Dan O’Brien: Bison, Prairies and Climate Change
BALTIMORE—Dec. 5, 2019. When Dan O’Brien visited the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, we had a chance to talk with him about his buffalo ranch, his ideas about climate change, his fondness for birds and more. He’s a prolific writer, rancher and biologist with expertise in endangered species, especially peregrine falcons. An owner of the Wild Idea Buffalo Company and the Cheyenne River Ranch in South Dakota, O’Brien mostly leaves the animals alone to graze on prairie grasses, as nature intended the native species to do. He prides himself on the “humane harvesting” of his animals, which happens with ceremony and respect, and he champions the restoration for the Great Plains every chance he gets. (This interview has been edited for length.)
How do bison exist symbiotically with the prairies?
They are the original regenerative machine of the grasslands—and you would have to believe in evolution to understand what I'm saying. It's not a question of the buffalo doing the right thing. They just do what they do, and the grass has evolved to not only survive but to thrive under that kind of regimen. They just take the top off the grass and then they move. And they do that naturally. Grazing is good for grass, but overgrazing is bad. And what's important is rest, and all those things are done naturally by buffalo who have the space.
We’re losing the Great Plains, all those prairie lands. What’s at stake?
Perennial grasses have really deep roots. When you kill those, all that carbon—and the roots are carbon—go up into the atmosphere. Western wheatgrass has ten feet of roots. So that conversion is really the issue because when you convert that grass, you lose all your bugs, you lose all your mammals, you lose everything.
When you say “convert” you mean “replace with crop?”
Correct. And almost always crops have a have an extra baggage of chemicals. Regenerative agriculture is what we should be working on.
Your ranch is unusual because there's no corn and there's no feedlot, and it seems like most of the buffalo that you can buy in the supermarket comes from a feedlot.
Almost all of what you can buy is feedlot buffalo, 99% of the buffalo sold is marketed with images of “freedom,” the Wild West and all. It's deceptive advertising.
You harvest your bison with a marksman and a rifle, one at a time. How does that compare to other methods?
If I go to the feedlot or the slaughter plant, it's pretty clear that the animals are stressed. When we harvest in the field, they're not stressed. They're just standing there, and the lights go out.
Your harvests begin with a sage burning. Why?
There was one native guy in particular who was friend of mine, his name was Rocke Afraid of Hawk, and he's a medicine man, and he pretty much insisted that we do some kind of a ceremony. The idea is we burn the sage to purify things, purify the people who are going to kill the buffalo, skin the buffalo, and to purify the rifle. I'm not a religious guy at all, but this makes more sense to me that almost any other ceremony, so I've encouraged it, and we take it pretty seriously.
How about some semantics? You have bison, but your business is called Wild Idea Buffalo Company. Why?
These are not buffalo. These are bison. Bison bison is the Latin name. When Europeans came over, they misnamed a lot of things, like Indians. They knew about the Cape Buffalo [from Africa] and the water buffalo [from Asia], so that's what they called them, and it stuck. But we landed on “buffalo” for this reason: our ranch butts up against the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and they call them “buffalo,” so we call them “buffalo.”
What happens to the parts of the bison that don’t get eaten?
We are subject to USDA regulations, and you can't just leave buffalo parts, or any parts, out on the ground. If I had my choice that's what I would do. Because the death represents energy. You got the guts, you got the head, you got bones, you got hooves––all that stuff is energy that grass has produced. I would like to put it all back in the soil. We went to Pierre, our state capitol, and argued for composting. So we compost. Everything we can't put in a package and sell, we compost on our ranch and we put that back on the ground. We got eagles and coyotes and all kinds of stuff using that. We're pretty proud of that, but it was a big deal to get a permit to do that.
We always hear about how sustainable agriculture is expensive. Have you found that?
You've nailed it. The way we process buffalo is expensive. Grass-fed animals are more expensive than corn-fed animals because corn is subsidized. And that's because corn has a huge lobby. So, it is cheaper to put a pound on [the bison] with corn than it is with grass. And of course, the corn is basically killing the animal, but they slaughter it before it dies. But what about the cost of heart disease? What about the cost of loss of species and habitat? It is literally killing our country, and the world for that matter, and who pays that bill? In the long run, if you can really figure it out, it's cheaper to pay more for good food.
How do your neighbors feel about what you're doing?
We have this huge division in America, as everybody knows, but I think it's probably more pronounced out there. South Dakota is a red state. Where I live, the closest person with a real college degree is eight miles away. When we’re talking about regenerative agriculture and climate change, you have to have a little wider view than what your grandpa did. But, in our part of the world, most people are still looking at their grandpa.
When you get farmland and want to let it go back to prairie, what can you do?
You can get them back, but it takes a long, long time…many, many decades…a hundred years. A healthy prairie has probably 120 species of grass of grasses and forbs. Eventually the fields would go back on their own if they're surrounded by perennial grasses. On our ranch, we've tried different things. We tried just plowing it up and planting with wild grass seed, but wild grass seed is very expensive, because a lot of it is hand-picked, it's very tiny. So you're limited by how much you want to spend. Alfalfa doesn’t do great in a place that doesn’t have a lot of water, so eventually it will die out, and if you can drill that [prairie] grass in as the alfalfa dies out, the grasses can come in, if you get the right rain. It's very, very dependent on climatic conditions. The upshot of the whole thing is it's a whole lot cheaper to keep it in prairie grasses than it is to put it back. A whole lot cheaper. You can't ask an average guy trying to raise a family and send kids to college to convert his ruined farm back to grass, because he'll never make it.
Do you have thoughts about people trying to breed perennial corn, perennial wheat?
I think you're talking about Wes Jackson. He's a great guy and he's making progress, but he himself said that it would be generations before you could do that. And I'm not sure we have that much time. Also, it seems to me that all the energy we spend trying to change the grasses, if we spend that energy talking about the real problems, which are population and consumption, we would probably be more successful. It ain’t easy, don’t get me wrong.
What’s your relationship with the Ted Turner family?
[Ed. note: The Ted Turner family owns most of the commercially produced bison in the country, and uses feedlots and slaughter plants to raise and harvest.] Every time I got a chance I would take a shot at Turner because he really was one of those people trafficking in the legend of buffalo. He wasn't walking the walk. And with his money, he could [if he wanted to]. Turner's guy gave me a call, said “Hey, I'd like to talk to you.” We talked, and he said, “Could we come up there and harvest some of your buffalo and run it through our system?” and it came back exactly the way we thought it would come back. The cortisol was off the chart in those animals that went to the slaughter plant, and ours were just pretty much flat, which is enough reason right there to do it our way. We now have a contract with them.
That’s potentially a huge impact.
I'm 72 years old, and I might not get much more done. But it's the kids. I gave up on trying to talk to old rangers. The kids get it, and they’ve got a dog in the fight.
What else do people need to hear?
We are in a crisis like never before. We're playing for all the marbles here, and we're going to have to get tough. We’re going to have to start talking about population and consumption. And we're going to have to quit beating the earth. I would like people to know that this isn't a hobby. We're fighting for our life here.
For me, this crisis has always been critical. But it's more critical since I’ve had grandchildren. And I get very emotional. I want those kids to be able to walk through our pastures and see all the birds that I can see. And it's going to be a fight to even get that done.