The ways of the bison fascinate ranchers
Each herd of bison has a designated babysitter.
Some cows serve as the lookouts, while one is the herd boss.
"It's the cows that run the herd, not the bulls," says Steve Oberg, who has owned Powell Butte Bison Ranch with his wife, Bev, for the last 12 years.
This is part of what has intrigued Steve about bison since he was a youngster growing up in Montana.
"I think they're such fascinating creatures at every level — physically, individually, herd-wise — their never-ending intrigue of what they do and why they do what they do, and their ability to do those things," he says. "The size, the agility, the attitude, all those things are just fascinating to me, and they always have been."
The Obergs haven't always been bison ranchers.
Bev is an Oregon native and met Steve at the University of Oregon. They've lived all over the country in their 48 years of marriage. They have two children and three grandchildren. They left the university and business life several years ago.
"We retired to do a bison ranch," Bev says.
"She always credits — or blames — that upbringing in Montana as the seed," Steve chuckles.
They moved from Reno, Nevada, and built a home on 115 acres of land in northeast Powell Butte. They built sturdy game fences on the property before purchasing 35 bison from a couple in Bonanza who was about to retire.
Today, they have 75 head of bison.
Last Saturday, they welcomed the public to their ranch while hosting their first Crooked River Open Pastures pop-up farmers market.
The Obergs joined CROP this season at the prompting of Crook County Judge Seth Crawford. The organization has brought more attention to the ranchers, who say a lot of folks had never heard of them before.
Buffalo or bison?
When choosing the name of their ranch, they wanted to be sure to correctly identify their species.
"Technically, their genus of species is bison bison, and most people call them buffalo because of when the pioneers came. Some say it's because it's close to a French word 'le boeuf,' which means an oxen or a work animal," Steve explains.
But, he pointed out, there's an Asian water buffalo species and a Cape buffalo species from Africa.
"What the Americans call a bison is an American buffalo, but you have to go a long ways up the family tree before you can see where they connect, so they're distinctly different species, all three of them," Steve said.
They started using the term bison more than buffalo because there were a couple of places in Powell Butte that started raising water buffalo.
"We didn't want any confusion about that, so we converted to the proper name of bison," he said. "That's the main reason why we emphasize it, even though the words are interchangeable."
They have a closed herd and leave the bulls with the herd year-round.
"We don't bring them in during the heat and move them out again. Same with the calves. We don't wean calves. The family units stay together, and that's kind of important to us," Steve says, adding that it fascinates him to see all the roles within the herd.
"Certain cows have certain jobs. Certain bulls have their responsibilities. The calves react as they grow older, differently as they mature and understand the herd system," he said.
"They can be extremely defensive if you violate their personal space, but as far as being mean, only if they're provoked."
The herd boss has a reputation of being snotty while the two bulls are more laid back and only step up when they're needed.
"If they step up, then you better have a place to go," Steve said.
The two bulls, Charlo and Chief Rocky Boy, are named after Montana Indian tribe chiefs.
Every once in a while, they have to bring in fresh genetics. To keep the diversity going, they go to the National Bison Range in Montana and bring back cows and bulls for their herd.
"They do DNA testing, so they know that they are pure animals genetically, so we keep introducing clean animals," Steve said, noting that their original herd may have some cattle in their lineage. "When you have an opportunity to ensure that your genetics are as good as they can be, then that's what you want to do."
The calves are usually born with rusty-colored hides in the spring, but their coats turn dark as they get older.
The Obergs raise their own hay, so their bison eat pasture grass during season and hay during winter.
"We chose to be as natural in every respect as possible," Steve said. "That includes their feed, their pastures, anything in their daily lives."
Bison are only grass fed, causing them to grow slowly. They don't butcher the bison until they're about 30 months old, which in some cases, is a whole year longer than cattle producers.
"We support them an extra year, and that's one of the reasons why the meat is a little more expensive," Steve said.
Each fall around Thanksgiving, the Obergs host a roundup, where they invite their friends and neighbors to help corral eight or 12 bison and send them to Butcher Boys in Prineville, where they are USDA inspected. Depending on their orders, they will butcher a couple more once or twice in the spring and early summer.
They sell their bison to three restaurants, Dillon's Grill in Prineville as well as The Pig and Pound and E BarGrill, both in Redmond. They also sell to a couple of butcher shops and individual customers.
Steve says grass-fed animals have leaner meat that has a richer taste and a more desirable nutritional profile than other meats. Some describe bison meat as sweeter than beef, but not gamey like some wild meat.
"You have to learn how to cook it, but once you do, a medium or a rare steak is pretty hard to beat," he says. "Once you eat a lot of bison, beef doesn't taste as good."
Powell Butte Bison Ranch
Owners: Steve and Bev Oberg