There I was staring into the eye of a massive 2200 pound animal I had always believed was a called a buffalo. I thought I knew a lot about buffalos. I have probably seen Kevin Costner’s epic film Dances with Wolves a half dozen times. So it was a surprise to learn from Don Edmonds, owner of Edmonds Bison Farm in Lancaster, Virginia, that the almost prehistoric looking beast I was just a few feet away from was actually a bison and not a buffalo. I made a common mistake. What people have come to call a buffalo is actually a bison. There are two subspecies of bison in North America: the Plains bison found in the US and Canada and the Wood bison found mainly in Canada. Don Edmonds says people started making the mistake hundreds of years ago when they first saw the bison in North America and confused them with Water Buffalo. There is also a European bison called the wisent.
In the seventeenth century, it is believed that French explorers who encountered bison in North America named them “les boeufs, meaning oxen or beeves. Later arriving English explorers called them “la buff”. Over the years the word “buffalo” emerged. People in the bison industry are very careful to label their products “bison” to avoid customers thinking they are getting water buffalo when what they are actually getting is bison meat.
Edmonds told me about an Italian restaurant chef who wanted to make buffalo milk mozzarella like they make it in Italy using the actual milk of domestic water buffalo. Don tried to explain his animals were bison and not buffalo, but the man insisted. In desperation Don said, “If you think you can milk one of my bison, go right ahead.” The chef took a second look at the massive bison cows and reconsidered. The disappointed chef soon left.
Since their principle diet is grass, they eat as much grass as cattle. Hay is used to supplement their diet. Among Don’s herd there can be seen a large number of calves. Bison calves weigh 25 to 35 lbs. at birth. Within just a few hours after their birth they are up walking or running after their mothers. The births are carried out by the bison cow with no assistance from the farmer. Most calves are born in May, but calves may be born from April to August and even later.
A bison may live 20 to 25 years and in that period of time a cow, after she is two years old, can produce a calf every year. Bison calves are normally weaned when they are around six months old and weighing anywhere from 350 lbs to 425 lbs. A mature bison bull will weigh approximately 2000 lbs, while a mature bison cow will weigh approximately 1100 lbs.
I could not help noticing that Don was armed with a pistol. When I asked why, he explained the bison are not domestic animals and need to be treated with caution and respect. Each animal has its own personality while some may be tamer than others. However, Don said you never want to get between a cow and her calf. Nor do you want to be between a bull and a cow during mating season. Hence, Don is armed in the rare event that a bison may turn aggressive and attack him. Watching them graze in the pastures, bison appear to be slow moving animals, but when they want to they can run at a speed of 30 mph. Some bison become tamer than others. Don’s first bull named “Big Guy” actually comes to the fence when Don appears. He pushes through the herd and “talks” to Don with a series of roars similar to a lion.
Don Edmonds attended Kansas City Art Institute where he majored in art. He studied to be a veterinary technician. He came from Chicago, but has always had a love of farming. Don bought some land and established Edmonds Farm in 1997. Don and his wife Kim, along with their young daughters, Valerie and Veronica, run the farm aided by a staff of three.
Edmonds Farm also raises pigs, goats, ostrich, ducks, chickens and hay. There are some horses and quail too, but essentially the main business of the farm is the raising of bison. In the early days, Don was able to name each cow and bull. In 2003 there was one baby born to “Da B-h”. By 2004 there were five babies. There were Girls for “Cocoa” and “Tweek.” and there three boys for “Butters” and “Da B-h.” In 2005, there were more babies. “Pawnee” had a boy. “Tweek” had a girl. “Cocoa” had a girl. “Marilyn” had a boy. These and calves from “Butters”, “Da B-h”, and “Princess” were sired by the bull “Big Guy”. Don said now that the herd has grown so large he no longer names the bison.
The raising of bison is very similar to cattle. Veteran bison farmers will tell you that bison are much smarter and infinitely more interesting to raise than cattle. They are definitely harder to handle and cannot be tamed. Don showed us an Agway gate that had been attacked by one of his bison bulls. While some bison may grow familiar with humans, many will not tolerate anyone coming near them. That trait makes it harder to raise bison than cattle. Bison grow at a slower rate and are not castrated to ease their temperament as are beef cattle, mainly because most veterinarians are reluctant to deal with them.
Don explained that bison will fight with each other for hours. He pointed out a bison with a horn curved downward. The horns normally curve upward, but the horn was twisted out of position during a furious fight with another bison. Bison are tenacious. Don told me a story about one of his bulls that dragged a heavy tractor tire about 100 yards across a pasture to use it to beat on a fence gate. When Don discovered the damage, he moved the tire back to where it was originally. The next day the bull dragged the same tire back across the pasture and again began to batter the gate.
As much as Don clearly loves his animals, he is aware they must earn their keep. For the chickens, that means laying some very colorful eggs, some pale blue and others chocolate brown in color. Bison are raised to be marketed as bison meat. Bison meat is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than beef, pork, and skinless chicken. In the last several years consumer demand for bison meat has increased dramatically. Edmonds Farm bison meat is sold at the farm by appointment and through weekly drop offs. They also sell their meat at several Farmer’s Markets including: the Irvington Farmer’s Market, Warsaw Farmer’s Market, Tappahannock Farmer’s Market, South of the James Farmer’s Market in Richmond, Yorktown Farmer’s Market, Old Beach Market in Virginia Beach and the East Beach Market in Newport News. For other locations, call the farm at 804-366-4730.
Bison meat contains 2.42 grams of fat, 143 calories, and 82 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams of cooked meat. That is far better than beef which contains 9.28 grams of fat, 211 calories, and 86 milligrams of cholesterol. Pork comes in at 9.66 grams of fat, 212 calories, and 86 milligrams of cholesterol. Skinless chicken has 7.41 grams of fat, 190 calories and 89 milligrams of cholesterol.
The National Bison Association at www.bisoncentral.com recommends grilling bison steak. Rub your favorite 6 oz. cut of bison steak with a combination of a little garlic salt, cooking oil and lemon pepper. Grill steaks 4-6 inches above medium hot coals (325 degrees) for the following times, depending on thickness: 1” thick- rare: 6-8 minutes, medium 8-10 minutes. 1 ½” – rare 8-10 minutes, medium 10-12 minutes. 2” thick – rare 10-12 minutes, medium
14 -18 minutes.
Don Edmonds prefers searing the steaks for 30 seconds on each side in a cast iron pan heated in the oven, set on broil to 500 degrees, then place the pan in the oven and cook for 3 minutes for each side. Be sure you have a good pair of oven gloves when handling the hot cast iron pan.
No matter how you cook it, bison meat is better for you because there are absolutely no hormones or antibiotics added to the meat by Federal law. Bison meat from Don Edmonds farm is especially good because of the tender loving care Don puts into caring for his animals. One needs only a short time with Don Edmonds before it become very obvious Don truly loves his farm and the animals he raises. He is a staunch believer in the merits of bison meat as a healthy substitute for traditional meats. Don Edmonds is a very knowledgeable and interesting young man, dedicated to his work, his family, his animals and the future of bison farming. For more details about the Edmond’s Farm, to buy bison meat and perhaps to arrange a visit, go on line to www.edmondsfarm.com.