For more than two decades, the Skull Creek Bison Ranch south of Rhame has specialized in raising buffalo.
“We started in buffalo around 1996 or so,” Wayne Bucholz explained. “It was a decision that came about kind of off the cuff. We thought that if we had buffalo it would probably be a little simpler.
“Once you have an idea and think about it, sooner or later it snowballs into something you can’t stop,” he said with a chuckle. “That is how it happened.” Bucholz said he started first with few and ended up with quite a few.
He said the bison are perfect for the area. “They are the perfect animal. They may not be the perfect animal for every management situation, but when it comes to the environment we live in, they are the perfect animal.
“They don’t need any man-made shelter. They don’t need a lot of interference or assistance from humans to live or survive. When we had cattle and we were calving in March and April in blizzards. It was all we could do to just keep up with things…. With buffalo, we don’t have to do any of that, Bucholz said.
“They take care of themselves.
“In 24 years, I have never seen a buffalo act cold – ever. Their fur is much, much thicker and they have an under layer of really dense hair that really shields them from the elements. They lose almost no energy to the outside. When it snows, the snow on them doesn’t melt. They shake and it all flies off. They really do well at conserving energy.
“They evolved here. They are not an animal that’s manmade. There are no EPDs in the buffalo industry. There is no artificial insemination in the buffalo industry. These bison are what God created from the original animal. The animal raised today is no different than the animal in Yellowstone Park. It is the same animal.
“All the bison you see in the privately-owned commercial herds are just as wild as any bison anywhere else in the world. They are habituated to the way we treat them, but they are not domesticated,” Bucholz explained. “They know if a pickup shows up, they may get a little hay or grain. They are habituated to what we do and how we handle them.
“If civilization stopped, these buffalo would thrive just like they have their entire history,” he added.
According to Bucholz, when the family first got into bison in the mid-90s, it was primarily a breeder’s market. “Then that market ran up and then crashed. But out of the ashes came the meat market.
“Since about 2000 or so, the meat market has just been very steady. The prices are very good. There was a little bit of a price correction last fall, but it wasn’t extreme. Everything in this industry is priced off the meat market,” he explained.
“The demand is always going up. Every year, demand gets stronger. The bison has that western allure to it that everybody seems to like. It is healthier. It is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than skinless chicken is.”
Bucholz said that he started his bison herd with cows from a ranch in Montana. “Our breed bulls came from various well-known producers from around the region in South Dakota, North Dakota primarily. The cows came from a ranch up by Fort Peck.”
North Dakota’s health department sees bison as domestic livestock, not as wild game, he said. “Generally speaking, the bison are viewed the same as cattle.”
When he started his herd, he admits the cows were nothing special. “They were just average cows and through the years and through a very strict culling program. And buying the very best bulls we could find, we turned a herd that was average at best into a pretty good herd,” he said.
“Over the years, we have collected a few trophies, mostly from the Dakota Territories Show and Sale. We were producer of the year two different years. We got a couple of trophies down there this year,” Bucholz said.
“We have a pretty good herd and it has an improving reputation,” he added. “We sell a few bulls here and there. We are kind of known for having good stock.”
The ranch has been in the family since 1939 when Bucholz’ grandfather bought the property about 15 miles south southwest of Rhame. “My grandpa started it, so my wife (LeAnn) and I are third generation and our son (Conner) and daughter (Jenna) … are fourth generation.”
The Skull Creek Bison Ranch is supplying the Grazers restaurant at the Bowman Lodge and Convention Center with bison for the restaurant’s new Bison Burger on the menu.
“That was something my son got started. He started working with them and they bought a few pounds. It has just been growing out of that.”
Currently, that is the only local outlet for the Skull Ranch bison, Bucholz explained. “I haven’t pushed it. We live in beef country, right? Everybody has a cousin or brother who raises beef.
“They (Grazers) asked for it and we provided it,” he said, noting he has tried the bison burger several times. “I think they are doing a very good job of preparing it.
“Anytime you can get it out to the people and make it available, that is a good deal. I love to see the markets grow and see the industry grow.
“We are seeing new rancher-producers getting started. It is all good. It is a good industry to be involved in,” he explained.
‘Tender Bison’ brand
“We deliver most of our fed animals that are ready to go to meat to the North American Bison in New Rockford (North Dakota). They process and do the marketing. The brand is ‘Tender Bison,’” he explained. North American Bison is the producer-owned processing facility for North Dakota.
“We process animals from quite a few states (at New Rockford) and all of North America. We market all over the U.S., so you could find ‘Tender Bison’ almost anywhere.”
Bucholz said his ranch runs around 400 cows.
Recently, Bucholz said he had a yearling bull placed fourth and placed third overall in the producer of the year competition at the recent Black Hills Buffalo Classic held Feb. 8 in Rapid City (South Dakota).
The ranch has made a strong showing in the past. “One year, I was rookie of the year and one year were producer of the year. There was a year that were producer of the year that we had the Grand Champion male, Reserve Champion male and Grand Champion female and Reserve Champion female,” he said.
The format of the show has changed since then, Bucholz said.
“The competition gets better all the time,” the graduate of Rhame High School said. “The hardware gets harder and harder to get. That is a good thing, it means everybody is getting better.”
The Black Hills Buffalo Classic also has two unusual competitions where some bison are testing at one location under similar conditions. One is the “Young Guns”, a yearling breeding bull challenge, while “Girlz Going Wild” is a yearling heifer challenge.
Under the rules, the animals are scored on average daily gain on both grass and grain in order to get at the true production value of each animal.