Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, October 1, 1999  |  Number 19
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Where The Buffalo Roam

by Mike Perricone

Don Hanson buffalo herdsman at FermilabDon Hanson has been Fermilab's buffalo herdsman for 16 years, although two parts of that statement are not entirely accurate.

First: strictly speaking, those aren't buffalo at Fermilab.

The term "buffalo" is commonly but somewhat inexactly applied to the North American bison (Bison bison), a hoofed, short-horned, hump-shouldered member of the cattle family that can reach a height of more than five feet and a weight of 2,500 pounds, give or takeˇand can run at a speed of 30 miles an hour, usually when in an ill humor.

Of the bison's grazing and cud-chewing cattle-family cousins, the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), native to Africa and Asia, has widespread, curving horns; the European bison or wisent (B. bonasus) is even bigger than the North American bison. For a little additional hide-splitting, the Fermilab bison are plains bison, distinguishing them from woods bison found farther north in Canada. Woods bison tend toward slightly smaller heads and humps than plains bison, though they can be equally disagreeable.

But accurate or not, buffalo is the name they'll go by. "Buffalo" lends itself to symbol, which is the role of the Fermilab herd: a symbol of the frontier, in this case the frontier of high-energy physics, and a link to the origin of the Lab's site as land of the great midwestern prairie. "Buffalo" speaks of a time of big sky, of thundering herds huge enough to shake the earth beyond the horizon, of Plains Indians and their ponies on the hunt, and of sharpshooting Buffalo Bill. ("Bison Bill?" Don't think so.)

As to the second part of that opening statement which is not entirely accurate, a herdsman is defined as someone who drives a group of animals.

"You absolutely cannot drive buffalo," Hanson says with a knowing shake of his head. "You have to kind of lead them. Coax them. Once they think you're trying to push them, they'll just start running like crazy and there's no controlling them whatsoever."

When Hanson slowly drives his truck out onto the 80-acre pasture to give a visitor a closer look at the herd of bulls, cows and calves currently numbering 76, "closer" ends up being 30 or 40 yards away. He describes the buffalo personality in one word: unpredictable. Then he expands on the idea: very, very unpredictable.

"They look so docile, you think you could get right up close and pet them," he says respectfully. "But they snap. One minute, you drive by with the truck and it's no problem, they just kind of look at the truck with curiosity. You can drive by a cow with a calf, and one moment she'll be fine, but the nextˇshe comes at you and hits the truck. They're wild animals. You can't trust them."

There are two fences around the pasture for the herd. The outer fence keeps buffalo-watchers out, separated by about 12 feet from the inner fence, which keeps the buffalo in. The inner fence is electrified, although the buffalo are not completely sanguine about it and they do have horns. Inspecting the fence is a weekly responsibility, to check for breaks in the wire and for electrical insulators knocked off the fence posts. The grassy borderland between the fences makes up about an acre, and takes a full day to mow.

Fermilab purchased its first bull from a breeder in Cheyenne, Wyoming, adding six cows from another breeder Longmont, Colorado. Then in 1971, the herd made a big increase when the State of Illinois donated 21 head to the Lab. Since then, the herd's bloodlines have been augmented by rotating bulls, selling off the bulls and bringing in new blood lines every two or three years. By the age of six or seven years, the bulls get so big (well over a ton) that they're hard to handle. They also don't breed well. Cows, however, will produce calves throughout their lifetime of 20 to 25 years; by contrast, Hanson said, beef cattle produce calves for a maximum of about eight years.

At 76, the herd is currently right at the edge of the density recommended by the State of Illinois Department of Natural Resources; that recommendation is one cow-and-calf unit per acre of the kind of grassland present onsite. The herd will be reduced in size with the sale of 36 or 37 head by sealed-bid auction in October, a change from recent years when the sale was an open auction. After the sealed bids, the animals sold are usually picked up and transported by the breeders through November.

Hanson said that running an effective open auction every other year means carrying over several buffalo through the winter, with the herd growing again when calves are born in the spring. With 30 new calves expected from a herd this size, the population would grow to over 100 and risk overgrazing. A yearly sealed-bid auction maintains the herd at a steady level.

Buffalo breeders are located all over the country; the last open auction drew bidders from 13 states, as far away as Florida. With the switch to sealed bids, bidders are concentrated in Minnesota, Wisconsin and southern Illinois. Mike Vogel, a regular bidder from Minnesota, is starting a second herd composed solely of animals purchased from Fermilab. Vogel supplied the tame bull used in one of the scenes of the film, "Dances With Wolves."

"They keep this huge bull separate from the rest, as a pet," Hanson said. "Mike's wife feeds it Oreo cookies."

It might be nice to think of buffalo leaving Fermilab to serve as symbols in other places, but breeding is a lucrative field with buffalo hides a popular (and pricey) source of clothing ranging from boots to jewelry. Buffalo meat is also marketed as a low-fat, low-cholesterol (but higher-priced) alternative to beef. Breeders and wildlife protective measures have brought the North American bison population back, from a low of about 600 in 1889 to current estimates of more than 200,000.

At Fermilab, the buffalo eat well. They graze during the growing season, and eat hay in the winter. Hanson and the Fermilab Roads and Grounds crews plant and harvest their own hay, from seed produced on the site. The crews cut and bale the hay and put it up in a barn for winterˇabout 4,000 bales, each weighing about 50 pounds. The buffalo are also fed a supplement of corn and protein, about eight pounds a day in summer and increasing to 14 pounds during the winter.

Before winter comes (and before the auction), the buffalo are "coaxed" into the three-acre corral area for inoculations, worming and ear-tagging. With cows and their calves staying together, they move on a circular route through a crowding system of corridors and alleys and end up in a restraining area. Here, cow and calf are separated, each in a stall that adjusts to the size of the animal. A veterinarian provides the inoculations called "Triangle 9," controlling nine different diseases. One shot goes into the shoulder, one into the rump. The inoculations clear the buffalo for shipping to any other state. A worming solution is poured on an animal's back, and absorbed through the skin. Hanson attaches an ear tag with a herd identification number and a state vaccination number for each buffalo, while they're pinned in the stall.

To accommodate the large, unpredictable buffalo, the gateposts in the corral area are 12"-by-12" and sunk into 30 inches of concrete; other posts are 8"-by-8" and sunk in limestone. Hanson adapted the design for the crowding system from standard methods in cattle-breeding, and from his own experience. He comes from five generations of farmers and livestock breeders and some of his favorite childhood memories are of long truck trips from Elburn, Ill. (not far west of the Lab site) to the stockyards on the south side of Chicago.

The old family farm has been sold, but Hanson, who has been at Fermilab for 23 years, recently bought a spread in southern Illinois. When he retires, he and his wife will keep horses and breed livestock.

"Cattle," he says with a knowing nod. "Not buffalo."

last modified 10/1/1999   email Fermilab