It was just about 30 years ago when Danny Wilkin saw his first bison during an event for his high school vocational education class.
And since then, he has wanted to raise them.
“I’ve been dreaming of rasing bison for 30 years,” Wilkin said on a blustery day, on his way out to toss hay to his herd.
For a year and a half, Wilkin has been raising bison on his farm just north of Cortez. On Wednesday morning, they kept their distance.
“Bison are very suspicious of people, so a lot of times when you have new people, they want to stay back,” he said as his herd of 14 bison hung back and refused to come up and eat the hay Wilkin had thrown over the fence.
Bison have come back from the brink of extinction. It’s estimated that at one time in North America, bison numbered around 50 million. Today, that number is estimated to be around 500,000. Numbers in the 1890s may have gotten as low as 2,000, according to the National Bison Association.
“They are really neat creatures,” Wilkin said. “The funniest thing is to watch them roll over. They have that big hump, and it make it hard for them.”
While Wilkin is new to raising bison, he isn’t new to farming. He raised pigs for 25 years and grows hay on his 100-acre ranch.
But now that he has bison in his blood, so to speak, he hopes to raise them for 30 years.
“They are such a majestic animal. As they walk across the pasture, you wouldn’t think they would be as fast and quick as they are,” Wilkin said.
In fact, bison can run as fast as 40 mph.
“I try to give them their distance,” Wilkin said. “It is important to remember that they are still wild animals.”
The mothers generally don’t need help calving, and the herd is left alone for the most part, especially since the herd’s bull, called PNV, started to get very large. He’ll get up to 2,000 pounds. The words “bison” and “buffalo” are used interchangeably, but technically, all the buffalo in North America are considered American bison, Wilkin said.
Twelve-year-old Kambria Wilkin said she likes to see the babies.
“They are born red,” she said.
“It is so cool to see the red babies out there and when they are just a few days old, and they will be running with the herd.”
But Kambria Wilkin also keeps her distance.
“See that one right there? She scares me,” she said, pointing to a mother bison with a broken horn. As if on cue, the cow started to snort and stomp. Even standing on the other side of a sturdy fence, it was difficult to feel safe, and Kambria and her mother, Jeanie, stepped a few feet back. The broken-horned mom stopped snorting.
“She is real protective of her baby,” Jeanie Wilkin said.
Jeanie Wilkin has been selling the bison meat at the Cortez Farmers Market and will sell the meat all winter at the Winter Farmers Market at the Four Seasons Nursery in Dolores.
A pound of ground bison sells for about $11. A filet mignon, Kambria’s favorite, sells for between $6 and $19.
Bison, it turns out, is leaner than chicken, according to the National Bison Association.
Bison meat contains 2.42 grams of fat, 143 calories, and 82 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams of cooked lean meat. By comparison, beef contains 9.28 grams of fat, 211 calories, and 86 milligrams of cholesterol; pork: 9.66 grams of fat, 212 calories, 86 milligrams of cholesterol. Skinless chicken contains 7.41 grams of fat, 190 calories, 89 milligrams of cholesterol.
“It takes a lot like beef, but sweeter,” Jeanie Wilkin said.
Wilkin said her family enjoys the meat, but because it is lean you have to cook it a bit differently than you would cook beef.
“It cooks faster, but you can cook it like beef in almost every way,” she said.
The popularity of bison meat is on the rise, Danny Wilkin said.
“Last year there were 44,000 head of bison slaughtered nationwide. That is up 15 percent from the prior year,” he said. “More people like the taste.”
Kambria Wilkin knows the names of most of her dad’s bison. There is Annie, Dram Noel, Alf, Freedom and Steak.
But, Danny Wilkin cautioned, “It is important to remember that they are wild animals.”
Kambria Wilkin said their ranch along U.S. 491 is a traffic-stopper.
“There have been people from Italy, Spain and France that stop to look,” Kambria Wilkin said.
“Everyone likes to look at buffalo,” said Danny Wilkin.