MONTICELLO — It started out as a hobby when Terry Lieb bought a bison in 2000, a way to look out on the pasture on his farm and take a look back in time, when millions of bison roamed the American plains.
As the herd grew, it eventually became a business for Lieb Farms.
After Terry Lieb died in 2015, his sons took over both the business and the passion for conservation. Now, 45 to 55 bison graze their fields at a given time, and the Liebs try to keep the animals as close to their native state as possible.
“They’re natural as they were 200 years ago. We really don’t mess with them too much,” said Jake Lieb, who runs the farm with his brother, Josh. “And that’s kind of the creed of the bison producer. We don’t artificially inseminate. We don’t choose the winners and losers. The big bull does the breeding. It’s a natural process. We don’t pick the ones that are docile, that don’t have an attitude. We want to keep them as natural as possible.”
Meat in demand
While the Liebs don’t necessarily raise bison for the money, business has never been better.
Due to closures to meat packing plants, protein became more expensive and difficult to come by. Customers started flocking to Lieb Farms for their meat, which usually costs more than beef but was suddenly priced competitively.
“(The shortage) definitely got people looking elsewhere to source the meat and open their eyes up,” Jake Lieb said. “I’m sure people started googling on-farm meat sales and things like that and found our bison farm. We’ve been selling the hell out of it. I can’t keep it in the freezer.
“I’ve got a lot of time invested in these animals. Just being grass-fed, they don’t put on weight like beef does, so I charge a premium for that. But in recent times, with the spike in what people are seeing at the grocery store, my meat’s very competitive. It’s a lot healthier, too.”
Once, an estimated 30 to 60 million bison lived in the U.S., according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. After the construction of the transcontinental railroad, buffalo were nearly exterminated in the late 19th century. Private farms and reserves, though, have built the number of buffalo to an estimated 500,000 in recent years.
Watch your step
A bison, Lieb said, takes around three years to raise to maturity, when they usually weigh in around 1,200 to 1,400 pounds, about half of which becomes meat, which is learner than beef.
Of course, raising wild animals has its dangers. While he mostly leaves the animals alone, Lieb has to encounter the bison when feeding them vitamins and minerals and tagging their ears. In those times, he’s careful with an animal that can run up to 40 miles an hour and jump 6 feet in the air.
“These animals aren’t domesticated like cows,” he said. “If you walk into a pen, nine times out of 10, cows are going to turn away from you, whereas bison, they’re going to turn towards you, start pawing the ground, and you’d better start doing something different. They raise their tail, you’re going to get charged. They’ve charged me several times, and they know me. They’re OK out on pasture, but when you put them in a corral and start sorting them out for whatever reason, we’ll ear-tag, give them vitamins and minerals.”
What was once a hobby has now become more of a moneymaker than ever, even though the farm still gets a majority of its income for corn and soybeans.
If it were solely about money, though, the Liebs would spend their time elsewhere.
“There’s times when we’re working the herd and they’re being aggressive and things aren’t going right and you’re like, ‘Man, it would be a lot easier just to convert this pasture into a cornfield,’” Lieb said. “But that feeling fades away when your first calf in the spring is born and you see the circle of life. You look out over the pasture and you see tall grass in the summertime blowing in the wind, and you see 50 bison out on there, and you look out there and you don’t see any houses, and all you see is grass and bison. That’s why we do it. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”