As 40 Lewiston-Altura kindergartners piled off the school bus at Rockie Hill Bison farm in Winona Friday morning, it didn’t take long for them to see their first big, burly buffalo.
“I can see a buffalo already!” a student exclaimed, as the group followed farm owner Gail Griffin to the start of their tour.
Gail showed the kindergartners bison horns, fur, and other artifacts, explaining how buffalo differ from cattle. Gail and her husband, Dave, started the farm in 1992 when Dave bought three bison from a friend who’d won a herd in a card game.
Today, they have more than 85 of the gentle, grass-eating animals, which are native to Minnesota.
“Bison is their real name, and buffalo is their nickname,” Gail told the group.
The kindergartners got to visit the farm Friday as part of the Lewiston-Altura school district’s Farm-to-School program, thanks to grants from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Statewide Health Improvement Program.
Rockie Hill bison burgers are offered daily for high school lunches, and bison jerky is available a la carte, Lewiston-Altura nutrition director Vickie Speltz said. Younger kids get a chance to sample the meat several times throughout the year.
At the farm, Gail led the kindergartners up onto a trailer, and Dave towed them with his tractor out to the pasture, where the buffalo grazed a grassy hillside, some of them opting to cool off in a small pond.
As the tractor came to a stop, the buffalo shifted into a tighter group. About a dozen mothers with newborn calves kept their distance.
“You’ll see them lift their nose, trying to smell us,” Gail said.
“Do buffalo like to come over here?” asked kindergartner Lauren Murphy.
The younger ones do, Gail answered, as they’re usually the most curious.
Sure enough, a few smaller buffalo were soon nosing around a few yards away from the tractor.
“I see them shedding over there!” another kindergartner piped up.
Buffalo have some interesting habits, Gail told the group. They shed their winter coat each spring. They like to roll around in bare dirt, which helps keep bugs off. They make permanent trails in the landscape. They also really like being near the pond.
“They love to swim, and the babies are swimming within a day or two,” Gail said.
Bison, which are out in the pasture year-round, can also predict the weather. Gail said before a storm, the bison will gather in the north pasture. In the winter, they’ll huddle and face the wind.
Bison were nearly extinct due to overhunting in the early 1900s, but have made a comeback lately on farms like Rockie Hill. Their meat is increasingly sought after because it is low in fat and cholesterol, and all bison are raised without hormones or antibiotics.
Gail is the executive director of the Minnesota Buffalo Association, and said despite an increasing number of bison producers across the state, demand still outpaces supply.
Rockie Hill harvests 16-18 bison each year, and they don’t travel more than 30 miles from farm to plate, Gail said. They’re processed at Ledebuhr’s and sold to businesses and schools like Lewiston-Altura.
The kindergartners could be forgiven for not paying attention to all the nitty-gritty details, though. They were busy watching the animals wallow in dirt patches, drink water from the pond, urinate and munch grass.
When the bison got bored looking at the tractor, they galloped to the far side of the pasture with surprising grace.
“They’re awesome,” Murphy said. “I just want to ride one.”