Thursday, June 26, 2014

Welcome to the Market: Selling Bison Meat at Farmers Market of the Ozarks

Caleb and I have always loved farmers markets. We love to shop local, and to meet like minded farmer folk - plus we always end up finding some really cool vegetable, tasty baked good or awesome smelling homemade soap. So when it came time to start selling bison meat from our ranch at Farmers Market of the Ozarks in Springfield, Missouri, we were SUPER excited. We would finally get to see what it was like to be on the other side of the vendor booth...

Jane and Caleb ready to sell some bison meat!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Bison Ranch Life: Eating Local Foods

Local food is a blessing to have and here on the ranch we have it in abundance - but I'm not just talking about the several hundred bison that roam our hills, woods and pastures. Local food cuts down the miles your food travels, increases your awareness of the local climate, flora and fauna and can help you to stick to a healthier diet. Which really isn't a challenge to stick to when you can put on a meal of Catfish Parmesan with asparagus and morels as a side dish. Or perhaps you're more of a red meat lover and want to go with a deer roast served with young potatoes, onions, and carrots. Perhaps for breakfast you're a steak and eggs kind of person; well Miller Bison at Elkhead Ranch has that to. Personally I love to cook and these are the sort of meals I make with the food from the ranch and with the fully equipped kitchen at the guest cabin you too can make these meals (in the right season of course). Join us at our cabin and see all that we have to offer in whatever season you chose to join us. Here I'll just give you a brief overview of the local foods we have when you come to stay with us (just to get your appetite going).

The Pond:

Catfish from Elkhead Lake right here on the ranch.
Our pond, which to me seems more like a small lake, runs just over 30 feet deep and covers 10 acres. The waters are teeming with 17-19 inch catfish (at the current time), some really nice sized bass, and of course plenty of bluegill. If the amazing fishing that the pond offered wasn't enough the pond sits on top of the ranch and has in my opinion the second best view of the sunset and sunrise (the best being the guest cabin's front porch). On three sides the pond is bordered by bison pastures so at the moment when I go fishing I can look over from the dock and see our newborn bison calves playing around with their mothers on the other side of their fence.

The Wildlife:

Everywhere you look there seems to be something, I am constantly spooking up quail, rabbits, and squirrels, being stared at by gorgeous deer, or simply being put in awe at the numerous flocks of turkey I see on a daily basis. These are some of the more common game animals that I see on the ranch but it not uncommon to also find many species of ducks and geese, and even this morning I found a nice sized snapping turtle in the creek. Now folks, I know you may have read that and thought "eww who wants to eat snapping turtle," but trust me, don’t knock it till you try it, those armored tanks can make an amazing meal. While not quite your red-blooded kind of wild life the ranch also sits on some amazing morel ground that is ripe for the picking in the spring and could easily be found on a hike through the forested hillsides and bottoms.


The Chicken Coop
One of the hens with a new baby chick!
We currently have 11 laying hens here, I say currently not because we are going to expand our flock but because one hen just hatched 5 little chicks to add to the flock. We don’t have a rooster because contrary to popular belief they do not crow only first thing in the morning but instead all day and I even once had one that loved crowing right at 1 am every morning.

The fertilized eggs she hatched, if you were wondering, came from Klaires’ parents flock - she went broody and I swapped the eggs out. Our hens are definitely not battery hens, I can promise that, they have a very spacious hen house built by a small local company in Seymour, Missouri and a fenced in yard that is around 250 feet long and about 75 feet wide, as you can see above. These are about as close as you can get to free range chickens without them having to get out of the way of the tractor. We get several eggs a day, more so then we can seem to eat, but they are an amazing variety with white, brown and green eggs. For those curious we have primarily Rhode Island reds, Americana’s, and Barred Rocks.

The Garden:

This year I have started a rather large garden here at the ranch, probably too large for my first year, but it stretches 175 foot long and 25 foot wide. We are growing radishes, onions, carrots, beets, tomatoes, Australian squash, zucchini, several types of peppers, green beans, shell beans, potatoes and I am trying wheat. All of our plants in the garden are heirloom varieties, and I try to grow them as naturally as I can which means a lot of manual weed pulling, hand picking pest insects, mulching, and companion planting. Next to the garden we also grow three beds of sweet corn.

The Bison:

Well last but not least, and the very reason I am here, BISON. Our primary goal here is to raise the highest possible quality of bison. The herd fluctuates, especially right now with calves being born, but our numbers run about 300 head of yearling calves, around 20 cows and so long as no one jumps a fence, 5 bulls. To ensure that we do what's best for the bison, the land, and in the end, your health, we follow a set of grazing principles known as Management Intensive Grazing. I'll do another blog article soon on exactly what that entails, what it means to us, and ultimately the health of the land and the quality of our meat. The short and sweet of it right now is that this allows us to keep our bison happy and on green grass for as much of the year as the grass stays green while building the quality of our soil. And when your bison are happy, you get an amazing result... some of the best meat in the world–available online and on select days at the Farmers Market of the Ozarks in Springfield, MO!  

Honestly sitting here typing all of this is making me rather hungry, and I’m really looking forward to my dinner of a Bison burger on homemade sourdough buns with pan fried zucchini and young onions. Come join us and see where your food does or can come from. Remember folks, eat local when you can but above all eat responsibly and healthily.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Bison Ranch Life: Welding

I figured taking a Construction Tech class and then a more specific welding class in college would become a valuable asset, and boy was I right! I'm fairly close to just calling myself a welder now instead of a ranch manager.

We have had several projects that have needed welded on the ranch and by my estimations I've welded at least 200' of weld beads, and that's a conservative estimation. I really enjoy it though, its nice to sit out, lay out or in some cases hang out there (more on that in a minute) and just be alone with your thoughts while focusing on creating and improving things we use on a regular basis. Here are some of the things that I have been welding on as of late:

Feed Bin:

Our big feed bin was moved to a more permanent location on a concrete slab which made it have less clearance since before there had been a trench under it we were able to drove though. So I welded on some I beams below the two legs to raise it up allowing us to still be able to drive under it. I wasn't certain I would ever be finished with this project! It holds 96 feet of solid weld beads in it alone. But boy does it look good.

Cat Walks:

Working on the Corral System
The corral we have set up here at the ranch is based on a lot of Temple Grandins design principles and therefore has catwalks all around it. But there were a few spots they weren't built in yet so I got to build some catwalks to go around some of the perimeter of the set up. This allows us to have solid sides yet still work the live stock in as stress free a manner as possible. I also put in an overhead catwalk to connect over the load out chute (I'm pretty proud of that one). Along with the catwalk I also welded on some corner braces and a few cross braces over the alley way which was interesting to reach and is what I meant by hanging out there since often times to reach it I just monkeyed out over the edge of the corral to weld them on.


Something always breaks that needs re-welded such as the bale fork and the quicktach bucket arm rests on the tractor. Some things need re-adjusted such as moving where the doors in the corral attach or welding on injection holders to our table out at the corral. Hmm now that I look at this a lot of the welding I have done has been out there on that corral. It is one really nice corral though and it gets better every chance we get to work on it, even though it is already one of the best working chutes I have ever seen. I also welded up our sign out front to be quite a bit sturdier. So now when you drive down county road 557 near Bruner, Missouri, you can't miss us!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

National Bison Association Summer Conference and Ranch Tour 2014

The National Bison Association is known for promoting and preserving the American Bison and serving as a resource for bison producers and enthusiasts.  Up until this week, that was pretty much all I knew about the NBA. Then the long awaited conference ranch tour rolled around – hosted by none other than Miller Bison at Elkhead Ranch. Since Caleb and I came on board in February of this year, just about everything we’ve worked on and projects that have been completed has been in preparation for this conference tour. 

By about 10am on Wednesday June 4th (the day of the tour and the start of the conference), everything was in place. Fencerows were weed-eated, barns, porches and corrals were painted, bison were front and center, tables and chairs were set up, portapotties were installed and bison burgers and hot dogs were on the grill. We were set. 

Bison Shaped Burger Patties on the grill for lunch at the ranch.

The whole Miller Bison at Elkhead Ranch crew was sporting matching polos with our logo, and man, we looked sharp. All we lacked now were the buses full of NBA members. They showed up right when expected, and that was when my real lesson on the NBA began.  

The lunch buffet line went off without a hitch thanks to our catering partners at Club 60!
Loading the busses for the ranch tour.

Randy talking about our corral system during the ranch tour.
People involved in the bison industry are fantastic. I love these people. They are friendly, knowledgeable and curious and have the most giving spirits of any folks I’ve ever seen. Caleb and I moved through the crowd of 200 plus, greeting, visiting and passing out business cards, and people talked to us like we were old friends. Being the ranch managers was something akin to being a celebrity – everyone wanted to compliment us on the ranch and the stock and the amount of work that had been put into the event. 

Lunch was fantastic – and of course featured bison meat – and the tour went off without a hitch. It was a long day, but I was sad to see everyone go.  After cleaning up, the question was “what the heck do we do now?”

The next day, Thursday, June 5th, was a day of conferencing at the Chateau on the Lake in Branson.  It was pretty fancy – all the NBA members had breakfast together and there was a waiter standing by just to pour orange juice!  

One of the panels during the conference.
Then the presentations began. First was a panel on farm-direct marketing with some of the association members. Next we all had a break to visit the vendors that carried awesome homemade products like bison jewelry, home d├ęcor, and socks made from bison hair. Then there was a presentation by Dr. Joseph Craine discussing how the changing climate will affect bison. 

Lunch was the next item on the agenda – bison short ribs donated by the president of the NBA. I don’t like short ribs. But these short ribs…they were magical. I’ve never had anything so good. The short ribs were rivaled only by the pecan pie the Chateau served for dessert. 

The next presentation was made by Wes Olson, one of the premier bison experts in North America. He tackled the question of whether Plains Bison and Woods Bison are subspecies or ecotypes. His well laid out research findings said that Woods and Plains are indeed, subspecies. I found this particular presentation very interesting, since we have both Plains and Woods Cross at on our ranch. 

The final class of the day was presented by Amy and Michael Billings of The Buffalo Lodge in Kingsville, MO. Their talk was of special interest for Caleb and I, because they were recounting their adventures in agritourism, something that we are starting to vamp up at Miller Bison at Elkhead Ranch. 

A painting in the conference room at Chateau on the Lake.

As the day wore on, it became apparent that several of the people Caleb and I had spoken with the previous day at the tour were big names in the bison industry – and we hadn’t had a clue. And that is something that makes these people near and dear to my heart – they are humble. We’re all connected by a pretty fantastic animal, and nobody plays the winning or losing game in this business. It’s all about support, sharing resources, and making friends. That is how we preserve the American Bison, and make memorable, lasting connections. I was moved to tears when a sweet lady named Marilyn, an association member and a vendor, found out that I was getting married in July and proceeded to give me a set of bison themed ornaments for my first Christmas tree as a gift. They are currently hanging in my kitchen until the holidays roll around, and I think of Marilyn every time I see them. A painting in the conference room at Chateau on the Lake.

At dinner that evening (bison top sirloin!), Wes Olson invited us to sit with him and his wife (an outstanding bison photographer) along with some Canadian folks, and a couple from Missouri as well. We all shared stories and swapped bison observations and when Wes found out about Caleb and I’s upcoming wedding, he proposed a very nice toast. When it was time to leave, everyone promised to keep in touch, and several invitations for Caleb and I to come visit and stay with our new friends were extended.

All said and done, it was a pretty great event, and I’m rather sad that it’s over. But it’s nice to know that so many wonderful people are backing what we do here at Miller Bison at Elkhead Ranch – and I can’t wait for the next NBA Conference to roll around!

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