Grazing Bison at McHenry County Conservation District- A New Venture

By Adam Rex- Restoration Ecologist, McHenry County Conservation District

Entrance gate into the new bison pasture

McHenry County Conservation District has been leasing ground at the 2080 acre Pleasant Valley Conservation Area for cattle grazing for many years. Even before the district owned Pleasant Valley the land was utilized by a large cattle operation on the north end of the property. This was an intensively managed cattle operation with concrete corrals and complex feed lots. Like so many large scale cattle grazing operations the land was overgrazed resulting in little to no ecological diversity.

After the district purchased the property they started leasing ground to local cattle farmers splitting the north side of Pleasant Valley into two grazing areas which we refer to now as the east and west pastures. The contracts that were initially agreed to definitely favored the farmers as opposed to the ecological benefits of the grasslands. When the cattle leases ended for the previous tenant on the east and west pastures MCCD started thinking of other ways to manage the grasslands with grazing. We started learning about rotational grazing, patch burn grazing and continuous grazing methods using sheep, cattle or even bison.  After a lot of research and attending a grazing workshop with Wisconsin DNR we felt that a patch burn grazing/rotational grazing method was the right direction for us. The 188-acre East pasture is now leased to a local farmer who is rotating significantly fewer cattle and sheep with great results. District staff felt the West pasture would provide a great opportunity to incorporate additional grazing on a large newly created prairie restoration.

Former cattle operation corral and feedlot buildings.

A Request for Proposal was put out to the public for a rotational grazing plan at Pleasant Valley Conservation Area with optimizing grassland bird habitat as the focal point. This proposal was to be for either cattle or bison.  

Once the proposals came in, the winning proposal was from Ruhter Bison (www.ruhterbison.com). Their plan is to graze a non-breeding herd of bison for meat production. This herd of 1 to 3 ½ year old animals will remain on the site until sold.

On the top of their priorities is the importance of using the bison to meet the ecological goals that we have for the area. It is evident by viewing their own ranch that this is something very important to them which is obviously very important to us. Educating the public on bison and the project itself is also important to both parties and will be a large part of future planning. MCCD plans on using the bison as a tool to assist us in restoring the ecological system to our prairies as well as educating the public on this iconic part of the American prairie and the part it plays.

Since we now knew there was a high likelihood of bison being on conservation district property we felt that we needed to educate ourselves on bison and bison handling. Although Ruhter Bison would ultimately be responsible for the care and control of the bison, we felt we need to be ready for whatever situation could arise. We began talking to other agencies including Nachusa Grasslands and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, who have both successfully reintroduced bison. We spoke with a bison professional from a Turner Bison Ranch in Nebraska, which was extremely informative. We also gathered as much knowledge from literature and lessons learned from the bison world as we could.

Finally and most importantly we visited the Ruhter family bison ranch in central IL. We observed their corral, fencing and assisted in loading two of their bison onto a trailer. It was a great time to discuss their procedures and philosophy on bison handling. They exercise a low stress method of handling, using positive reinforcement by luring them with mineral cakes, which is very effective and used by many bison managers.

Ruhter bison herd
MCCD Restoration Ecologist Chris Zeiner manning the trailer awaiting a young bison bull to load.
MCCD Restoration Ecologist John Peters using the big guns to take down an old corn crib.

As part of the lease MCCD agreed to remove all remaining cattle fence as it was inadequate to hold bison. We also needed to get rid of an old corn crib, concrete slab, and many old tires and other garbage. This part of the project took a team effort including a great volunteer group who knocked out a large chunk of the fence in one day. The natural resources crew took care of the rest, and after four large metal dumpsters and three large garbage dumpsters were filled, the first phase of the cleanup was done.

MCCD Restoration Ecologist Jeff Murray, Nathan Grah, and Paul Bruett pulling fence.
Piles and piles of old fence and posts that were not adequate for bison.
Pulling fence posts and fencing with the Terex track loader.

In early September the tenant began building the fence. The whole fence was up in about a week with a five foot woven wire fence with a three foot stand off and top electric wires. Gates were strategically placed to accommodate expansion onto an additional 80 acres that is currently corn and will be planted to tallgrass prairie this coming winter. The first phase of the project is 30 acres in size and will begin with a small number of animals increasing when the new acres of prairie are established for grazing. The final acreage that will be grazed is about 188 acres.

This is a long term project with potential to grow and we are excited to see where this partnership goes in the future. Even in the early stages this project has required and will continue to require assistance from every department at MCCD, this is definitely a district wide team effort including the support of our board. With proper management it should improve the ecological value of the site, provide great grassland bird habitat and also provide the public with an opportunity to see bison on a native landscape in McHenry County.  

Example of the bison fence showing electric wires and woven wire, bison capable fence.
Map of the total 188 acres that the bison will graze, expanding gradually over the next 3 to 5 years.

About Grassland Restoration Network blog published by Bill Kleiman.

Bill Kleiman's daytime job is manager of Nachusa Grasslands. We are looking for guest authors on various topics of grassland habitat restoration. Contact me with your ideas or drafts.
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5 Responses to Grazing Bison at McHenry County Conservation District- A New Venture

  1. Kirk Garanflo says:

    In the list of plant species to be introducted as the prairie restoration progresses, which species will the bison feed upon and which species will they avoid?

    • Adam Rex says:

      Hi Kirk, this is something we hope to find out as the years go on. Bison mainly feed on grasses and in doing so hopefully the forb species will thrive. Initially the bison will be feeding on a cool season grass pasture that will be inter-seeded with a native short grass mix yearly. We are hoping over time this will convert the cool season pasture into a native dominated pasture. As far as specific species they will avoid, time will tell and we plan on sharing the results… Thanks for the question.

      Adam

  2. matt says:

    An RFP is a creative solution to our problem with leasing park property for grazing. Thanks for sharing the story!

  3. Eileen Sutter says:

    A good company with years of experience raising bison is Wild Idea Buffalo in South Dakota. The owner is Dan O’Brian, writer, falconer, and prairie steward. He would be a good mentor for this project. Good luck with this.

    • Adam Rex says:

      Thanks Eileen,
      I just read Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan Obrien. I love his philosophy on bison and bison handling and husbandry. We will definitely be continuing to reach out to bison managers to gain expertise. Thanks again.

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