Late afternoon sunlight slants across the pastures around La Monte, silvering millions of spider webs strung between blades of grass. The quiet countryside is interrupted only by the trails of dust that fly in the wakes of pickup trucks moving along the gravel roads.
On a farm close to town, John and Karen Fowler stand together in a field, surveying their herd. Black, white, spotted, short and tall, the animals form a motley group as they loiter in a muddy patch along the fence line.
Although the animals chew their cuds and swish their tails like any cows, they’re actually beefalo, a bison/beef-cattle hybrid the Fowler family has been breeding since the 1970s.
Beefalo breeders say they are bringing the best of bison and beef cattle together.
A beefalo has 17.5 percent to 37.5 percent bison blood with the rest of its genes coming from any beef cattle breed.
Bison have a mix of desirable and undesirable characteristics, as ranchers in North America have long observed. Their thick coats help them withstand cold temperatures, and unlike domestic cattle, they can sweat, which helps them survive hot weather.
However, bison can be aggressive and have the inconvenient ability to get through fences that would stop a domestic cow cold.
Bred with cattle, bison can produce an animal that is docile, resistant to cold and heat, able to grow large on grass and, most important, yield very low-fat, tasty meat.
In beefalo country
To spend a day on the Fowlers’ farm is to be in the presence of true beefalo enthusiasts.
Karen Fowler is a retired teacher, and her husband, John, president of the Missouri Beefalo Association, works as a mechanic in Kansas City in addition to working on the family beefalo farm. His parents were among the first in central Missouri to experiment with breeding the animals.
In the 1970s James and Jewell Fowler heard that a man was coming to Sedalia to sell beefalo semen from one of the first fertile beefalo bulls, so James went to see what it was about.
Interested, he bought semen, and the Fowlers artificially inseminated a cow.
“We could hardly wait to see that first calf,” Jewell said. “We told everybody we were going to have this strange animal, and it looked just like a calf. We were just really ashamed of the thing.”
But the Fowlers kept raising beefalo, using artificial insemination until they were able to buy their first bull, and today they have a herd of 140 to 150 animals on their 380-acre farm.
On a recent tour, John’s father, James, is out threshing soybeans, but his mother, Jewell, is at home. Jewell, 86, is a beefalo advocate. She says beefalo calve easily, forage more than beef cattle and don’t often need to be fed grain.
History of a hybrid
Creating a bison/beef cattle hybrid wasn’t easy. Not because bison and cattle don’t want to get romantically involved, but because that involvement isn’t something on which nature planned.
Now-deceased Montana rancher and former U.S. Sen. Jim Burnett provided a description of his beefalo-breeding program in a 1992 article in the Beefalo Nickel, a trade publication. Inspired by a neighbor’s attempts at crossing bison with domestic beef cattle, Burnett decided to try his hand.
Many dead cows and dead calves followed. According to Burnett, a buildup of amniotic fluid in cows impregnated by bison resulted in the deaths.
Burnett began using smaller bison and younger cows. In 1962, the first live half-and-half calves were born. But one problem remained. While the hybrid females were fertile, the males were not. In the breeding world, a fertile male is much more valuable because he can produce hundreds, maybe thousands, more offspring than a fertile female.
Burnett’s infertile hybrid males became dinner, while the females produced more calves.
Then, in 1965, one of them gave birth to a 75-percent-bison calf designated No. 903.
The amazing thing about No. 903 was that he was fertile, despite the fact that nearly every hybrid male before him had been sterile. No. 903 became the father of the beefalo breed.
Bud Basolo, a California rancher, became No. 903’s No. 1 promoter. Basolo used sperm from Burnett’s bull to found the breed.
The calves sired by No. 903 produced were three-eighths bison, and Basolo decided that this would be the genetic cocktail of a “full-blood” beefalo.
That particular ratio is now regarded as the highest percentage of bison at which hybrid bulls are consistently fertile.
Basolo coined the word beefalo and set out to convince America that it was the next big meat.
Great expectations and reality
In the 1970s, Basolo was selling beefalo as the meat of the future. Today, the meat people expected so much of remains something most people have never heard of.
“People thought they were going to get rich quick, but it’s like anything else, it takes time to build it up,” said Evelyn Garrett, executive director of American Beefalo International.
Vernon Zelch of Bourbon began breeding beefalo in 1977.
“In the ’70s when beefalo was thought to be the next great answer to the beef industry, there were a lot of breeders who began, and just dropped off,” Zelch said.
But Zelch was convinced that beefalo were worth his while, and today he keeps a herd of about 25 registered animals. Zelch is the president of the American Beefalo World Registry, which along with American Beefalo International represents beefalo ranchers. Much of what the two organizations do today revolves around persuading more farmers that they want to raise beefalo so its market can expand.
Convincing farmers to switch to beefalo is a complicated proposition. Missouri supermarkets don’t carry the meat, and most restaurants don’t serve it. Not even specialty stores that sell bison meat have beefalo in stock. Generally, the meat must be purchased directly from a beefalo farmer.
“One of the problems is that if a family has raised one color cattle for four, five generations they’re not going to change,” John Fowler said as he sat at Jewell’s kitchen table. “I’ve talked to thousands of people down at the fair, and they say, ‘If there’s a market for this I’m interested,’ but basically, right now, you have to make your own market.”
The Midwest states, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas all have significant beefalo populations, but not enough to supply a large market.
“There are not enough breeders of size in the same locale,” Jewell said. “If you’re going to sell in a restaurant or store, you’ve got to be able to supply a steady market.”
Stuck in the catch-22 of breeders who need a market and a market that needs breeders, beefalo meat never launched as its early fans expected.
But just because a supermarket or restaurant chain isn’t selling the meat in Missouri doesn’t mean there isn’t profit in beefalo.
Zelch sells meat in the fall and spring. “Most of us rely on local customers, and we sell butchered meat to customers that we have established,” he said. “I sell halves and wholes. I have a lot of customers, husbands and wives who buy a half or a whole from me each year.”
Like Zelch, the Fowlers sell in large quantities, but they also package and sell smaller amounts, down to a half-pound. The Fowlers sell beefalo from their home for 10 cents a pound higher than the average per-pound price for regular beef.
Unlike Missouri, Tennessee has several restaurants that regularly serve beefalo. David Hazelwood, owner of the Parish Patch Farm and Inn in Normandy, Tenn., raises beefalo and serves the meat at the Cortner Mill Restaurant.
Hazelwood says that although some diners won’t try beefalo, most who do think it tastes just like lean beef. When people do identify a difference between the tastes of regular beef and beefalo meat, they usually say the hybrid is slightly sweeter.
According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, beefalo meat has 18 percent to 20 percent protein compared with 10 percent in regular beef, and has 5 percent to 7 percent fat compared to 25 percent to 30 percent in beef.
Although many farmers stopped breeding beefalo when they realized it wasn’t going to make them rich, the bison genes didn’t disappear from their herds. In this way, bison genes have been scattered throughout herds in Missouri and the rest of the U.S.
Loyalty and plans
Both beefalo organizations promote the meat through yearly shows and by encouraging 4-H members to raise the breed. Together, the associations are planning television exposure for the breed through a program called “The Cattle Show.”
The Fowlers’ loyalty to the breed is rooted in their family, and their enthusiasm for beefalo will probably keep them thinking of ways to get beefalo into larger markets.
Standing in the bull field in La Monte, John looks at the herd. “When I was raising cattle I wasn’t much interested in them,” he said. “But I like the beefalo.”