HerdDogg ventures into bison territory

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  • Kremer Buffalo is a family-owned operation situated in the eastern foothills of the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. Here, Chad and Suzi Kremer have been working with American bison for nearly 30 years.
  • This buffalo cow/calf ranch runs between 120 to 140 head plus calves each year, rotated through nine main pastures varying from 44 to 400 acres. 
  • Chad Kremer is using HerdDogg to monitor his herd so he can confidently let his animals roam free to forage and graze.
  • We caught up with Chad to learn more about his focus on free-range, grass-fed meat and what insights his HerdDogg system is providing into his herd’s behavior.
Credit: Robb Long Photography

“Every day I come out here to pay my respects to them. Strong, smart, maybe a little belligerent. But I love them. Really, I do.”

Chad Kremer, Buffalo Whisperer (and owner-operator)
Credit: Robb Long Photography

What’s the lowdown on bison?

They are the largest native species in North America and have evolved here for thousands of years. I’ve always been intrigued by the wildness of them, how adapted and athletic they are. And even after working with them for 30 years, I’m still learning new things about them.

I like to say you can “habituate” them — they are certainly not a domesticated animal. We’ve learned how to work with them, work them through corrals, and rotate them in pastures and such. But, ultimately, they are still wild animals. Pro tip: it’s best not to turn your back on them.

Credit: Robb Long Photography

What got you started on bison ranching?

Back in the late eighties I was at an auction where a two-and-a-half-year-old bull had just been sold. They ran him to the next ring outside of the sale ring while they decided where to pen him. And I just remember he made a lap around that small pen, which was about 40 feet in diameter, and stopped in the center. He looked at the five-and-a-half-foot fence, took a couple of steps back, and then jumped right over it and headed off down the alley. The gentlemen that had purchased him was sitting a few rows in front of me, and everybody was laughing and saying how he was going to “have some fun times” when he got that bull home. Anyway, I was amazed. I was like, “That is so cool. I got to have some of these.” It took me a couple of years, but in 1992, I finally bought my first animals.

Describe a day at Kremer ranch

Credit: Robb Long Photography

We’re a pretty hands-off operation, and we do everything we can to graze year round. Our approach is to just give them the room to do what they’ve done for thousands of years. It’s important that they have the right amount of forage, so we are rotationally grazing through the pastures over the course of the year — once in the growing season and then once in the dormant season.

At this time of year there’s not a lot going on, but I still like to get out amongst them and check on them. We emphasize natural grazing but we supplement that now and then with dehydrated alfalfa cubes. Right now, the herd is about 130 head so I’ll take a few buckets a couple of times a week — it’s basically a treat for them.

Bison can fight and challenge each other. So when I’m out with them, I’m checking for general health, making sure that nobody’s sick or injured. Bison can occasionally get pink-eye; as I get closer I can check for that, too. Typically, you see more of it in a year when the forage is high or when the fly load is high. HerdDogg doesn’t completely replace these check-ins, but it means I need to do it less.

What are the benefits of year-round grazing?

You know, it’s the minimum cost way to do it and it brings out the natural genetics in the individual animals, because they’re working for me instead of me working for them. Over the course of the year, all I need to do is manage the forage that’s available in front of them instead of physically hauling hay out to feed them. So, besides the roundup time, they’re out there doing what they do.

Credit: Robb Long Photography

What we’ve noticed is that consumers are becoming more educated as time goes by, but I think still some consumers think that grass-raised or grass-fed should be cheaper. But the thing is, it actually takes longer, takes more time to get that animal to size when you’re not supplemental feeding them. And time comes down to dollars. So if it takes more time for them to get there, a grass-raised animal, and of course it depends a lot on what your grazing and forage conditions are. 

How does animal traceability resonate in bison operations?

This is certainly a big topic in the beef industry. Right now, as a cow-calf operation, I’m mainly selling calves to another producer for more grazing. But eventually my product will end up in the consumer chain and that is where I see the value traceability. The idea that a consumer can scan a code in the store and see that this calf that was initially raised on my ranch — there’s value in that. Consumers, it seems to me, are willing to pay more for that. 

So right now, I think we’re in the infancy stages of this practice, but from what I’m seeing —especially in the last couple of years— out in the marketplace, people want to know how that animal was raised and where it came from. And I think the importance of that is increasing. But it will take cooperation from everybody along the supply chain to make it happen.

Credit: Robb Long Photography

How is HerdDogg helping you be more efficient? 

The terrain around here is pretty varied and extensive so it can be a challenge to really keep tabs on each animal. We’ve set up a couple of the HerdDogg DoggHouses at different locations in the pasture: one is near a gate where they have to come for water, and then another is at the other end of the pasture. So, any time, I can pull the app up and take a look and see, you know, who’s who. With the HerdDogg tags, there is just less monitoring because the app will let me know if a specific animal hasn’t checked in for a while.

Now I’m located pretty close to my pastures, but I know other ranchers that are leasing remote pastures that are two or more hours away. That’s where I can see there’s a big advantage to having a HerdDogg electronic tag reader at a water source — you could check your app and make sure all the animals are visiting. And if one of them isn’t showing up, then it’s more than likely something is awry. So, then you’d know it’s time to make that trip out there to check on them.

What insights into your herd has HerdDogg provided? 

We’re using both kinds of DoggTags: the welfare and the trace tags. It’s been interesting to see the biometrics that are being gathered by them, especially the activity level that’s being recorded and what this tells us about grazing patterns. 

In my experience over the last 30 years, I’ve noticed that they typically graze pretty heavily early in the day and then bed down for a few hours. Then they’ll graze again around midday and bed down again. Movement and grazing activity then increases late in the day. So if you need to move them around, you’d best be doing that when they’re grazing. 

But I’ve often wondered whether they graze at night. Well, with the HerdDogg tag, you can actually see that activity level during the nighttime also. So in fact there is some grazing during the night. Another thing I’ve noticed is that now I’m starting to compare individual animals — how they move and their activity level too. And it’s been interesting to notice that there definitely is a difference between individuals.

And I think the HerdDogg folks are getting some valuable lessons, too. Bison are covered with fur and wool. Their ears are smaller than beef in general and they’re a little thicker, too. So installing the tags can be quite a challenge — you’ve really got to pay attention to where you’re putting them or it’s more likely a tag will get ripped off as animals spar with each other.

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