By Isaac Bonnell
John and Sue Muggy live on a grassy knoll just north of the Ferndale city limits. They are surrounded by 17 acres of picturesque pastureland and forest, which is all enclosed with a 7-foot wire fence.
Why the tall fence? Just read the sign along the driveway.
“Attention: Don’t cross this field unless you can do it in 9.9 seconds. The buffalo can do it in 10.”
“They can run 35 miles per hour, they can jump a 6-foot fence, or just go through it,” John Muggy said as he looked over Lone Boot Buffalo Ranch from his porch on a hot July morning. “These fences are for people, mostly.”
The Muggys have been raising bison (the proper name for the American buffalo) since 1992 and started with just three animals. They now have 30 bison — and they are not alone in Whatcom County.
On the south side of Ferndale, Jim and Robin Sanford started Twisted S Bison Ranch three years ago and now have 13 bison roaming around their property.
Both Lone Boot and Twisted S breed and sell bison, but the real business is in meat sales. From ground bison to ribeye steak to bison summer sausage, the Muggys and Sanfords sell nearly every cut of meat imaginable.
“When we first put buffalo out there the neighbors loved it,” said Jim Sanford. “They thought it was the best tourist attraction in Ferndale — until I put a sign out for meat sales.”
But what does bison taste like? Is it like beef?
“I tell people it’s a sweeter and richer meat,” Muggy said. “Bison tastes how beef would like to. And it’s lower in fat than skinless chicken — it’s around 8 percent fat.”
When Muggy first began selling bison meat in 1994, he sold about $500 of meat a month. Now he usually sells that in a day. He also saw a dramatic increase in sales during the height of the mad cow scare in 2004.
“Mad cow disease took us to a whole different level,” he said. “It made the retail buyer more aware of what they’re buying, where it comes from and how it’s raised.”
The health benefits of bison also helped seal the deal with many new customers. Bison meat is low in fat, but contains healthy fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 and has less cholesterol than other red meats.
The health benefits of bison are what first got Jim Sanford interested in starting his own ranch. Before then, he was working long hours for the military branch of Boeing and traveling a lot — which didn’t help his rising cholesterol level.
When his wife encouraged him to try eating bison instead of beef, Sanford loved it. He then decided to tackle his cholesterol problem by improving his diet, starting with bison.
“I was taking Lipitor for my high cholesterol but I didn’t want to take pills anymore,” Sanford said. “I was fortunate enough that my eating habits corrected it.”
Raising wild animals
The first thing you should know about raising bison is that they are wild animals, Sanford said. They are not like cattle or horses.
You need higher fencing because the bison can jump a standard 6-foot fence. You have to work harder to corral them or load them onto a trailer. And it’s very unlikely that you’ll get close enough to pet one.
“Handling buffalo is a challenge,” Sanford said. “You learn to always look at their tail. If it’s three-quarters of the way up, they’re irritated. Straight up means you have a split second to get out of the way before they charge.”
And if some of the animals were to escape, good luck catching it. Unlike a cow that might wander into a neighboring field and enjoy the freedom, bison were meant to roam — and roam they will.
“The worst thing that could happen is they could get out,” Sanford said. “If they get out you’ll never catch them.”
But other than keeping the bison contained, ranching bison is fairly easy. They regulate their own eating, they don’t all poop in the same place and thus don’t damage fields with slurry. Bison don’t even need a barn.
“If I built a shelter it wouldn’t make a difference. They wouldn’t go in there,” Sanford said. “They’ll sit out there [in the field] even when it snows.”
After retiring from a 30-year career at Boeing, Sanford said he is enjoying the ranching life. It certainly is a lot of work, though, he admits.
“I threaten that I’m going to get a job again because retirement is a lot of work,” he said. “I put in 12-hour days fixing fences and taking care of orders.”
Sanford usually spends his mornings taking care of the bison; his afternoons are spent delivering meat to various restaurants and grocery stores that carry his products.
For Muggy, raising bison was an easier alternative to keeping horses, which he did for years while his kids were in school.
“Once the kids graduated, though, I said ‘I ain’t cleaning stalls no more,’” he said.
Muggy now spends much of his time educating people about bison. He hosts tour groups for kindergarteners and senior centers and participates in Sustainable Connections’ farm tours.
He also prides himself in being part of a larger mission to keep a viable number of wild bison. During the late 1800s, bison were on the edge of extinction due to commercial hunting. But with the help of small ranchers who aimed to preserve the species, there are now more than 350,000 bison in the United States.
“If it wasn’t for small ranchers like us, we wouldn’t have bison anymore,” Muggy said.