Stopping By: Piatt County bison farm right out of 'Old West'

Stopping By: Piatt County bison farm right out of 'Old West'

In Piatt County, just east of Monticello, around the first curve in County Road 1125E and behind a white, two-story farmhouse, passers-by can find a piece of North America's history.

On any given day, drivers traveling past the old house will find bison belonging to grain farmer Terry Lieb grazing on 60 acres of pasture. Twenty of them, to be exact.

Lieb's pasture offers a small glimpse into a pre-1800s America, when an estimated 60 million bison roamed the continent from Mexico to Canada.

"Buffalo traveled in herds of hundreds of thousands; in this setting I have, you can picture what it would have looked like," Lieb said. "I'd love to go back to the late 1700s to see what America would have looked like – it would have been amazing."

Lieb's own interest in bison started around seven years ago when he bought his first one at a farm sale.

"That was the beginning," he said, adding that he would like to have as many as 40 bison some day.

The bison provide Lieb's family with some extra income, as six or seven are sent to a processing plant each year, and he sells the meat out of his home.

But, for Lieb, a Piatt County native who was born and raised in the same farmhouse his family lives in today, the animals are also a symbol of America's past.

"Since I was little, I was interested in the Old West," he said. "They (bison) are a symbol of the way things used to be."

Lieb has considered turning his farm into somewhat of a tourist attraction when he retires, offering visitors with an interest in the "Old West" a lesson in history and bison.

But for now, drivers can pause along the side of CR 1125 E. to get a glimpse of the bison in the pasture. And if Lieb is home, he's glad to entertain questions.

"I've had people from all over the world come by (to see the bison)," he said. "People from Germany, China ... I've had people pull up to the house and if I'm here, I'll talk to them."

Lieb isn't the only one who has noticed the curb appeal his bison have.

"On a summer afternoon, you should see all the cars that line up around the bison pasture to take pictures," said Douglas Gucker, an academic professional in agriculture and natural resources with the University of Illinois Extension office in Piatt County.

"Livestock farms of any kind are quite rare in Piatt County, so the Lieb farm is a breath of fresh air and breaks the current mold of a farm only raising corn and soybeans, giving some diversity to our agricultural community."

Regardless of whether Lieb is home, those interested in coming by to see his bison should stay on their side of the fence.

"They (bison) get used to you, but they are a wild animal," he said. "You don't want to turn your back on them. If anyone tried to come in here, they would take you out."

To get to his bison herd, Lieb travels through the pastures in a vehicle that looks like an enclosed golf cart and four-wheeler combined. The vehicle maneuvers the bumpy terrain with ease and the bison – although some of them weigh as much as 2,200 pounds – know to get out of the way.

But they are also curious animals, coming within feet of the vehicle to find out who is paying a visit.

Even though they are a close relative of cattle, bison make grunting noises instead of mooing.

And Lieb said the dominant cow – not the bull – is the leader of the herd.

When the babies are born in late spring each year, he said, they weigh 30 to 40 pounds and don't resemble full-grown bison.

Bison can run up to 40 miles per hour and can jump a 6-foot fence. For the last year, Lieb and his sons, Josh and Jake, who have expressed an interest in keeping the bison farm going some day, have been putting up a new fence around the pasture.

But there aren't any fears of the animals escaping.

"As long as they have food and water, they are fine," Lieb said.

While Bison were on the brink of extinction a century ago, the animals are slowly making a comeback in the U.S. thanks, in part, to farms like Lieb's.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated there were 232,000 bison on private U.S. farms in 2002.

"You'd be amazed at how many small bison herds there are like this in central Illinois," Lieb said, adding that he knows of a bison farm in Shelbyville.

The preservation and restoration of the bison and the processing and selling of their meat go hand in hand.

The National Bison Association reports on its Web site that today, there are bison producers in all 50 states. And Lieb said the animals are making a comeback, in part, because of how healthy their meat is.

"(The health factor) entices people to eat the meat and, in turn, this is helping to repopulate the bison because if people can make a living on them, they will," he said.

Consumer demand for bison meat grew by 17 percent in 2007, according to the NBA.

Bison meat is much leaner meat than beef and cooks twice as fast. It is an easy substitute in any recipe that calls for beef.

A 100-gram serving of bison contains 2.42 grams of fat, compared with a 100-gram serving of choice beef that has 10.15 grams of fat, and a 100-gram serving of skinless chicken, which contains 7.41 grams of fat, according to the USDA.

"A lot of people think that bison would taste gamey, but it doesn't," said Lieb, who calls bison the "original red meat of America."

On Lieb's farm, the bison are grass fed and raised without the use of chemicals.

"It's practically an organic meat; I just never went through the certification," he said.

By taking on a niche market – buffalo meat – and selling directly to consumers, Gucker said the Lieb farm is a model of how a farming family is adapting to the changing times.

"Buffalo meat is a healthy red meat and the Liebs are helping to satisfy the demand," he said.

E-mail liebfarms@hotmail.com or call 762-9277 for information on the farm or to buy bison meat.

If you go

What: Lieb Farms

Where: To get to the farm from Champaign, take Monticello Road west into Piatt County. Turn right onto CR 1125 E and travel north about 3 miles. At the first curve in the road CR 1125 E will become CR 1780 N. Lieb's farm is the first house on the right. The 60-acre pasture is visible from CR 1125 E.

On the Web: For a multimedia slide show, click on 'Bison in Piatt County' under 'Web Extras' at www.news-gazette.com.

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