A third-generation rancher rebuilds his spread by just saying no to cattle.
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EVERYBODY SEEMS TO HAVE A BEEF about red meat these days. If it doesn’t make your heart seize up or make you fat, then it will probably poison you with chemicals. But one West Texas rancher has decided that some red meat is good for you—and it always was. William B. Wilson, a third-generation rancher in Iraan, has forsaken cattle for livestock that roamed wild in Texas until the 1880’s. He owns Texas’ largest herd of buffalo. “Buffalo meat is the health food of the future,” proclaims the elegantly lanky Wilson, an admitted health nut who at 77 still plays polo every day.
Five years ago Wilson bought 23 head of the wild and woolly beasts, and now he has a throng of 400. At first, Wilson was just trying to get back into the ranching business after losing his cattle and equipment in a 1984 bankruptcy. He had an idea that buffalo were a hardy substitute for cattle, but he soon came to appreciate their finer qualities.
“The meat is lower in calories, cholesterol, and fat than beef, chicken, and even some fish,” he brags. But more important, he told me over a simmering buffalo pot roast, “it tastes great.” As a non—meat eater, I had my doubts. But after a second helping of the lean and succulent roast, I agreed with Wilson: “Buffalo tastes the way beef wishes it could taste.” Since buffalo can withstand harsh environmental conditions and are naturally disease-resistant, they aren’t pumped full of chemicals, antibiotics, or growth hormones. “They don’t need them,” says Wilson.
The buffalo mystique also won Wilson over. He even hired a ranch foreman, Alvin Jones, who had had thirteen years of experience with the critters. And if Jones has his way, the face of ranching may change forever. Jones and his wife, Linda, run the Wilson herd by themselves, even during roundup time. A comparable cattle operation would need a handful of cowboys and cutting horses, a cattle prod or two, some cow dogs, and maybe a few jeeps. “We tried that,” says Wilson, “and several buffalo were killed.”
The secret to the Joneses’ success at the minimalist roundup is an almost Zen-like approach to handling the unpredictable animals. “You can push cattle, but a buffalo has to want to go into the pen,” according to Alvin. He wades into a teeming horde of about forty heifers who all want a treat from his feed sack. Butting heads and swirling around, the heifers pause to nibble. A guttural, creaking growl is the only sound they make. Once we start up the jeep and speed off downhill, though, they abandon their lunch and trail us at a lope.
“Anybody who can drive a jeep, honk a horn, and handle a feedsack can round up buffalo,” Alvin allows. The catch is, you have only one chance, cautions Linda. The Joneses recall a roundup during which the buffalo took one look at the open gate, balked, and barged right through the fences, busting the barbed wire and flattening the posts on their way out.
Besides simplicity, the Joneses’ approach has the advantages of sound economics. “Feed is two hundred dollars a ton—that’s cheaper than a hundred-dollar-a-day cowboy,” says Alvin. There is also an unexpected bonus: “You don’t have to listen to those cowboy stories over and over.”