You might have a neighbor who has backyard chickens or maybe you have some of your own. But backyard bison? Probably not in your own backyard — literally — but close enough for you to visit.
Do you know there is a herd of them only about 20 minutes from downtown Davenport, and you can feed them by hand? It’s true. I wouldn’t buffalo you about it. Just head south to 3673 Highway 61, in Blue Grass.
And do you know that adult bison can jump over a six-foot fence and run more than 40 miles per hour, as fast as a quarter horse? I didn’t, until I met Lyndall Winter, owner of Winter Bison. He graciously answered all my questions about these huge beasts and volunteered some captivating stories about raising them.
Yes, you may visit, but there are a few rules. The area might be muddy, so wear boots. Go during daylight and bring treats. Their favorites are bread and whole bananas, but they also enjoy fruits, veggies and cookies. Never enter their fenced areas, and never reach in to pet them. They could unintentionally lean against your arm and snap it like a toothpick against the fence.
Are bison and buffalo the same critter? Close, but not really. Bison are native to Europe and North and South America, while buffalo are found in Africa and Asia. Bison range in length from six to nine feet and can grow to six feet tall — impressive when you stand next to them. They can tip the scales at 1,500 pounds, which makes me feel a little better about myself. I’m also six feet tall, but I weigh only 230 pounds, although my doctor admonishes me and says I need a more accurate scale. Maybe I just need a more compassionate doctor.
An estimated 20 to 30 million bison once dominated the North American landscape from the Appalachians to the Rockies, from the Gulf Coast to Alaska. Habitat loss and unregulated shooting reduced the population to about 1,000 by 1890. Today, approximately 500,000 bison live across North America, including 30,000 in the wild.
Lyndall and his family started raising bison in 1991 with two bulls and one heifer. Today, after years of breeding and purchasing more bison, the herd numbers almost 400. Their bison are raised free-range and are grass- and hay-fed, without hormones or antibiotics. In their last 90 days they get a small amount of grain in mixed with their diets to help tenderize and sweeten the meat. Lyndall stressed that this is far preferable to some operations that feed the bison other foods. He told me what those “other foods” are but I won’t list them. Take my word, you don’t want to know.
The cows protect the calves and the bulls protect them all. So, despite the abundance of coyotes, there have been no issues with them. Lyndall has seen more than a few mountain lions on the ranch, but the bison know how to avoid potential ambush areas.
Once, when a newborn calf was hopelessly mired and bellowing in the mud along a creek, Lyndall knew he would be attacked by the adult bison if he tried to help. He watched anxiously as two cows came to the rescue, using their noses to push the baby to higher ground.
Lyndall said he learns something new about his bison every day. For instance, they are accurate weather forecasters. They head down into valleys long before Lyndall knows a storm is approaching, and about a month before our recent record-breaking frigid weather, they grew the thickest coats of fur he has ever seen.
Winter Bison can be purchased at the ranch (Monday through Friday from 9 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 5 p.m., Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m.), at the Hy-Vee stores on West Locust or 53rd and Utica Ridge, and at the Davenport farmer’s outdoor market. In the store at the ranch, there are brochures you may take with recipes and nutritional facts. I learned that bison meat is lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than beef, pork and even salmon.
Local restaurants that serve Winter Bison include Barley and Rye, Whitehaven Inn, Ross’, and Cinnamon-N-Sage.
There’s an old adage, allegedly from a bison: “Stand your ground, have a tough hide, roam wild and free, have a strong spirit, and let the chips fall where they may.” Good advice.
So bundle up the kids, grab your camera, and take them on a backyard adventure to Winter Bison to get up close and personal with some truly incredible native creatures.