Friday, February 27, 2015

From the Source Friday: SB Farms

The fourth Friday of every month is From the Source Friday! Show your appreciation to these dedicated fiber farmers as they teach you all about where your yarn comes from. Today's featured fiber is bison. Originating from prairies and grasslands, bison produce a fiber that is warm, fluffy, and strong. Shirley and Bill of SB Farms raise bison for all kinds of purposes, including fiber. Here's what they had to say about day to day life with these impressive animals.

Life on the farm...
Daily routines vary based on the season of the year.

Winter – Generally by mid-December the bison have exhausted the available pasture grass and are then moved off the pasture grazing rotations and into winter feeding lots. Here they are fed grass hay, a small amount of supplement and trace minerals. Bison eat about 2% of their body weight per day so we have to check on their hay supply daily and replenish it when necessary. We use large round bales of hay that are stored inside and are moved from the building to the feeding areas one at a time, sometimes needing 4 or 5 at a time. This can take about an hour and a half and is done regardless of rain, snow, wind, or cold. Each day we also check the water supply to be sure it is not frozen and they have access to it, and that is always has trace mineral present. All of this takes about 2 hours. 

Spring and Summer – By late March or early April the pastures have been fertilized and the grasses are beginning to grow. When the grasses reach a height of at least 6 inches we move the bison out of the winter feeding lots and into the pastures. We have 8 pastures and the herd is rotated through them based on the grass height. Each day the herd is visited to check on their well-being, check the water supply, pick up any hair that has shed, check on the trace mineral supply and monitor the grass availability. Calving season begins in late April and lasts until about mid-June. Part of the daily routine then is observing which cow had a calf, assuring the calf is OK and that the calf is nursing. This info is then recorded in our production records. In early June we begin our fly control program by mixing a fly growth inhibitor in the trace mineral and by using insects known as “fly predators”. We receive 20,000 of them per month and they are spread around the pastures and water stations. This daily routine takes about 1 hour and is performed regardless of the weather. In mid to late April we mow, rake and bale our own grass hay to be used for feeding the bison during extended summer droughts and during the winter. We try to have about 450 round bales of hay stored inside for each year’s hay feeding cycle. Once the grass reaches the optimum age and height it is mowed, raked and baled. Because the grass has to dry before it can be baled, there are usually 4 to 5 days between mowing and baling depending on the weather. Once baling is finished the bales are moved from the field to the storage building and stacked. The complete process takes from 6 to 8 days depending on the weather. The bison are rotated to different pastures based on grass height all through the spring, summer, and fall period. Moving the bison takes about 30 minutes each time.

Fall – By October we will have planted our grass for the next year’s hay crop. This takes about 2 days of work.  Near the end of the month the cows and calves are brought into our bison handling facility and we give each one a deworming shot and put ear tags on the calves. This takes about 6 hours of work with 4 people. The cows and calves are then let go back to pasture and during our daily pasture visits we observe which calf nurses which cow and is recorded by tag number. That information is then recorded in our production records. This usually takes about 30 minutes extra per day until all cow calf pairs are identified. Near the end of November we bring the cows and calves back into our handling facility and separate them. All of the calves are put into a group and all of the cows are put into a group and put back onto separate pastures. This takes about 3 hours to complete.

Bison Stories
Abandoned Calf 
Bison cows calve in the spring and generally have one calf. Sometimes 2 or 3 cows calve the same day and in order to record the birth date and the cow’s tag number we have to stay in the pasture with binoculars until we see the calves nurse a cow. One year during about the 3rd week of calving we had a cow herd in each of 2 adjacent pastures. Both herds had 4 or 5 calves with them. The pastures are about 1000 feet from our homestead. One morning I happened to look out the back of the house and there was a calf all by itself. I thought, wow! How did that calf get all the way up here by itself? With the help of my wife we caught the calf and headed down to the pastures where the cows were. Now normally when a calf gets separated from its mother the cow is extremely upset and will be in a frenzy until the calf is reunited. When we got to the pastures none of the cows appeared to have lost the calf. Well, what to do? We took the calf into the first pasture and got as close to the cows as possible and turned it loose. It ran right to the cows but no cow claimed it. We waited, the calf visited several cows and finally seemed to claim one but the cow wouldn’t let it nurse. We waited for about an hour but the calf didn’t nurse.

The next morning during our daily herd check we found the calf had gone through the fence and was with the cow herd in the adjacent pasture. We waited and watched. None of the cows claimed it and none would let it nurse. This was serious because by now the calf had not nursed for at least 24 hours. So there were only two choices: leave it on its own (which would surely result in death) or bottle feed it. So bottle feeding won. We have a neighbor who loves all animals and had quite a few on their farm: horses, pigs, cows, goats, sheep, chickens, etc. We called her and explained the dilemma and asked if she would take the orphan. “No! I can’t do it”. You have to or it will die. “I’ll call you back shortly” she says. In a few minutes she calls and says her cousin is on the way to get the calf. Great! We went back to the pasture and after about 30 minutes were able to catch the calf again and bring it up to the barn.

The cousin and his two young daughters arrived in a crew cab pick-up. The girls loved the calf. We got it to feed from a bottle, they scooped it up, put it in the back seat and away they went. The last report is he is doing well and is quite a pet.

The Great Escape 

Part of the process of raising livestock is weaning the calves from their mothers. With bison this is during late fall or early winter. One particular year we had weaned all of the calves and had put them in the same small winter feeding pasture as the breeding bulls. This is a common practice for us as the calves are with their daddies and it eases the weaning process. The weaning had been completed for several months and all of the calves had been well settled. A normal practice for us is to feed the calves a supplement several times per week after weaning. The calf feeding area is partitioned off from the pasture so the bulls can’t get to the feed but the calves can easily enter and exit. We had been using 2 five gallon buckets to fill the calf feeding bunks and the bulls always tried to get to the feed before we could get it into the calf feeding area. 

One particular day I filled the 2 buckets and walked over to the pasture gate and saw that both bulls were all the way across the pasture. I figured I could open the gate, slip in, dump the feed and get out again before the bulls knew what was happening. I opened the gate stepped in and pushed the gate shut. The wind was blowing against the gate and I figured it wouldn’t swing open so I didn’t latch it. By the time I made it to the calf feeding bunks one of the bulls came running toward me at full speed. I jumped inside with the feeding bunks and emptied the buckets. Now I was ready to leave but the bull was no more than 2 feet from me and I wasn’t about to chance coming out and trying to get by him and back to the gate. I waited, he waited. I waited some more, he waited some more. Well the only other way to get out was to climb over a seven foot wall and exit a different way – so that is what I did. I then went about finishing my chores and other necessary work.

As it happened, the weather forecast was for a snow storm coming in that night. And sure enough it started snowing and blowing about 9 PM. At about 1 AM the next morning my wife went to the bathroom and happened to look out the window. Holy cow! It was still snowing and what is that? A bison looking back at her – not 10 feet from the house? She woke me and said “the bison are out”. What?? “The bison are out” What?? How do you know? “I can see them right outside my bathroom window”. 

Oh no! Well, I’m not about to go out in this snow storm and try to get them rounded up and back where they belong I told her. So I spent most of the rest of the night listening to them roaming around the lawn and snorting and got very little sleep. At the first light of dawn I was up and saw the snow had stopped. I formulated a plan to try to get the bison rounded up and returned to their correct location. As soon as I got outside I could see bison tracks everywhere, but no bison around the house. I walked towards the pasture where I though they belonged and low and behold there they all were, in the pasture with the gate wide open. I walked over and closed and LATCHED the gate.

Here is how they got out. When I climbed over the wall to get away from the bull the previous day I didn’t go back by the gate. I forgot that I had just pushed it shut. During the night when the snow storm hit the wind changed direction and was blowing in the opposite direction. The wind blew the gate open and, being the naturally curious animals that they are, the bison decided to do some exploring.

Have a look!

Bison (American Buffalo) down is an extremely soft, comfortable product much like cashmere. It is strong, soft and very insulating and therefore warm – warmer than wool. Any item you choose to make out of this yarn will not pill – an added feature. Bison yarn needs no dying – we create the yarn using its rich, natural, chocolate brown color.

Man, I sure got a kick out of that second story, didn't you? Raising bison sounds like an adventure. If you're interested in bison yarn, SB Farms has some for sale on their website. Thank very much for all of the detailed information, Shirley and Bill!


  1. Thank you for the article. I had never heard of bison yarn before. Wouldn't a cap made of this be wonderful?! I think I will add them to my wish list for friends.

    1. Isn't it amazing? There are so many animals that we get fiber from. Thanks for reading!


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