Dale Rengstorf can tell where his bison herd will likely be, just by the direction the wind is blowing.
“Bison like to be upwind as much as possible, so they can smell if a predator is nearby,” he explains.
Dale, who owns Rolling R Ranch with his wife, Beth, can tell you pretty much anything about bison. He’s raised them for more than 30 years – long before bison meat became popular with high-end restaurants, grocery stores and consumers.
It was a frigid, winter day, and Dale was raising feeder pigs when exasperation led to inspiration.
“I said to myself, ‘Man, this land isn’t good for anything but bison,’” Dale recalls. “It was like a light bulb went on in my head.”
He started looking into the possibility and spent about two years researching and learning from other bison ranchers. His operation has grown from 13 head when he started in 1987 to anywhere from 650 to 700 head of bison on 2,200 acres near Pelican Rapids, Minn.
“There have been a lot of hurdles to cross,” Dale affirms. “One of the biggest was distribution. We found grocery stores and restaurants willing to take the meat, but they wanted to know who our distributor was. When we met with distributors, they wanted to know who our customers were. It was really tough to crack that nut. Now we’re in high-end restaurants, grocery stores and regional grocery stores.”
Dale recently sat down with AgViews to talk about the industry, his business and transitioning Rolling R Ranch to his son-in-law, P.J. Breen, who is now the ranch manager.
Q: Is there a difference between bison and buffalo?
A: Bison is the scientific name for the animal we raise, and we prefer everybody use bison, so it is not confused with water buffalo or Cape buffalo. With global commerce, water buffalo can be shipped into the U.S. Bison are not buffalo; it was a misnomer from the 1800s that has stuck.
Q: What are the basic differences between raising bison and cattle?
A: Bison need to be managed more. They take less time, but they take more thought and management. Beef cattle are much easier to breed. Bison need more nutrition in the summer, and it has to be good nutrition, so they are gaining weight during breeding season, or they will skip a year. Getting profitable calf crop percentages is harder with bison. You need a much stronger corral, and you need to put a bigger, stronger fence around your pastures. But there are advantages. Bison will use more rough forages better than cattle will, so there are some cost advantages in feeding them. They don’t need shelters. They are just fine out on the prairie in the middle of winter. They’re a hardier animal, and they’re less likely to get sick.
Q: If someone wants to raise bison, how should they get started?
A: Find somebody who has similar land and aspirations and has been successful, and then try to copy them a little bit. Help some ranchers with their fall roundup to get familiar with the animal. It’s better to know what you’re doing than to make mistakes that could be costly to you or hurt the animals. It’s not something you should do on a whim.
Q: Why is bison meat growing in popularity?
A: It was a long, slow process to get enough people to taste it to find out how good it is and that it’s not gamey. Bison is very similar to beef in taste, but it’s sweeter and leaner. I credit the National Bison Association and its members with getting the exposure that made more people realize it’s a good product. Bison meat was featured in Ted’s Montana Grill, founded by Ted Turner, who’s also a bison rancher, and that gave it a lot of exposure.
Q: Could the market use more bison?
A: In the last four years, the supply and demand has pretty much evened out, because the price went up to where there are only so many people who will buy it, and they’ll only buy it so often. Bison will sell for at least double the price of beef in a grocery store chain. If the price comes down, more people will buy it, and then we could use more producers.
Q: Do you see prices changing anytime soon?
A: I think they’re going to stay where they’re at right now – not much of a swing up or down at this point. I don’t see a lot of people getting into the business and making more product available.
Q: Why don’t more people raise bison?
A: One thing is unfamiliarity with the animal. They are an athletic, quick animal many people are not comfortable working with. Bison ranching is not for everyone.
Q: Where are your bison processed?
A: At a company called North American Bison in New Rockford, N.D.
Q: Is there an emphasis on improving bison genetics?
A: Definitely. Probably the biggest change in the industry over last 30 years is the improvement in the genetics. Before then, people didn’t often buy bulls from other places; they just raised them for a hobby. When I got in, ranchers started to emphasize improving genetics and searching for bulls that are going to bring in the genetics that give you better growth rates and better quality animals.
Q: Are bison becoming more domesticated?
A: They have the same characteristics they’ve always had. They will get used to their environment and appear more docile, but they’re still wild animals.
Q: What are you doing to transition the business to P.J.?
A: We’re about two years into the transition, and it’s going very well. P.J. could take over the operation if something happened to me. We’ve worked hard on getting the financial management of the business in his hands, so I don’t do the books anymore. P.J. has always had an aptitude for fixing machinery, building things and working hard. As we go forward, P.J. will make more of the management decisions, such as where to market the bison. Most of what he needs to learn are nuances, like being able to look at a bull, guess its weight and tell whether it’s ready for market. I can’t see myself ever totally walking away, but eventually I have to pull back and turn it over to P.J. more as the years go by.
“The first year I was here, I just wanted to see a typical year,” P.J. added. “I’m still waiting for it, but that’s also the biggest draw. There is no typical year; you’re not going to get bored. I’m just intrigued by the type of work Dale does and the fun he has. I haven’t found anything I don’t like about it. Ranching doesn’t have a typical day-to-day schedule. It’s moment by moment, and it changes all the time.”
Q: What do you like about banking with Bell?
A: I’ve been with Bell for about 10 years now. I like that it’s a local bank with local roots that hasn’t been bought by one of the big conglomerates. They really got to know my operation well, which is important because we’re not a typical business. With Bell Bank, I’m able to build my business with people I know and trust, and that’s important to me.