Bison Business Booming in Northwest Pa.

10/12/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

EDINBORO, Pa. — Twenty years ago, a burger changed Dan Koman’s life.

He and his wife were on vacation and decided to sampled bison patties. “We tasted it more or less for the novelty,” he said.

Then they found out how lean, and therefore heart-healthy, bison meat is compared with beef from domesticated animals. At age 30, Koman was already on blood-pressure medicine, and his father had sold his dairy herd because of heart issues.

The Komans decided to eat healthier, and they replaced the departed Holsteins with bison.

Today, their Wooden Nickel Buffalo Farm is one of the best-known bison operations in northwest Pennsylvania. Customer demand has soared, especially over the past two years, and Koman can barely keep up.

Koman raises all grass-fed animals without supplemental corn feed, which limits his herd size. The herd numbers around 65, with 75 being about the maximum the farm’s 150 acres can accommodate.

Besides rotationally grazing the pastures, the bison venture into the woods that cover about 30 percent of the farm, eating many plants that domestic cattle will not touch.

Including leased land, Koman grows 150 acres of hay for the winter. He started storing silage in plastic two years ago. Bison maintain their weight better on silage than they do on dry hay.

Some farms feed corn during the winter instead of silage, which they can do to some extent and keep the grass-fed label.

“We don’t do that,” said Koman, who prefers to feed a 100 percent grass diet. If he had thousands of acres, he would just let the hardy animals forage during the winter, but he needs hay because of his smaller acreage.

Raising bison is a lot like raising beef animals, Koman said, with one important exception: Bison are wild.

Fences and corralling equipment must be sturdier than regular cattle gates. Reproduction must be all-natural, as attempts at artificial insemination have failed.

Bison, like other wild animals, attack only if threatened or provoked, he said. Still, these are not the kind of animals one can just walk up to in a pasture.

Fortunately, bison are fairly healthy, and Koman can mostly leave them alone. He never had to call the large animal vet last year. Bison take a little extra effort to understand because vets are not trained to treat them, but Koman has found a vet who is willing to do that work.

Internal parasites are the biggest problem for bison, and rotational grazing alleviates that.

“They’re relatively invincible animals,” he said.

Bison also grow slower than commercial beef animals, taking two and a half to three years to mature. He has found that keeping calves with their mothers improves their growth, so he does not wean the young until they are 1 year to 18 months old.

Recently, he has butchered some 2-year-olds at 900-950 pounds. They were not quite ready, but “when you need meat, you need meat,” he said.

Occasionally, he has to buy from other reliable producers to meet demand. That works because bison producers are generally involved in farming for the right reasons, he said. They want to produce quality food, not just make a quick buck.

The National Bison Association frowns on embryo transplants and growth stimulants, preferring, like Koman, to keep the meat as natural as possible.

“There really is no such thing as cutthroat in this business,” he said.

Koman’s approach appears to be working. One of his customers came to him after eating many types of beef and finding she was allergic to all of them.

“She tried the bison, and no reaction,” he said.

Koman attributes that success to the lack of human manipulation of bison genetics compared with the millennia of selectively bred domestic breeds.

An Argentine immigrant also told Koman that no meat he had tasted in the United States compared to Argentina’s world-renowned beef except bison.

Word-of-mouth marketing has proved extremely valuable, eliminating some of Koman’s need to spend on marketing.

“We don’t really push and promote. We don’t have to,” he said.

Koman likens Wooden Nickel’s situation to Kleenex’s. Because Wooden Nickel was the first bison farm in northwestern Pennsylvania — an area where wild bison lived until colonial times — it is the first bison farm that comes to many people’s minds.

Consumers’ desires to know about their food and eat healthily have also helped sales.

Still, some people get sticker shock because bison is three times the price of beef. “Twenty years later, we’re still trying to convince people,” he said.

Producing a niche product, Koman has some extra costs that beef producers do not have. Beef farmers usually have no need for advertising, but Koman must pay for his, limited as it is. His fencing and insurance are more expensive.

Bison meat is not required to undergo USDA inspection. Koman submits his meat to inspection anyway so that he can sell wholesale, but unlike beef producers, Koman must pay for the inspection.

Koman has had to cut back his wholesale commitments recently because of the retail demand.

Even with a higher price, bison is less profitable than beef, he said. In fact, the corn mazes on his property make more money than the bison.

Many of Koman’s customers are travelers, not locals, and he started a family-friendly and a haunted corn maze five years ago to draw more local visitors. The two mazes cover 15 acres.

“We are in agritourism, and a lot of farmers need to pursue that to stay alive,” he said.

Agriculture and tourism are the two largest industries in Pennsylvania, and “when you combine them, you’ve captured everything,” he said.

Koman also makes money from farm tours, which he said are an easy way for any farm to increase revenue. School tours have declined over the years because of the cost of busing, but senior citizens, churches, bus tours and scout groups continue to be interested.

He also hosts parties for fraternities, churches, birthdays and family get-togethers. He has been planning to build a pavilion for five years, which he could rent out for weddings and reunions, but he is still building up money for the project.

For now, events are limited to the dining room at the farm store.

There is plenty of land in the area for expansion, but buying land to increase his pasture area would not be cost-effective.

Koman wants to get more people raising small numbers of buffalo on former dairies and other land that might currently be fallow or rented for crops.

He said he would prefer to buy other people’s animals and market them rather than invest in fencing on other people’s property and raising his own animals there. A few people have expressed interest, but none has gone very far in the process.

Koman plans to farm for 10 more years. By that point, his wife will have retired from the Postal Service, and their three children, if they want, can take over the business.

When he spoke, though, Koman had more immediate concerns. Edinboro University was having its homecoming the next day. That is one the busiest days of the year at the bison farm, which lies just outside town.

He had already loaded up his taxidermied bison on a trailer behind his truck to drive in the homecoming parade, and he was hoping for good weather to improve the turnout at the farm.

In 2011, his first in the parade, the sunny homecoming day brought 500 people to the maze.

When the stuffed bison, the first male calf born on the farm, is not wheeling around downtown Edinboro, he stands in the Wooden Nickel gift shop, where children can touch his hair and encounter a bison up close.

The mount is yet another way Koman helps people connect with their food and promote bison meat. “He’s paid for himself” in the interest he has stoked, Koman said.

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