Couple Raise Bison for Healthy Meat
The Old Plank Road between Carthage and Robbins offers a sight from the days of yesteryear — a buffalo herd roaming a sunlit hill or resting in the shade of a sheltered dale below.
The roadside scene is Rob and Kay Pickler’s Southern Copper Buffalo Farm. Two newborns were just added to the two dozen already in the herd. The latest baby bison struggled to its feet on a recent morning, and was up and getting mother’s milk as she stood guard.
“They are very protective,” Rob Pickler says, watching from the other side of an electrified fence that surrounds each of his pastures. “I saw my wife go out and get the binoculars off the golf cart. I came back in, and she was looking and said something about a baby: ‘New baby being born right now.’ That little baby is No. 26 that we have here on the farm.”
The Picklers don’t name the members of their herd. They did for a while, but then went to numbering them instead. Selling is less emotional that way.
“There’s another one over there just 4 days old,” he says. “They are so pretty, so all-American is what I like about them.”
The Picklers keep two or three bulls. Unlike beef cattle, bison bulls stay with the herd and don’t have to be kept separately.
“They naturally stay together,” he says. “The bull will naturally help the mama clean the little baby up. The mother of this one that was born Saturday, the bull stayed there and cleaned it up just like the mama.”
He watched his latest baby buffalo bumping its head against its mother, moving from one side of her to the other for more milk.
“They learn that from day one,” he says. “They learn to bump that udder to get a little more milk out, I guess. A buffalo is like a beef cow: They don’t have a tremendous amount of milk. Calves distinctly bump that udder.”
Pickler stopped for a break at the top of the hill where trees shaded several rocking chairs and a swing.
“My wife and I love to drink coffee, and we love being together,” he says. “We’ve spent all of our married life together — working together most of that time. We just enjoy coming up here and looking the place over, seeing what we need to do next.”
A weather vane perches atop the derrick of a windmill spinning lazily, pulling water from a well.
“That well is around 200 feet, but it’s a good well,” he says. “It is pumping water right now. It is just a perpetual pumper. I have a pond that I irrigate these pastures with in the summer.”
He is on the county planning board and tries to keep in mind how different various parts of Moore are from each other.
“We have people that live in cul-de-sacs, and we have people that live on farms,” he says. “There is a world of difference. We try to keep it balanced. What they are interested in — in Pinehurst, Whispering Pines, Southern Pines and so forth — we are not really interested in. And they are not really interested in open farmland and this kind of stuff. So, it is a good balance.”
So many visitors stop by these days that the Picklers think about agritourism.
“I can go a mile back in those woods and never be off my property,” he says. “I’ve got trails — I know it would be attractive, just a matter of doing it, I guess.”
A row of Jack Daniels bourbon barrels lines the fence by the house. The Picklers have patents on barrel-to-chair designs, but no longer make the chairs. Inside, he points to a whitened bison skull mounted over the fireplace.
They bought the first bison in 2005, Kay Pickler says.
“But that one was slaughtered about three years ago,” she says.
It will take about three years before the newborns will be ready to market, they say. A buffalo does not grow as fast as a cow, one reason the price per pound is higher than beef.
“That is one reason buffalo meat is more expensive,” he says. “Not only is there more demand, but also a buffalo grows more slowly. I suppose they would if you fed them all those steroids and mess like they do at these feed lots, like they do cows.
“We just stick to grass. Most of our customers, that’s why they buy from us. They want natural meat. They want grass-fed meat. They are fed either grass or hay we cut off the same grass in the summertime.”
A few years ago bison were not expensive, but interest in healthy meat such as lean bison has grown. Prices now are six times what they were not long ago, according to Pickler. He and his wife began raising them because they like the taste, but now they market them.
“We have a meat handler’s license and are state inspected and all that,” he says. “Last year, we went to three farmers markets three times a week. It got to be such a hassle, and we had more demand than we had buffalo. This year, we decided that we would sell it just off the farm, exclusively.”
Demand again exceeded their expectations.
“We put a sign up the week of April 1 that we would be selling on Saturday,” he says. “We thought it would take us three Saturdays to sell this whole buffalo that we just had processed by Key Packing. We told people we would start at 9 that morning and sell till 5 o’clock.”
To the Picklers’ surprise, they were sold but by midday.
“We had sold completely out by 12:30, and they were still coming,” he says. “Next time, we have good customers’ email addresses. We are going to give them notice so they can get ahead.”
Ashten’s in Southern Pines has Southern Copper bison on the menu.
“They sell a lot of burgers in their bar,” he says. “They buy filets and ribeyes, the finer cuts. They are probably our best customer. We just started this last year. Her chef lives right over at Putnam, and comes by here on his way to work with coolers and takes it on in.”
The local connection is important to Kay Pickler, who is native to the Plank Road section.
“I grew up half a mile down the road,” she says. “The next house is my grandparents, next is my aunt. Then it skips one. Next is my cousin, then my mama and daddy, then my brother and my uncles.”
She named the farm for the color of a buffalo’s fresh hide when winter is coming on.
“It looks like copper,” she says. “We’ve also got a tree farm, and the pines are a copper color at the prettiest time of the year. So, it’s Southern Copper Buffalo Farm. The color of the hides, the coats they have that they put on in the winter when the sun hits them.”
She puts bows out by the road to celebrate the buffalo births.
“I have to put out bows,” she says. “But we never know what it is, so I put out pink and blue bows and brown and chocolate.”
Rod Pickler says he’ll just wait to find that out. He’s not going into the pasture for a look.
“You need more girls than boys in this business, because the girls will breed on and on,” he says. “But — really — you actually can’t tell until you see ’em pee. The little old tail hides everything, and you cannot tell until then. It is six months sometimes before you see that happen. I am not going to try to lift that tail up to look.”
The bison are not exactly docile creatures and have the reputation of being somewhat temperamental.
“They are used to seeing us around,” he says. “But I always remember that they are wild animals.”
He and his wife have a healthy respect for bison: their force, their strength, and their horns. The animals can be irritable on occasion, and it is well to be mindful of that.
“We have a spotter on the outside if someone is in the pasture,” Kay Pickler says with a laugh. “A buffalo is not a pet.”
Contact John Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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