Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Visit to a Colorado Buffalo Ranch

This was originally published in the March, 2006, edition of the Left Hand Valley Courier, as part of my regular column series, Vicinity And Beyond.

Where’s The Buff?

When city-slicker friends come to visit you, prove that you live in the wild, wild West by taking them to the 100-acre Spomer Ranch in Milliken. Dave Hayes, ranch owner, assured me that there’s someone at the ranch “24/7, unless we do something crazy like go to the bank or something.”

The Spomer ranch has been in the family since the late 1800s. Spomer is Hayes’ grandmother’s maiden name. He said, “I came to the ranch in 1989 after my grandmother passed away, to do some remodel work and ended up staying.”

If Hayes isn’t around, ranch hand Ray Cook is ready and willing to explain the ins and outs of bison ranching. Yes, this isn’t a cattle ranch; it’s a home where buffalo roam.

If no one is around to greet visitors, there’s a bell outside as well as instructions as to where to look if no one appears.

“I’ve had people come as early as 6 a.m.,” Cook said, “and as late as 10 at night.”

Before we go any further, it’s time to clarify the bison/buffalo thing. The critters that live in America are scientifically known as bison, but we’ve been calling them buffalo for so long that the name has stuck. The animals that scientists call buffalos live only in Africa and Asia. But I’m staying true to the song. As far as I’m concerned, you’ll find roaming buffalo at Spomer Ranch.

Well, not exactly roaming. Buffalo aren’t the friendliest of animals and can cop quite the attitude when they imagine they’ve been provoked.

On a recent visit to the ranch, Cook wanted to move some buffalo out of the way so we could see Dazzle, a tiny baby buffalo. One of the adult buffalo didn’t like the idea, and put on quite the show.

Placid buffalo are one thing, but when one of them lowers its head, paws the ground and snorts, it’s a pretty impressive warning. Yet, another buffalo was so tame, it came up to the fence and allowed me to be petted. Cook cautioned that letting the buffalo lick you could be a little unpleasant. “It’s like a cat’s tongue,” he said.

Spomer Ranch raises buffalo, and boards them for other people, with an average of about 100 buffalo on the ranch most of the time. They also board horses and grow alfalfa and grass.

Another part of the operation is Red Barn Bison company, which sells bison products including meat, hides, heads and anything else usable. To keep up with the demand for buffalo products, Hayes contracts with other ranches to raise buffalo for him.

In Windsor, Hayes sells his meat at The Wild Side and runs a processing plant, Yauk’s Specialty Meats. He said, “This business has grown steadily for 30 years. We are now moving into a new building in Windsor and will have a café and deli along with the current retail meat market. We hope to maintain the ranch market and keep some bison on the ranch for viewing.”

While ground buffalo is readily available in area grocery stores, other cuts are harder to find. Red Barn has them all, from ground to stew to steak to roasts to sausages to the puzzling packages marked RMO, which I found out were Rocky Mountain oysters. Besides buffalo meat, I found some ground yak and some elk meat in one of Red Barn’s freezers, all available for purchase.

Cook pointed out that buffalo is a lot leaner than most meats, and that he lost a lot of weight, about 60 pounds, by eating buffalo. USDA information confirms it: for 100 grams of cooked lean meat, buffalo has 2.42 grams of fat, while skinless chicken has 7.41 grams, beef has 9.3 grams and pork has 10.5 grams. Buffalo is also lower in calories and cholesterol.

The meat is so lean that you’ll usually need to add some fat when you cook it. Brown some ground beef and you’ll be draining fat from it. Cook some ground buff from Red Barn, and you’ll need to add a little fat to brown it, and you won’t have anything to drain.

And according to the ground bison packaging, it’s “the original red meat.” Who can argue with that?

Spomer Ranch is at 23675 WCR 27 ½ in Milliken, Colorado.

The Wild Side is at 220 Main in Windsor, Colorado.