When European settlers arrived in North America, there were probably around a million American bison roaming the continent in huge herds that were miles wide and took days to pass.
The peoples of the First Nations and the new settlers thought the bison, which they called buffalo, would remain forever. Their numbers seemed endless and had provided the First Nations with food, shelter, clothing, and fuel for fires for centuries.
The dream of domesticating the shaggy beasts of the plains was the goal of many early cattlemen who brought their own European domesticated cattle with them.
It wasn’t until the millions of bison had dwindled down to perhaps a few hundred that anyone seriously undertook active breeding of bison or bison‑cattle hybrids. Some cattlemen gathered the few remaining Buffalo and attempted to domesticate them and cross them with domestic cattle.
These few probably 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.
Early attempts at hybridization produced infertile bulls. For the early breeders, this was a serious setback. Although these early accounts are none too clear, it appears that only back crosses to cattle were attempted in search of fertile males. Good fertility was not achieved until the bison percentage was bred down to an eighth or a sixteenth. These early experiments gave rise to the common belief that a cross breed with fertile males could not be achieved with a genetically significant amount of bison.
In 1914, the government of Canada started an experiment that lasted for over forty years and collected a great deal of data about the hybrids and their meat. The researchers back-crossed first-generation hybrid (F1) females to cattle bulls and again found that fertility was not satisfactory until the third or forth cross with cattle. And at these levels of bison, most of the advantages of the breed had disappeared. It seemed Beefalo wasn’t a viable breed.
Burnell and Basolo
In the late 1940s, Jim Burnell of Montana started trying to cross bison and cattle, starting on a new path using a bison bull with the F1 females. In 1957, he produced his first three-quarter bison bull that was fertile. In the meantime, he had been elected to the Montana legislature, so he didn’t have time to actively pursue the experiment.
It turned out that this bull, named 903, and its brother, 930, were both fertile. Another farmer and breeder, Bud Basalo, heard of Burnell’s bulls, and arranged to take them to California for further breeding experiments. In California, 903’s semen was collected for several months and furnished to breeders in return for the first generation of calves from the breeders.
Basolo didn’t make much information available to the public, so all the statistics on those early experiments are speculative. It’s probable that several thousand units of 903 semen were used in this first generation. 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 via natural service. At any rate, Basolo started Beefalo with 17 or 18 bulls that he called the first generation Beefalo bulls.
Making It Official
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 allows 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 their profits (or perhaps make a profit) for the first time in years.
With or without the marketing label, Beefalo has a bright future.
Information provided by the American Beefalo Association.