The history of Beefalo really starts with the Bison. The Bison or incorrectly American Buffalo were here before the fist settlers arrived. They were in almost every part of what we now call the United States and Canada.
The estimates of the numbers of Bison that were in North America vary a great deal but all those who have made estimates agree that there were more Bison in what is now the United States than there are cattle now. It is difficult for us now to imagine the huge herds that were miles wide and took days to pass, being diminished to only a few hundred head in a matter of years. The Indians, and the new white settlers, thought the Buffalo would continue to roam the plains forever. The name Buffalo was erronous1y applied to the American Bison through the ignorance of the first early settlers in this country. Whatever name you give the animal, the herds seemed to be endless. They provided the Indians with food, shelter, clothing, and fuel for cooking fires.
The dream of domesticating the shaggy beasts of the plains was the goal of many early cattlemen but until the millions of Bison had dwindled down to perhaps a few hundred did anyone seriously undertake active breeding of Bison and the hybrids of the two species (Bison and Bovine). A few cattlemen gathered the few remaining Buffalo and attempted to both domesticate them and cross them with domestic cattle. These few men undoubtedly saved the Bison from extinction. All of the commercial herds of Bison and all the park herds came from these few animals. We will never know how much we lost of the genetic diversity of the Bison, but we do know that we almost lost the Bison entirely.
These early attempts to cross Bison and Bovine gave us the first bad news. The first cross bulls were not fertile. For the early breeders, this was a serious setback. Although these early accounts are none too clear, it appears that only back crosses to bovine were attempted in search of fertile males. Good fertility was not achieved until the Bison percentage was reduced by subsequent generations down to 1/8 or 1/16. These early experiments gave rise to the common belief that a cross could not be achieved that contained a significant amount of Bison and have fertile bulls. This assumption has been taught as fact by most of the agricultural schools since 1900.
In about 1914, the government of Canada started an experiment that lasted for over forty years. Although a great deal of data was collected about the animals and the meat from hybrids, again the experimenters back-crossed F1 females to Bovine bulls. And again fertility was not satisfactory until the third or forth cross with Bovine. At these levels of Bison, most of the advantages of Bison had disappeared.
In the late 1940’s, Jim Burnell of Montana started an attempt to cross Bison and Bovine. Jim started on a new path using a Bison bull to back-cross with the F1 females. In 1957, he had his first fertile 3/4 Bison bull. Since he had been elected to the Montana legislature that year, he did not have time to actively pursue the experiment using his first 3/4 Bison bull. Bud Basalo had heard of Jim’s bull and took the fertile bull and two others to California. The fertile bull was 903 and one of the other bulls was his brother 930. The third bull never became fertile. The bull known as 903 was collected for several months and semen was furnished to breeders and in return purchased the entire calf crop from the breeders. The credit for the name Beefalo is generally given to D.C. (Bud) Basalo of California. The name Beefalo is said to have originated in the early seventies as a result of the claimed production of fertile 3/8 Bison, 5/8 Bovine by Bud Basolo. However, hybrids of Bison/Bovine have been produced since the early colonial days.
It is probable that several thousand units of 903 semen were used in this way. Very little was known at that time about the problems associated with breeding domestic cows with 314 Bison semen. It is doubtful that the semen produced more than 4% live calves and perhaps as low as 2%. Using these estimates, there could have been produced 100 or so live calves from 903. It has been reported that Basolo also used both 903 and 930 to breed cows natural service. At any rate Basolo started Beefalo with 17 or 18 bulls that he called the 1st generation bulls. Since Basolo has not seen fit to provide any information, we can only guess at the real numbers and how they were produced.
In the spring of 1985, the United States Department of Agriculture published a handbook that allows Beefalo carcasses to be stamped “Beef from Beefalo” or “Beefalo Beef” provided the animal had been registered in the American Beefalo World Registry (ABWR) meat registry and was handled during slaughter in accordance with the USDA instructions. This allows Beefalo to be marketed as Beefalo or as Beef depending on the market. This will allow Beefalo breeders to develop markets for Beefalo Beef without being restricted to selling Beefalo as “Beefalo Beef“. A test conducted by Texas A&M University shows that Beefalo performs as well on a high roughage ration as other beef breeds performs on a more concentrated ration. In addition, many tests over the years have shown that Beefalo is higher in protein and lower in both fat and cholesterol than standard.
The number of Beefalo are quite small compared to the more established breeds, but with the move to less fat and cholesterol, Beefalo has an outstanding opportunity to advance rapidly during the next few years. Beefalo offers the hard-pressed cattlemen the opportunity to improve his profit (or perhaps make a profit) for the first time in years. With or without the special marketing label for Beefalo, Beefalo has a bright future.
Information provided by the American Beefalo World registry