Field Harvest of Grassfed Bison

Final Report for FNC08-699

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2008: $17,802.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: South Dakota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Sustainable Harvest Alliance is a mobile buffalo processing plant concentrating on the slaughter of grassfed, mostly native owned buffalo in South Dakota. The clients of SHA are underserved with regard to infrastructure, capital, and marketing alternatives.

Sustainable Harvest Alliance began modestly in 2008 and has slowly expanded its services into most of South Dakota.

Goal: The goal of our project was to illustrate the feasibility and superiority of field harvest when it comes to large landscape, nearly wild herds of buffalo. We wanted to show that there is:

1. Less stress on the animals – resulting in less corral mortality, less meat damage, less risk to the people who are doing the round ups and harvests.

2. More community involvement when the slaughter process is “brought back to the land”.

3. More community pride when the “old ways” are honored.

4. Greater profitability when field harvest of grassfed buffalo replaces the slaughter procedures commonly used in the cattle model.

5. That field harvested buffalo command a higher price in the market place.

With the help of our SARE Grant we extended the reach of our mobile harvester from the few counties surrounding the Black Hills of Western South Dakota to the Missouri River and beyond. By telephone conversations, by word of mouth, and some print advertising, we made it known that SHA could travel to such places as the Crow Creek reservation, Standing Rock, and even to conservation properties far to the east side of the Missouri.

When we were invited to these venues we did our best to let the communities know that we were coming to assist them in their buffalo harvest. We made special arrangements with the SD Animal Industry board to allow the retention of buffalo organs and parts, which were once used for ceremonial purposes but are now condemned and buried. This interested many traditional people and spiritual leaders. This led to more positive community attention for our project. We also made a short video of the philosophy and operation of our plant and disseminated it free to all who were interested.

The Knife Chief Family – This ancient Lakota family embraced the philosophies of SHA and supported us by offering their buffalo herd to use for illustration of our techniques. They talked us up around the Pine Ridge Reservation and brought more people to us as clients.

Mary Miller – The manager The Nature Conservancy’s Ordway Prairie broke from that NGO’s traditions by insisting that we harvest their buffalo.

Duane Big Eagle – Chairman of the Crow Creek Reservation, gave his blessing to our efforts to assist the Director of the Tribal Dept. of Natural Resources with compliance to the Bureau of Indians request to shrink the Crow Creek buffalo herd.

Tony Willman – Land manager the BIA, who suggested that the Crow Creek Tribe try out SHA.

Rocky Afraid of Hawks – Standing Rock Holy man, who blessed our efforts and promoted us among the people of his tribe.

The entire SD Animal Industry Board staff – Who worked with us toward common sense solutions to buffalo meat inspection as it can apply to native populations.

The results of our project can not only be measured in the many anecdotal responses from the participants, both native and white, but in the up-tick of general interest in grassfed, field harvesting. Though our project is only part of the reason for this up-tick, it is clear that demand for grassfed, field harvested animals is suddenly on the national radar screen.

These results are very much what we hoped for. It was a stronger response than we expected and indicates that there is much more room for growth of the techniques and philosophies that this project fostered.

We learned that there is a need and a desire for facilities that can bring the option of field harvest to remote buffalo ranchers. We are also beginning to see that the “traditional” feedlot model feels some threat from this humane and sustainable alternative. As a result, some ranchers are wanting a way to sell their animals to processors who can forward-buy and so guarantee that this alternative will be available when their animals are ready for market.

The advantages of the grassfed, field harvest model are that producers can:
1. Operate with a smaller outlay of capital in the form of corrals, chutes etc.
2. Treat their animals more humanly.
3. Command a slightly higher price.
4. Bring the harvest process back to the community.
5. Honor old traditions.

The disadvantages are:
1. Lack of mobile facilities.
2. Weather constraints.
3. No established system for utilizing the Mobile Harvester.
4. Resistance from feeders trying to perpetuate their traditional monopoly.

Mobile processing systems are finally attracting the attention of the USDA, health food stores and chains, and discerning consumers. All of those entities have discussions on their websites concerning the future of mobile processing. To be honest, most of them are behind the curve that has been set by our project. But the debate and the movement toward the alternative that this project presented has begun. Interested parties can plug in to that discussion at many portals and their input is welcome.

Though we personally contacted most of the Tribes and individuals that we thought would be interested in our concept, word of mouth was our main mode of getting the word out. This sort of news travels quickly on the reservations but there is still a great deal of outreach that continues to be done.

Because the tribal members were always welcome and invited, Field Days were virtually every day that we harvested on reservations. When harvesting on NGO properties we often had visiting biologists and interested donors on hand. Due to the sociology of the reservation and the vagrancies of Northern Great Plains weather, we could never be sure who would show up. But almost always there was some interested party observing: some for religious and cultural reasons, some contemplating utilizing our services for economic reasons, and some students interested in sustainable ideas.

Out SHA Video was distributed and continues to be distributed free of charge to all interested parties. NPR has expressed an interest in doing a segment and Indian Country Today is working on an article.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.