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Cracker Barrel: Wild idea

Last week’s unseasonable snowstorm in the Black Hills of South Dakota, with its attendant images of frozen cattle and buried automobiles, underscored the insights of a fascinating book by Dan O’Brien titled “Buffalo For the Broken Heart.”

O’Brien’s been a cattle rancher on the Great Plains most of his life, and part of the title of his book refers to the name of his ranch, The Broken Heart. It also refers to the Great Plains itself, the semi-arid heartland of America.

As the recent blizzard made clear, raising beef cattle is not a job for the faint of heart. Many ranchers lost 20 to 50 percent of their stock. The heavy wet snow stuck to the cattle’s hair and made them soaking wet. Then freezing temps and 70 mph winds chilled the animals until they died of exposure.

Combine that sort of freakish weather with the endless up and down oscillations of beef prices, the constant rise in fuel and feed costs, and the vagaries of the financial markets upon which all small businesses depend, and you get the kind of ulcer-producing lifestyle that O’Brien and his fellow ranchers endure.

But little by little O’Brien began to realize that maybe there was a better way. His reading of history informed him that the Great Plains, that quarter of America currently holding only a tiny percentage of its citizenry, was once home to an estimated 60 million head of buffalo. He further learned that the various grasses that grew there had evolved in conjunction with the buffalo, and worked in harmony together.

Beef cattle, essentially native to Europe, have never been very well fitted to life on the plains. Driven by nature to graze available grasses down tight to the ground, their presence in a semi-arid part of the world has always proved iffy. And their widespread occupation of the land, claims O’Brien, has repeatedly led to dust storms and soil erosion.

After much deliberation and a great deal of fact-finding, O’Brien decided to make the switch from raising cattle to raising buffalo. As might be expected, his new venture was fraught with unforeseen difficulties.

He found, to his chagrin, that buffalo are not natural respecters of fences, which forced him to make unexpected outlays of time and money in bolstering his boundaries. But the difference in grazing patterns allowed him to remove most of the cross-fencing required by cattle, and within months of shifting to buffalo, the land itself began to heal.

The way the hooves of the buffalo aerated the ground seemed to prompt the regrowth of certain grasses. The way the bulls loved to roll in mud or dust created countless wallows, into which rainwater gathered and to which hundreds of birds and small animals came to drink.

The natural density of the buffalo’s wool coats kept them insulated from winter storms, and their tendency to graze together as one herd and then abruptly move to graze elsewhere allowed the overstressed grasses to regain their vigor and shoot to new heights.

After a few years of observing the changes the buffalo brought to his ranch, O’Brien came to believe that the early settlers’ decision to run beef on the Great Plains was probably a mistake.

“Only buffalo are a force that can match the scale of this land,” he writes. “Only buffalo have the power to massage this land back to health.”

In every way, including financially, O’Brien came to celebrate his new-found charges.

“Our little herd of buffalo ran up and down the hills of the ranch like a pack of lively sixth graders. They chased one another like kittens or fox puppies. When they took a notion to, they ran down to the pond for a drink, or even a swim. Then they ran back to a ridge top to stand in the Dakota wind. They seemed to use the wind instead of fighting it. … They didn’t shrink from the elements like cattle and sheep did. The animal-stress triumvirate of the northern Great Plains — heat, cold, and wind — seemed to have no effect on them.”

But enough. If you get a chance, read the book. I guarantee it’s worth your time.

Copyright 2013 by Craig Nagel