are there things that still make you stop in your tracks when you see or experience them?
I’m always affected by them watching me.
When I get a new herd in May, they act afraid of me, even though I try to be just a presence now and then as I go about pasture chores. I want to show them respect because my farm and I are new to them. After a few weeks they don’t flee when they catch sight of me; they’ve decided I’m not a threat. But for as long as I caretake them they will watch me. Bison are vigilant. I’ll observe them take note of my presence, then as I work or walk, the leaders keep track of my movements. And it’s amazing how fast the whole herd can react when they sense an uncomfortable situation. A bison can go from 0 to 20 mph in seconds and set the reaction running through the herd like electricity. So, I try to act calm no matter what I’m doing.
If you have one thing to say to a consumer, what would it be?
A Northstar bison has lived freely in nature within a family-like herd. It enjoyed its life.
What goals or ultimate vision do you have for your farm?
I want to use it to promote regenerative agriculture. I have a farmhouse on the land and I rent it to vacationers. They enjoy watching and learning about the bison. I’d like to get more people on the land in any way I can---as caretakers, lovers of nature, artists and students of the natural world.