Republic County Kansas FFA tour

The Republic County, Kansas FFA tour group stands in the midst of 200 grazing bison cows on West Bijou Bison Ranch. (From left) Dave Carter, ranch co-owner, Jed Strnad, FFA advisor, Nicole Popelka, Gunnar Sheetz, Carter White, Rhiley Stanton, Katrina Ball, JaeLynn Russell, Tobi Wilber, Ella Pachta, Jena Kunc, Sydney Lewellyn, David Graham, Republic County FFA advisor, Tori Kimbrough, Kansas State University student teaching intern, Heather Hansen.

Even in the digital age, the true grit of an up-close-and-personal experience with nature can never be replicated.

This was the grand experience that the 11 students and three advisors from a junior-senior high school FFA Chapter in Belleville, Kansas felt when they toured the historic, rugged West Bijou Bison Ranch south of Strasburg, Colorado, on Jan. 18. Just 30 miles east of Denver, the group had an enlightening expedition on the ranch while studying 400 head of grazing bison.

“The bison there are really big on intensive rotational grazing,” said Jed Strnad, Republic County Junior-Senior High School FFA advisor and agricultural education instructor, who coordinates the FFA chapter along with FFA advisor David Graham. “They’ve done a lot of research with the understanding of how much impact the tilling of the ground … has on grass recovery. It’s actually healthier for the ground for it to get worked up by the bison, than just to remove the green material.

While watching the American bison — which are typically smaller and shaggier than their buffalo counterparts hailing from Asia and Africa — students on the trip gained valuable insights on caring for bison, as well.

“I enjoyed learning how the (bison) are rotated quickly from paddock to paddock, only grazing an area for a short time,” said Heather Hansen, a senior Republic County FFA member. “I also didn’t realize buffalo don’t need to be checked as often during the winter and during calving season, as they have a very heavy coat to protect them.”

The ag students also learned that when bison calve out, they need less help than cattle and babies are smaller. A 2,000-pound bison cow will have a 40-pound calf as opposed to beef calves that are typically born around 80 pounds.

“Bison are pretty self-sufficient, Strnad said.

The bulls stay with the cows year-round on the ranch and breed when nature dictates.

West Bijou Ranch was proclaimed the country’s 599th national natural landmark in November 2017 by the U.S. Interior Secretary. The original owners sold the land in late 2017, with the help of an organization called The Trust for Public Land, to different groups including Savory Institute/Plains Conservation Center, Arapahoe County, Colorado, and neighboring Elbert County, Colorado.

“Whether it’s to see the natural way bison graze and benefit the land through their hooves churning the soil, or grazing the natural prairie grasses and adding to the nutrients from their droppings, Arapahoe County (Colorado) encourages students to visit this site,” said Arapahoe County Commissioner Jeff Baker.

The land also reveals Native American encampments, arrowheads and pottery shards.

“It’s pretty remote, and students who visit there enjoy a valued treasure that has Native American archaeological, ecological and geological value,” Baker added.

The West Bijou site is all about reclamation of recovery of grassland, to get it back to the way it was in the late 1700s and early 1800s when the “buffalo” roamed. The bison they would’ve migrated through and grazed it down, then moved onto the next area.

Ranch managers only recently applied what they’ve learned from bison to cattle production, with the understanding that intensive rotational grazing practices can benefit the land.

Bison on the West Bijou Ranch are entirely grass-fed, which takes longer than finishing on grain. Cattle might take two to two and a half years to finish out on grass, but bison take up to three to four years. While the animals are marketed off the grass, the ranch also sells heifers to other bison ranches.

The bison ranch tour was an education pit stop on the group’s route to the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver. A former FFA member, Nick Levendofsky, who works with Rocky Mountain Farmers Union in Denver, helped line up the bison tour.

The FFA students looked forward to sharing their stories at a community breakfast during National FFA Week. This year, they’re also focused on teaching fourth-graders about cattle nutrition, the dairy industry and enjoyed making ice cream to showcase the industry’s products.

Amy Hadachek can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.

Amy Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in North Central Kansas. She's also a meteorologist and storm chaser. Amy can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.