Looking Back 4: Buffalo

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Some of our animal adventures originated from critters we didn’t own. We had a neighbor who moved his buffalo onto the property adjacent to ours. He’d recently moved back to his home town and had purchased the land next to ours to pasture his buffalo. The problem was that he lived about 90 miles away so tending them in the winter was problematic. We offered to feed them from hay he purchased and stacked nearby. While we didn’t ask for it, we also received some of the best meat imaginable whenever he butchered one of them.

Originally he stacked the hay inside the pasture with a wood fence around it. That turned into a buffalo all-you-can-eat buffet when they knocked the fence to the ground. After that he stacked it outside the pasture, and I threw it over the fence. It was normally just two or three bales per day, and we didn’t mind doing it. We went for daily walks past there anyway, and it was kind of a novelty to have buffalo next door. Most of the time the feeding was uneventful but there were a couple of times it got interesting.

At first I went through the fence to scatter the hay so that the younger ones could get to it. Buffalo have a distinct hierarchy and the biggest and baddest of the group ate first, which left the calves and some of the cows standing on the fringe and looking with longing while the others feasted.

One time I noticed the two calves playing. They’d drop their heads and charge each other in their mock battle for supremacy. Then one of them eyed me and dropped his head to include me in the game. The thought of being butted by a buffalo didn’t thrill me. Even though they were calves, they probably still tripped the scales at 250 pounds each. I began to back toward a thick stand of lodge-pole pine. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed one of the mothers coming after me from the side. It was obvious that her intentions were not playful!

By then I was in my safe haven of trees and slowly working my way to the fence. She decided the threat was over, the calf went back to playing with his half-brother, and I vowed to just throw the hay over the fence if they were there at feeding time (they usually were).

The pasture fence is about 7 feet high and made from high tension electrified wire. It would probably stop a Boeing 747 without breaking. We nicknamed the place Jurassic Park the first time we saw the fence. I did a lot of haying as a teenager so I knew how to toss a bale of hay over obstructions, but it was still kind of an annoyance because it invariably rained dirt and stems down on me with each throw. If they weren’t present, I’d just drag the bales inside the pasture.

We used to have a German Shepherd that had to be the Alpha dog with every animal he met. He didn’t start fights normally, but he never turned one down. We usually kept him in the kennel because he liked to wander and fight with the neighbor’s dogs. One day I had him with me when I fed the buffalo. For some reason I didn’t think he’d fight with them. That was a huge error on my part. The herd of seven was waiting at the feeding area when I showed up. My dog ran over to sniff noses with the herd cow (there was no bull at that time). She gave him a quick sniff then tried to hook him with her horns. The fight was on!

If you’ve never seen a buffalo in action you’ll never believe how fast they are. They can twist and turn at lightning speed. The dog was pretty quick too, and within seconds there was a big cloud of dust as the dog and cow each tried to do the other one in. The others just stood back and watched to see what happened. I was yelling at the dog trying to get him to break off the fight and was being completely ignored. Finally the old cow cornered the dog in the same stand of lodge-pole pine I’d retreated to at an earlier time. By then it was thicker than before and the dog had to worm his way backwards through the trees. At the same time the cow was still trying to hook him with her horns. I saw him bite once on her horn tip and break off one of his canine teeth. He was really mad then, and he came out of the trees trying his best to kill that cow. They made the previous battle look like a rehearsal as they went at it in earnest.

The fight probably only lasted about five minutes until I finally got the dog’s attention and he came, panting to my side. I thought the old cow was going to come through the fence, but she decided against it and took her group back into the woods.

One other bright, sunshiny day, my wife and I decided to take our little S-10 pickup over to shovel in some buffalo manure to use as fertilizer. We thought it would be easy to just drive through the pasture to where we fed them and scoop the manure into the truck. The herd bull didn’t like that idea.

We drove past a clump of trees about 50 yards into the pasture and the bull spotted us. I’d been in the pasture on foot and never had any problems, but that day was different. I don’t know if he thought it was a territorial dispute or he just didn’t like Chevy trucks, but he came charging across the pasture like he meant to stomp us, and the truck, into the ground.

I had my .338 Winchester Magnum with me but really didn’t want to shoot him so we waited to see what would happen. About 30 yards out he did one of those crow-hopping, pogo stick stops. I swear that we could feel the ground shake! He blew some more snot and pawed the ground then ran back to his starting point. I put the truck in reverse to back out and he charged again. This time he stopped a little closer.

When he turned away, I backed up a little more. When we were close enough to the gate, my wife jumped out and raced back to the gate and dove under it. She unhooked the chain from the outside and waited to swing the gate open. When he turned away from the next charge, she opened the gate and I backed out onto the road. She shut the gate and chained it and we drove back home. We never did get that last load of manure for the garden.

Eventually the buffalo escaped their pasture. We didn’t know it (there’s a ridge between us) until we received a call from our son who is on the local fire department. It seems he heard a call from dispatch over his fire radio saying that there was a bull buffalo challenging cars on a local road. He asked for more details then said he knew how to contact the owner. He called us and we called the owner.

The owner came over the next day with a stock trailer, ATV complete with a winch, and some friends. We located the buffalo and he shot them and we all took part in butchering them. We got half of the smallest one.

One of people near where the buffalo had spent the night was upset about him killing them but there were no realistic alternatives. They were not like cattle that could be herded. They’d be more likely to charge the horses! They were also adjacent to millions of acres of national forest with no fence between them. Any attempt to herd them would have sent them miles into a virtual wilderness where finding them would be much more difficult. Luring them in with feed was also useless since they were already belly deep in grass plus there were no fences anywhere near that could keep them captive. These guys had traveled over five miles through thick forest and over a couple of mountain ridges to get where they were. There was no way to get them back into their pasture. So, they were shot, and we spent the afternoon skinning and quartering them.

We miss having them around, but that’s the way things often happen in the country.

Next time I’ll tell of some of our adventures with grizzly bears. I’ll continue our story in future posts and some of them will be about animals we’ve had to deal with over the years and the sometimes good, sometimes bad experiences they’ve given us.

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, you might want to check into my book, Creating the Low Budget Homestead (available in the GRIT bookstore). It’s filled with homesteading advice you won’t find anywhere else. Most homesteading books tell you how to raise livestock, grow a garden and preserve your harvest. My book focuses on how to pursue your homesteading dream on a budget that would make Ebeneezer Scrooge envious.

You may also view my blog, Living Life Off the Grid.