SMYRNA, Maine — There’s a lot to love about raising bison for meat, according to Linda White.
The best part? How little day-to-day work is actually involved.
“They are really self-sufficient animals,” White said. “They forage on their own, and all we do is put out hay for them, [and] the hardest part is putting up the 600 bales of hay we use every year.”
There are 33 bison roaming on 50 acres of White’s Tatonka Spirit Ranch. Tatonka is the Dakota/Lakota/Nakota word for bison.
“Actually, there could be more,” she said recently sitting at her kitchen table. “The cows are having calves now, and new baby bison just keep showing up.”
The bison require no midwifery, and White said they are an animal best kept at a respectful distance at the best of times.
“They don’t need any help from me with the calves,” she said. “And it can be hard to count the calves if they stay hidden behind their mommas.”
White got into bison six years ago when she and her late husband, Casey White, purchased a bull and four females with the idea to breed them for the meat. They named the farm after that first bull, Tatonka, who tragically froze to death after falling into a pond and was unable to pull himself back out.
“Casey got to see two [calves] born on the farm before he passed,” Linda White said. “Right off I was very lucky because a lot of local people stepped in to help.”
One of those who stepped in was Randy Lee, who White described as her “significant, significant-other” and who convinced her to stay in the bison business.
“I was ready to sell them all early on,” White said. “But then Randy came on board, and he was all about keeping going.”
Together, the couple increased the herd in size and quality to the point White felt she was ready to slaughter, butcher and sell the meat this past January. For now, the meat is available exclusively at White’s Oakfield convenience store Whitey’s Market. With the bison burger selling for $9 per pound and a strip steak running about $13, White said bison is a pricey option when compared to buying beef in the supermarket.
“But I had a feeling it would sell well,” she said. “People here are really liking it and keep coming back for more.”
Most of what White sells is the burger as there is simply not a lot of steak or roast cuts on a bison.
“They have really tiny hinies,” she joked, pointing at the animals’ thin back legs and rump.
The trick, Lee said, is to cook the meat “slow and easy” and never cook it past medium rare.
According to the National Bison Association, a lot of people are liking it with sales of bison meat in restaurants and retail stores topping $340 million in 2015. A large part of why people are willing to pay more than double for bison as they would for grocery store beef is quality, according to White.
The bison association’s data backs that up saying the meat “offers great flavor, nutritional benefits and environmental sustainability.” Federal regulations prohibit the use of artificial growth hormones in bison and industry protocol limits the use of antibiotics to only the amounts needed to treat illness.
As long as the bison have ample pasture, water and access to hay to supplement their wild forage, they are happy, White said. They don’t even need a barn, preferring to spend their lives out in the open or under trees. White’s bison can often be seen from the road, and it’s not uncommon for people to stop and snap a few photos.
Sometimes bison Willy and his herd will oblige by wandering near the fenceline, but White stresses people should never attempt to enter the enclosure with the animals.
“They are a wild animal,” she said. “I trust them — to a point — but I also respect them.”
On a humid and buggy northern Maine May day, White and Lee used cracked corn to entice the herd to come a bit closer. While the adults ambled slowly, their shaggy heads moving side to side, the newborn calves ran and jumped chasing each other around the field.
“There’s Willy,” White said as a massive male approached the fence. “Isn’t he magnificent?”
The 7-year-old bull tips the scales at 1,400 pounds, and White said not to let his slow pace or stoic demeanor fool you.
“Bison can run at 35 mph for seven miles,” White said. “And they can do a 6-foot standing leap straight up in the air.”
White and Lee said they have become students of bison behavior.
“We are always learning, and it’s been a lot of trial and error,” White said. “Luckily, not a lot of error, [and] I’ve not seen one being born yet, dammit.”
During the winter, she said, it’s not uncommon to look outside and see the bison placidly standing in a snowstorm.
“The snow does not even melt on them they are so well insulated,” she said. “I’ll look out, and all I see are a bunch of white lumps.”
Some of the bison do have names — along with Willy, there is Cupcake and Skinny. Others are simply known by their ear-tag numbers.
“Linda wants them to have names,” a pragmatic Lee said. “So I’ve named some ribeye and tenderloin and steak.”
For now, 50 acres is enough for the existing herd, but White said if they want to expand, they will need more land.
White and Lee are not the only bison ranchers in Maine. Beech Hill Farm & Bison Ranch in Waterford and Hackmatack Farm in Berwick also are raising the animals for meat.
White said she has no regrets getting into bison and feels the solid, self-reliant animals are perfect for the region.
“It’s really been fun,” she said. “I’d like to see them roaming all over Maine.”