Under an achingly blue sky stretched across the great prairie of Western Canada, Buffalo Bill is holding forth to a group of wide-eyed journalists.This is Bill Ostashewski (left), former school teacher-turned bison rancher. Technically he should be known as "Bison Bill," since only bison, not buffalo, are found in North America. Still, it makes for a good headline, and Bill, a dead ringer for George Custer with his fringe jacket and goatee, only adds to the Wild West feel of this place.
Good timing Bill got into the business at a fortunate time, if you can call a collapsing market fortunate. He bought his herd in 2004 after BSE caused the Canadian cattle industry to crumple. "Although the bison industry did not feed the supplements that went into cattle, the bison industry got hit even worse," he says. Bison once valued at $3,000 per cow were going for fireside prices of $250 per cow.
While the Canadian cattle industry recovered in a few years, markets for bison meat only began to recover last fall. "Last fall was the first time I sold cattle to a feedlot at a decent price," he says. "Until then I was accommodating local, private customers."
Bill's herd began with 70 cows, four bulls and 55 calves, and has grown to 115 cows, 10 bulls and 90 feeders that he plans to sell shortly, with 75 spring calves still growing.
As Bill talks, you can tell one thing: This is a man who knows his bison.
"The bulls are extremely good looking," he says. "I noticed one cow was being courted by a couple bulls, coming to gain attention. One of the bulls actually was licking her on the shoulder, I guess you would call that foreplay. When they're eating grass together, that's how they cuddle up."
Bison could plow right through a regular ol' fence, so Bill's pastures look more like a scene out of Jurassic Park, with high tensile wires looming upwards of 8 feet or so. While bison are mostly docile creatures, they can stampede when provoked. "They don't mind being close to you but they don't like to be touched," he says.
While today's weather is sunny and mild, it can change quickly in this part of the world. Last year nasty winds whipped through here and destroyed grain bins and self-feeders, and toppled trees on to Bill's tall fences. The bison don't appear unfazed by any of it.
Rugged individuals Like the man who runs this operation, bison are rugged individuals, well suited to this part of the world. They eat pasture grass, hay, and oats. Meanwhile, our little group sits down to a tasty lunch of – you guessed it – bison burgers (left). The meat has very little marbling or fat, so it's definitely an acquired taste – but good for you, as Bill reminds us.
"Bison meat beats beef, pork, lamb, even fish, on all the good health categories like low calories, and cholesterol," he says.
And to prove Bill is a man of exhaustive talents, we finished the meal with strawberry short cake – which Bill made himself. If anyone doubted this was truly a renaissance man, the shortcake sealed the deal.
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