HARTFORD, Ky. — Bison are roaming in western Kentucky.
They were brought here five years ago by Ohio County farmer Tyson Sanderfur as a way to expand upon his family’s Livermore Road tobacco, grain, turkey and cattle operations.
“Seems like no one entity is ever doing really good but you put them all together on the farm and just try to make it,” Sanderfur said. “Diversity seems to be the key. We’re diverse in that we have a little of each.”
It was in 2015 that Sanderfur saw a unique opportunity to raise bison, also known as the “American buffalo,” to a certain weight before selling it off to a dedicated meat retailer.
Sanderfur said he approached Bryan Hendrickson, a fellow farmer and college friend from Union County, about the idea of partnering and investing in bison.
Sanderfur and Hendrickson purchased their first 15 head of bison from a seller in Pennsylvania. Their bison herd has now grown to about 60, with half being raised by each of the two farmers.
At Sanderfur’s farm, the bison cows are raised to a finished weight of 1,200 pounds before they’re sold at 24 months old.
“It’s been good,” said Sanderfur about how well the venture has gone. “It is a niche market. It’s not like you can just haul them off to a local stockyard and sell them. You do have to have in-markets for the animals, which we do. And we’ve grown accordingly.”
Bison were almost wiped out in the 1800s with overhunting for their skins and tongues. They were considered an endangered species but no longer.
According to the USDA’s 2017 census (the last year data was available) there were 183,780 bison in the United States being raised on private ranches and farms.
And the National Bison Association reported in January of 2020 that sales of bison meat in restaurants and retail stores “now tops $350 million a year.”
From a health standpoint, bison meat is considerably leaner than beef.
According to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, 100 grams of raw bison (separable lean only) contains 109 calories and 1.8 grams fat. The same amount of raw beef (separable lean only, choice grade) contains 291 calories and 24 grams fat.
Although Sanderfur had experience raising livestock, he said there’s a difference between cattle and bison.
“A beef cow is a domesticated animal,” Sanderfur said. “A bison is still a wild animal; it’s not domesticated no matter how long you keep it or what you do.”
Sanderfur said raising bison is more costly than cattle but that it’s been worth it so far.
“They’re a little bit more expensive just because, like I said, they’re not domesticated but they bring more,” Sanderfur said. “So it kind of offsets one another.”
As for how the public reacts when they see his bison, Sanderfur said it’s common for passersby to pull over out of curiosity.
“I don’t get many questions; it’s mainly just onlookers who will drive by, stop and look,” Sanderfur said. “Every now and then on a nice sunny day, you’ll see somebody out taking pictures.”