by Jessie Turney
My name is Jessie. My husband, Drew and I own Win-Tur Bison Farm in Springdale, WA. We kind of fell into raising bison and becoming farmers.
Drew and I lived in Boulder, CO and owned a professional sewing business. After 9/11 our business suffered due to economic down-turn so we were forced to make some changes. We had to face the facts that we could no longer afford to live in Boulder. My mom, Georgia, was always begging us to come help her manage a 900 acre bison ranch she and her husband owned in central WI. They raised 300-400 head of bison and could use some help with the ranch.
In 2005, we decided to take her up on her offer and made the big move. Boy, were we in for some major changes. First, was culture shock! Moving from a small city to a tiny rural town was quite different What?! No Starbucks? Second, was the adjustment to raising livestock, haying, running a meat business, an agritourism business and everything else that comes with farming. Third, was the WI weather! Harsh winters and hot, muggy summers, uggg. I think what was most shocking, though, was how the new lifestyle fit us like a glove. Drew dealt primarily with the herd and pasture management as well as all aspects of haying. I helped my mom with herd management, herd health, the meat business, her leather business and the agritourism business. I also got to raise the orphan calves which I enjoyed immensely.
Our new “job” was super hard work with lots of ups and downs but, super fun, too! We were growing by leaps and bounds and helping turn the ranch into a successful business. Then my mom got cancer. Everything changed.
We lost Mom February 2011. My former step-father wanted to take over the ranch management and we were no longer welcome there. It was time for another life change. To make things more challenging, we now owned 9 bison. They were my former bottle babies and we couldn’t leave them behind. Not easy to move with livestock. Luckily, a good friend offered to keep our small herd until we could find a farm of our own.
In October of 2011 we found our “perfect” place in Springdale, WA and moved in January 2012. Priority one was building a corral and installing electric fencing for the bison. In May 2012 we had them trucked in. That was the beginning of our little 50 acre bison farm.
Our primary focus of the farm is our agritourism business. We offer tours and an opportunity for people to meet and feed the bison, with a fence in between, of course! Because we are limited by the size of our farm, we cannot expand our herd. We will always keep our core group of 9 and will sell or butcher the off-spring. Also, I have a growing Etsy business making cat and dog toys out of bison leather I inherited from my mom.
We love our farm, the bison and are honored to carry on my mom’s legacy.
At Win-Tur Bison Farm, we offer fun, educational tours of our farm. People hear our story, learn a little bison history and animal facts and, the best part, enjoy an opportunity to meet and feed our small herd of bison.
Agritourism is fast becoming another way for farmers to increase their income. It can be a tough job inviting strangers on to your farm, there are some key points to think about, i.e. liability insurance, farm safety, animal safety, marketing, wheelchair access, parking, rest room availability, etc. An absolute must, and this is a big one, you really need to like people and be able to communicate easily with them. There will be many families coming to your farm so kid-friendly areas and fun things for them to do are necessary. Here, we let the kids feed the chickens and have a photo op board. We will be offering more things as we can. For additional interest and income, we have a small gift shop where we sell souvenirs, art, handmade items and more.
Although it can be challenging at times, the pay-off is seeing the reactions of people when they get to meet the bison and actually feed them. It is rewarding knowing we are offering fun, unique activities that families, seniors, people from all walks of life can come and enjoy with a little dose of education, too!
If you decide to offer tours at your farm, be prepared to answer a lot of questions! I have included a few that we get on a regular basis.
Top 10+ Questions we are asked when doing tours:
1. Is there a difference between bison and buffalo?
Yes and no. The American Bison is often called an American Buffalo. The correct name for them is bison (bison bison bison). A true Buffalo is the African Buffalo aka Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) or the Asian Buffalo aka Water Buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). There are several theories on how the term “Buffalo” got attached to the bison. One is that when the settlers first saw the magnificent creatures they thought they were a type of Asian or African Buffalo so they called them Buffalo. The term stuck so, for over 200 years, the term Buffalo has been used and has become a common name.
2. Are they tame? (can you milk them, can you walk amongst them, can you ride them, can you hug/pet them?)
An emphatic NO! Bison are not domesticated. They are still quite wild and unpredictable. Even my bottle babies are not tame. In fact, they can be more dangerous because they have no fear of humans. We must constantly watch our backs, we don’t walk amongst them and we always treat them as “wild critters”.
Since they are not domesticated, you cannot milk them. They don’t have enough milk to make it worthwhile, anyway.
There are some extremely rare instances where people have been able to tame a “willing” bison to be able to ride and interact with. They are usually castrated bulls that have had countless hours dedicated to training. Even then, some of them will not respond to the training and cannot be ridden or handled.
There are a few of my bottle babies that I can pet. It is always with a fence between us and on their terms! Hugs are out of the question, too.
3. What do they eat?
Their natural diet is grass, some weeds and hay. Some producers do feed grain.
4. How long do they live?
Bison can live 25 years and have even been known to live to 40 in captivity.
5. How many calves do they have? Gestation? When do they generally calf?
Bison usually have one calf each Spring. It is very rare for them to have twins. They do not have the milk production to support twins and will often reject one. The gestation is about 9 months.
6. What noises do they make, do they moo like cattle?
They make grunting noises that sounds a lot like a pig. They also “chuff”. When on alert, they will growl or bellow. When they are very agitated they will roar like a lion!
7. How fast can they run? Can they jump?
They can run 30-40 mph, stop on a dime and jump 6 feet from a standstill.
8. Do they fight?
Typically bison get along since they are very social creatures. However, there can be tussles over food, water, favorite wallow spots and general hierarchy. During rut, the breed season, the bulls
will fight very aggressively, sometimes to the death.
9. Do they play?
Yes! They are quite playful and feisty. They like to run around bellowing, kicking, bucking and head butting. We even have balls and tires for them to play with! It is so much fun to watch!
10. And, the most aggravating question: Can you make a living doing “this”?
I have yet to come up with the “perfect” answer to this question. I find it intrusive and a very personal question. I would never ask anyone about their income status. The best answer I have come up with to date is “well, we are farmers…..” and just let it hang in the air for a moment then change the subject.
Cutest question ever asked was by a little girl when her mother told her she was going to get to feed a buffalo. She asked “Do I have to put a quarter in it?”