Editor's Note: DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton is touring parts of Wyoming and Montana this week before he makes his way to Calgary, Alberta, for a meeting of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists.
WRIGHT, Wyo. (DTN) -- It was a cool, overcast Tuesday at the Durham Ranch when a rented RV came up the driveway. A tourist from the Netherlands gets out and meets ranch owner John Flocchini. Like many others before him, the man wanted to see some American bison.
Unfortunately, it was the wrong day for tours. But agritourism is a big part of the draw for the Durham Ranch, a 55,000-acre bison operation in northeast Wyoming.
The Flocchinis were initially in the meat business in California before coming to Wyoming. Armando Flocchini Sr. bought the Durham Meat Company in San Francisco, where he had worked as a butcher. In 1965 he purchased the ranch and renamed it Durham Ranch. Durham Meat Co. is still in operation, but now maintains its headquarters in Reno, Nevada.
"It's a great business model and it still works very well for us," John Flocchini said.
The bison herd was already on the ranch when the Flocchini family bought the land. The bison can be traced back to the Yellowstone National Park bison herd.
While Ted Turner may hold the title owner of the largest bison herd, the Durham Ranch is one of the largest, working bison ranches in the country.
Flocchini, a past president of the National Bison Association, enjoys promoting benefits of bison as a producer.
"Bison has been discovered, you might say, in the marketplace. A lot of it is because of the natural attributes of the meat," Flocchini said. "It's leaner and lower in cholesterol. It's high in protein and lower in fat naturally, so it's a highly nutritious meat product. And it's great tasting."
While summer tourists may overwhelm the wild bison herds at state and national parks, the Durham Ranch has roughly 2,200 bison head grazing on the landscape.
The ranch offers tours during the summer season on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and maintains a gift shop promoting both the ranch and bison. Flocchini is anticipating somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 to 1,000 people this year will visit the ranch.
The comments don't come up quite as often anymore, but Flocchini said when the ranch started offering tours a lot of people believed bison no longer existed. "People would say that. I would be like, 'Well, you are looking at them, so they aren't extinct.' "
Hunting on the ranch is popular. The ranch keeps its mature bulls for hunting season. Those are typically the five-year-old bulls that can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. The ranch hosts roughly 20 to 25 bison hunts per year, often paired up with a pronghorn antelope hunt. Meat from those hunted bulls is quartered and processed also, but a lot of the meat ends up as a ground burger product.
Like other ranches on the Northern Plains, the Durham Ranch is still recovering from drought in 2020 and 2021. Two years ago, a large swath of northeast Wyoming was experiencing D3 severe drought conditions. That forced some steep culling of the entire herd, especially the older cows.
"Because of the drought, we cut about 40% of the herd out," Flocchini said.
With the break in the drought last year, Durham Ranch held back more of its heifers for breeding and looks to increase that number again this year, getting back up to about 1,000 bred cows this summer. Flocchini cautioned against rebuilding the herd too quickly.
"The drought smarted us pretty bad, so we're not going to be aggressive. We're going to be pretty conservative. That was just a bad experience, not just financially, but also mentally. It's pretty depressing to go through. So, we're going to take our time building the herd back. We thought about 1,200 breeding-age cows was kind of our sweet spot, but '20 and '21 proved us wrong."
ANIMAL DISEASE RISKS
Bison producers are often asked about brucellosis, a disease that induces abortions in bison, elk and cattle and does not have a cure. The National Park Service cites that roughly 60% of females in Yellowstone National Park's wild bison herd test positive for exposure to the disease. The Park Service also notes there have been no known cases of bison directly transmitting brucellosis to cattle. Elk migrating from Yellowstone to private ranch lands have been considered the biggest potential risk for spreading the disease.
"It's not a problem once you get away from the designated surveillance area around Yellowstone National Park, so we don't have to routinely test or anything like that. It would have to be reintroduced to be a problem," Flocchini said.
When the Flocchini family took over the ranch, they tested the herd in 1970 and culled out about 200 head due to brucellosis. The herd has been free of the disease ever since.
"We retested the whole herd in the 1980s and everything was negative," Flocchini said. "That was a real confidence builder for us. Since 1970, we've never had an incident or a case."
When selling bison to producers in other states, buyers typically want those animals tested for brucellosis.
Still, bison are susceptible to several cattle diseases. Mycoplasma bovis is a disease that, over the past two decades, led to bison ranches limiting the introduction of outside animals to the herd.
"People have moved more toward the last ten years of finishing them off on their own property. We're pretty careful about bringing in any outside animals," Flocchini said.
BISON ARE A LOT TO HANDLE
Flocchini and herd manager Pat Thomson showed the corral, pens and chute required to sort the herd, including weaning the calves and separating the yearlings from the bulls and cows.
The corral and pens leading to the sorter require 7-foot high concrete reinforced walls. After checking out a few other ranches, Flocchini saw a setup with a single operator in a cube who opens the various pen doors to sort the bison. They built that system in 2016 and it has curbed the time and manpower it takes to sort the herd.
The squeeze chute with a neck extender and crash gate is significantly larger with a lot more reinforced metal than a chute for cattle. The ranch bought it from a Nebraska company after learning the Turner ranches had 16 of them for their bison ranches.
"It pulls their neck and head forward so they can't thrash around so you are safe right here to do what you need to do -- ear tag them or reading the RFID tag on them," Flocchini said. "This thing makes all of the difference in the world. It's critical for bison. You can't really work with them without a crash gate.
The entire system reduces a lot of stress when it comes to working with bison in close quarters.
"Basically, since we installed this system, it cut our time working the herd in half. You really need less people, but it's safer for the animals and it's safer for the humans," Flocchini said.
Durham has about 85 different pastures on which it rotates the bison herd throughout the year.
"I like to lay out our grazing plan about a year in advance," Thomas said. "We're kind of shifting up our thought processes, but on our native pasture, we're planning on about 400 days of rest, on average, before we put them back on it. On our tame pastures like the old farm ground, that will get grazed a little more often to take good advantage of that ground."
Durham typically pastures the bison in one area about four to five days. The goal is to have one bite per grass plant in a grazing area. Thomas pointed to new attention on soil science as well as working the bison to mimic how herds grazed when they roamed free.
"We're trying to manage to minimize that second bite (of grass) then give plenty of rest and recovery after that graze for the grasses to fully express themselves," Thomas said.
Maggie Begbie, one of two summer interns on the ranch from Northwest Missouri State University, said she was surprised about how much longer it takes bison to mature and reach market weight than cattle.
"One thing John talks about is that bison have such good lives and only one bad day when they get harvested; I've never thought about it that way raising any meat animal," Begbie said. "Also, I think it's really interesting how much older they are when they start breeding or when being harvested; nothing like cattle where they can be harvested at a young age. There's a lot of waiting time for bison."
The ranch is set up so the herd gradually grazes itself toward the corral over time, which moves them near the pens and the feedyard. Excess bulls and heifers are fed out over about a three-month stretch. They will average a rate of gain of over two pounds to two-and-a-half pounds per day.
"They don't convert as well as the beef cattle do," Flocchini said.
Ideally, the bulls are sent for processing at about 1,100 pounds and heifers around 925 pounds. That compares with an older bison bull, which can weigh over 2,000 pounds. Packers will dock producers if their market bison come in too heavy.
Durham's rotational positioning for grazing and sorting for feedyards ends up with the ranch sending a truckload of bison to harvest just about every week of the year.
Bison meat right now is running about $3.90 per pound for bulls and $3.65 per pound for heifers. Bison generally carries a premium over beef, but right now that spread is getting narrow.
"It's been pretty stable for the last several months around the high $3 mark," Flocchini said. "What I think is going to drive the price more than beef pricing is the supply side. Bison kind of went through the same thing beef did with the drought. A lot of people cut back. So, we're anticipating through this year and into the next things are still going to be pretty good supply-wise. Then it's going to start dropping off as supplies grow."
There are just a handful of larger processors that consistently handle bison. Durham Ranch sends some bison to Colorado but also is an investor in Intermountain Packing, a processing plant that opened in 2022 in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Nationally, bison remains a small segment of the meat business. About 60,000 bison are slaughtered under federal inspection annually. On average, about 125,000 cattle are slaughtered daily, according to USDA.
"That kind of volume is done by lunch break for cattle in a day," Flocchini said. "So that kind of gives you the scope of just how niche things really are."
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