Do you know where your meat comes from? Was the animal raised and killed with “compassion?” Do its survivors grieve? Bob Jackson says it all sounds so New Age, so Left of center, so radically alternative, so touchy feely, and yet many Americans are making a conscious shift in their diets and attitudes toward more healthful, natural foods. As the movement gains both cultural and economic momentum, consumers also are facing questions they never pondered before.
One of the native edibles appearing increasingly on family dinner menus is bison. Over the last several days, NewWest.Net has carried on a conversation with “Action” Jackson, the bison rancher who first made headlines as an outspoken backcountry ranger who battled big game poachers in the wilds of Yellowstone. But every autumn when he went home to Iowa for the winter, Jackson’s lesser-known parallel life took shape as he steadily grew his own bison herd.
In this, the conclusion to our interview with Jackson, he takes readers metaphorically and physically into his own backyard where he has enlisted bison to become a better land steward and to tweak the sensibilities of our consumer, fast-food society. He even shares what he does when he takes the life of a bison. Observers say the kinds of ideas Jackson espouses have broad implications for the environment, the U.S. economy, the dietary health of citizens, the tourism industry, and for the way humans interact with the land and the animals they select to inhabit it. —Todd Wilkinson
NEWWEST.NET: Bob Jackson, we’ve covered a lot of ground. While you recognize how the identity of Americans is shaped by the presence of public lands and public wildlife like bison, you are skeptical about the ability of politics and politicians to craft viable solutions that deliver real models of sustainability that actually work on the ground. In particular, you note the clash that exists between short-term private economic interests as well as re-election cycles that trump long-term biocentric thinking essential to the protection of natural life support systems such as our air, water, soil and wildlife resources.
BOB JACKSON: To cut to the chase quickly, it come back, for me, to the role of private producers who seek a better way and who are trying to steer the marketplace in a different direction. I want a marketplace that has a conscience.
NEW WEST.NET: Some are going to call you a hypocrite for raising animals that are destined for the very marketplace you want to change. How sensitive can you be to an animal that you are raising to be sold, killed, and eaten? How much sympathy do predators have for their prey?
BOB JACKSON: What I am talking about is attaining a sense of peace with the idea of consuming an animal that, in many ways, we are equal to and to a certain degree dependent upon. As one person, I cannot manipulate the market, but I can control my own small influence on it, which admittedly is only a small ripple. That means trying to apply what I know about bison to my own herd and assess the way my animals are living on the land. This is what we are trying to do at Tall Grass Bison. I get hundreds of people every year, from other ranchers to tourists, who are fascinated by bison. They want to come to a place where bison have a home on the land.
Sure, we raise animals that are ultimately killed and eaten. This is part of reality. We shouldn’t run from it or pretend that it doesn’t exist. We as a species live on other life forms whether we eat meat or are Vegans subsisting on plants or other organisms. As meat producers, we provide this food to others with monetary compensation in mind because that’s how our economy works. But to do this sustainably and ethically, we need to remove superiority from the equation. Superiority of humans over the animals we produce. Superiority of one type of animal over another. Superiority of one cut of meat over another. Once this happens, the answers of how to be sustainable, ethical and profitable fall into place. It comes closer to a life of harmony.
NEWWEST.NET: At Tall Grass Bison, the name of your farm/ranch on the eastern Great Plains, you view your operation as a working laboratory where you are trying to practice what you preach, right?
|Among the stewardship tools that Jackson uses is igniting controlled burns that mimic wildfires which blazed across the prairie historically, nurturing biodiversity and making grasses more nutritious for his bison.|
BOB JACKSON: Before we talk about what I am doing at Tall Grass Bison, let’s set the context: We as a nation have a long ways to go, and a lot of changes are needed to overcome the physical influences and ethical compromises/abuses that have been made during agriculture’s Industrial Revolution. My father, who was a farmer, and his fellow neighbors knew their fathers raised better food than they did and they knew their fathers’ fathers raised healthier food yet.
At each step in each subsequent generation, the elder could say how good his hams use to be and how raising hybrids instead of open pollinated corn meant supplements had to be fed to keep the pigs healthy. But each generation was faced with the same dilemma: “Value” of food shifted to become based on raw volume and weight. The more that was produced the better my recent ancestors could make a living on the farm. It created a different notion of prosperity but is it sustainable?
Really, how far back do we have to go to find out how Earth worked to provide for us? It doesn’t take much research to bust today’s agribusiness hype that young animals are best and all other ages are “marked down” as a food. Europeans, even after the Industrial Revolution only a few generations ago, preferred mature animals. I could go back further, and I could note how the ancient Greeks preferred five year old oxen. Or we can stay on this continent and talk about indigenous peoples. Mature caribou were preferred by the Eskimos and mature buffalo for Plains Indians.
We have a bias against older animals, just as we have a youth-oriented bias against older people. My search, which lead me to a better understanding of equality between people and bison, lead me back to studying Native Americans. Fortunately these people were at the top of their game just prior to the arrival of white settlers and this coincided with bison having a very extensive family infrastructure. The information was recorded.
Colonel Dodge, quite the food connoisseur, noted the Plains Indians had over 500 hundred different ways of preparing bison. 500 different ways! Since they had no copies of Larousse Gastronomique, one had to assume the reason they had so many “recipes” was to utilize the nutritional components that bison and their extended families provide in sustaining them.
This nutritional knowledge was far more advanced than anything we know today. Meat from calves and yearlings, I found out, went to the very young in the tribe and the very old. These were the community members without good teeth and possessed compromised digestive systems (white explorers on the frontier scene had mistaken the preference by Indians for young animals because these animals were brought back to camp first. But it was to feed the young and older individuals).
For this part of the population maximum nutrition, given calories spent, wasn’t as important. I found out male members of the tribe needed more intense nutrition than females, if those females didn’t have the physical rigors of the men. For women, the milder meat of cows was preferred. The older segment of a bison herd, as long as they were in good health, again approached the “mild” level of nutrition. We had the whole herd now ethically accounted for and I then realized the buffalo jumps, the surrounds and the piskins were harvesting methods that honored all ages and classes of bison.
|Jackson takes pride in opening his bison ranch to field trips for school children, helping them answer the question of where their food comes from.|
But what about the individual bison hunted by these indigenous hunter-gatherers? Again, it mirrored the same reductions the herd carried out on its own. Yellowstone’s bison herds and our herd in Iowa placec the “extra” animals on the fringes. They don’t have to be unhealthy to be in this position. Maybe they just didn’t fit in.
In the old times on the plains, these were the animals that were easiest to hunt by humans or predated on by wolves. Besides identifying these animals for harvesting we also knew we could harvest half the male population. In Yellowstone today, bulls are often the first to die from winter’s effects. They die first because their competitive need to grow bodies fast means there have greater nutritional needs to maintain that body frame.
At Tall Grass Bison, our selection of bulls for harvest would never be as good as nature’s but by looking at behaviors in the herd we can, with some certainty, select the bull groups the females are shunning.
As for the satellite or other outlying groups, those in bison herds are the same as most any wildlife population in susceptibility to hunting mortality. Use waterfowl as an example. The spin off duck and geese flocks were well known in hunting circles of being easiest to shoot.
We had the option to sell starter herds or harvest the superior meat in order to keep numbers of animals within carrying capacity on our landscape. For us, this meant our herd of 400 bison maxes out the 1,000 fertile acres we have. It is a limiting factor to our business but doesn’t have to be the limiting factor for herd vitality and ethical compatibility. Thus it is the same for any private or public herd. There was a compatible way to utilize all components and still have true restoration of social order herds.
After finding equality in ages and sexes of animals in food production, we needed to address the cuts of meat we were offering. Modern meat industry elevates one over the other and price according to their divisions in “quality.” To me, this degrades each animal. The Plains Indians’ 500 ways of preparing bison had to include all cuts and parts of that animal. The search for better utilizing our animals was on.
NEWWEST.NET: And what did you learn?
BOB JACKSON: First, I found out that the meat industry’s priority was placed on a relatively small area of animal anatomy—the hind quarters of cattle where all those steaks and tender roasts are located. But it did not match up with what the indigenous adult population needed for their maximum nutrition. These people gave the hinds to the camp dogs when meat was plentiful. Hunter-gathers, I discovered, sought different parts of the animals nutrition while modern meat industries went after a Holy Grail of uniformity and consistency. Of course, native peoples did not have vitamin pills to go along with Big Macs and filets like we do.
Industry had turned meat preferences completely around in the modern world and gave us an inferior product, a lot of burger and a lot of waste. It wasn’t fair to the animals we eat . Industry’s approach to feed the different ages, sex, and health conditions of our complex human population meant delivering very narrow slices of the pie not for the good of the consumers but because it was convenient for them to maximize their profit.
The seasonings of our chefs might mollify our palates but what the meat industry puts on our plate is a meat from basically one age of animal, the 15 to 24 month old juvenile. Industry’s futile search for more profit will always be an exercise in compromise and its quest leads us further away from a basic understanding of nutrition.
More important yet, it also leaves a lot of mental table scraps in our heads. This “best animal” attitude, invented by industry, has created a prejudice and debasement among animal producers, as well as consumers, no different than the prejudices we form when we simplify the cultures of other peoples.
Old in our culture had become bad and youth was supreme. I should add that most livestock producers I know take pride in producing a whole animal, not one whose premium value is derived by focusing on only a few of its parts. Much of their hard work, including the grass that gets converted from sun energy into meat, is squandered once their animals leave the ranch and are trucked to feed lots and slaughter houses.
|Jackson’s Tall Grass Bison Ranch has become a tourist attraction and a place where agrarians hoping to get into the bison business can go to learn.|
Actually, nutrition ain’t what we think it is. Some parts of the animal body contain more nutrition than others. There was at least one war in North Africa fought because one tribe kept all the sheep tails for themselves. Tails move all the time and we now understand why other cultures even today relish oxtail soup.
The front half of an animal is used more than the hind because the front moves side to side as well as pushing forward. It may seem a bit morbid, but cannibals favored the forearms and fingers of their victims. But again unless we start to prejudice ourselves, all parts are considered equal in satisfying the needs of human populations.
In reality, appreciating all of the parts together make up for a better whole.
NEWWEST.NET: Are you suggesting that focusing on harvesting a single age class of meat animals doesn’t work?
BOB JACKSON: Not if a top priority is delivering maximum nutrition to consumers. Nor does it show any respect for the nature of the animal. Nutrients can not concentrate as much in a young body that is growing. This is why mature animals were sought out by active human populations. Native people knew better. Not only do older animals have more flavor but this flavor is a result of nutrition. Mature animals also have what industry abhors, connective tissue and dense bones but this is where a lot of the nutrition comes from.
Our meat lockers hate us when we bring our field slaughtered bison in. They can only cut up three of our mature bison with their band saws before dulling the blade, while the same number of saws can go through 12 to 15 young beef. With industry assembly lines so dependent on speed this connective tissue and bone very much slows down production.
Nutrition also comes from the organ meats. Our six month old frozen liver from mature animals, in a study at Iowa State University, was found to have 19 times the amount of fat soluble vitamins as that obtained from fresh store bought beef liver. No wonder Indians ate the liver first.
Native Americans said buffalo was the only animal that could provide all their nutritional needs . If that’s true, I’d have to guess it was because this animal had the best infrastructure of abundance and value on the Plains). They had to eat the whole animal to get nutrition, however.
The folly of modern industry’s search for the Holy Grail can best be assessed by what we see in the display counters at supermarkets. The most expensive cut of meat, the filet, is often wrapped in bacon to give it flavor. You tell me what’s wrong with that? We are what we eat and the quality of the food that our food source—in this case, bison— eats is totally responsible for the nutrition we obtain from that animal.
NEWWEST.NET: You are going to find a lot of resistance from the beef industry which has spent billions of dollars teaching consumers not only what kind of meat is good for us and how it should be presented on our plates, but the industry has told cattlemen and women what they need to do to achieve a better financial return for their product. The cattle industry regards bison producers as a tiny niche market that they can just ignore.
BOB JACKSON: Bison are hardier and better adapted to the Great Plains than cattle because this is where they evolved. That gives them a competitive advantage that many former cattle producers are recognizing and they are making the switch because they no longer believe the script that the beef industry keeps feeding them. Their biggest fear is educated consumers who have serious doubts about industrial agriculture.
In fact, we need to throw out the rigid book of husbandry that has been preached and practiced in the West these past 150 years which, when you think about it, isn’t a very long period of time.
There is nothing truly sustainable, and never will be, with today’s domestic agricultural practices that are geared to maximum production and don’t take into account the toll of production that is hurting the land. Producers need to think differently about their animals. Land grant universities need to at least invite fresh ideas that challenge the norm.
Husbandry has focused on individuals. This is the opposite of raising complex social order herds like those that make bison bison. The ability for herd families to manage themselves is directly proportionate to our knowledge of how not to mess them up, i.e. today’s public bison herds.
NEWWEST.NET: How have you nurtured family structure with bison on your land?
BOB JACKSON: Anyone with enough area to support the roles provided by 30 multigenerational blood relatives can do it We have core power groups of 60 to 70 matriarchal animals, 2 to 3 spin off groups within the herd, plus bull groups on the side for a total of 300 animals.
|A herd comprised of primary and extended bison families trails across Jackson’s ranch.|
After that, territories and competition come into play. Colonel Dodge saw groups separated from each other within the larger herd. It is the same size and numbers of individuals for humans, elk, elephants, chimpanzees, and partridges in a pear tree. Big brains have nothing to do with it while emotion has everything to do with it. Families have to interpret emotions a LOT to be successful and there are limits.
So how do we raise herd animals without all the pitfalls of human frailty? At Tall Grass Bison, it is imperative that we keep the core infrastructure that has been building for the last 30 years. The spin off or satellite groups are the ones we nurture for sale to other producers looking to get a head start on managing for family social order. We think of these sales as franchises, fully functional companies created with the lessons learned by the mother company, but with owner independence. The more complex this infrastructure, the more options for the manager. That is why I said large bison ranchers have the most potential in utilizing herd infrastructure. They can produce the most extensive natural, environmentally sustainable corporations in the world with multiples of extended families all learning from their ancestors and competing with the other departments to obtain the best traits. But lest we let this power go to our heads, the key to success for any sized social order producer is to remember the herd is the COMPANY and we are the caretaker.
NEWWEST.NET: So let’s get this straight. You grow bison in family units, you make family structure the core element of your herd, and when you harvest or sell animals, your focus is on satellite family units that are offshoots of the main herd? Even when you cull animals for harvest, you identify self-contined families and then remove all of the members together?
BOB JACKSON: That’s pretty much right. It results in less chaos and actually creates more stability and less stress for most of the animals.
NEWWEST.NET: Does it bother you to be harvesting family groups. Isn’t that traumatic for both the animals and for you?
BOB JACKSON: Let me get back to the ethics and morality of killing animals. How can we kill something that is like us, having the same families and emotions?
When I pull the trigger on any animal for slaughter I have to think of the surviving extended family members that wait for days at the final gate of life…. for a loved one I killed after leading this animal through that gate.
My herd visits the bones of their deceased family member every year the same as elephants do. A grown up daughter will stay with a dying mother for the last week of her life, leaving only when the mother has nothing left of life.
I’ve witnessed other kinds of interactions as well; things I couldn’t have believed unless I saw them with my own eyes. Bison take care of each other. I’ve watched grandmothers retrieve wayward offspring that wouldn’t, for some reason, cross our road to reach new pastures. The grandmother would first join the milling herd and then in minutes go back through the gate to look for those that were missing. An hour later she might have one to 10 young bison with her ready to join the rest of the herd. Not only did she assume this responsibility but the family trusted her to bring back the ones inadvertently left behind.
In dysfunctional herds, where animals were culled or sold off willy nilly, every mother would have left the herd to rush to their young. Our non producing grandmother, one that every private commercial producer out there looks upon as a drain to that herd, thus delivered a huge benefit to the whole herd’s health and welfare.
With knowledge of these emotions in bison, how can I kill? It took a lot of reading and introspection to come to peace with myself. Killing isn’t easy, at least it isn’t easy for me. I think anyone who hunts or kills needs to doing a little reflecting.
Killing affects us in ways not alway visible but it’s important that we come to terms with our actions. I have read how impotence was a major problem among those human butchers working in the Chicago Stock Yards kill floors. I knew first hand how killing affected the locker plant guys to whom I took my animals for cutting up. They were numb to what they were doing and divorce rates were high in their profession. They internalized their emotions.
Soon I realized it was impossible not to give every animal I killed a prayer to them and their family. To be part of nature and raise them as part of nature I had to do the same thing all hunter-gatherers would do, honor and respect all forms of life.
I believe there is better way for everyone; otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing this. The switch in operational attitude may, upon first glance, seem irrelevant to anyone but the producer. In reality it is a harbinger of philosophical change in how we view animals. By allowing bison and other animals the dignity of having a little self determination on the ranch or the refuge and national park, the consumer and general population is being exposed to a concept of greater respect of animals. This, in turn, allows researchers, public herd managers and decision makers to follow suit and “rediscover” what all hunter-gatherer populations knew, that there is uniqueness in all animals and in many ways they are reflections of us.
If, in the end, this year is not the “right time” for this kind of thought, for me it still means the satisfaction of knowing there is a better way still waiting to happen. Whether it is protecting the animals of Yellowstone from poachers or raising them on my farm, I am my Brothers Keeper in the animal kingdom. And so are you.
Click on the links below to read previous installments of the conversation with Bob Jackson.
- Part I: Controversial Yellowstone Ranger Becomes Bison Rancher
- Part II: Bob Jackson on “Bison Culture” And Traditional Ag
- Part III: In Animal Kingdom, Are Bison Equal In ‘Value’ To Humans?
- Part IV: What Does Bison Restoration Look Like? One Rancher’s View
- Part V: A Bare-Knuckled Poke At Public Bison Herds In the West