FRANKFORT, Ohio — On a two-lane country road, about 10 miles this side of Chillicothe, sits Owl Creek Bison, one of 46 bison ranches in Ohio. Greg and Jacqueline Ruter bought 375 acres of pasture and woods about five years ago, and moved from their home in Finneytown.
“I couldn’t find any pasture in Finneytown,” Greg joked.
They started with 22 bison calves trucked in from Colorado. Five years later, they have a herd of 120.
“Such a majestic animal,” Jacqueline said.
The Ruters’ passion for bison, often called the American plains buffalo, might seem out of place in Southwest Ohio, but bison are native to Ohio and Kentucky. In fact, some of our roads were built over the trails, or traces, that the buffalo created when wild herds moved from one place to another. That’s where a well known Kentucky bourbon got its name — Buffalo Trace.
On May 9, President Obama signed a law making the bison the country’s first national mammal.
The bison has come a long way. There was a time in the last century when America almost lost this distinctive animal. In the early 1800s, there were 30 to 40 million buffalo in the U.S. By the late 1800s, hunting reduced the population to about 1,000.
Now, on ranches around the country, mostly small operations like the Ruters’ ranch, bison are being carefully managed and making a steady comeback. At last count, there are 162,000 bison, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Out in the pasture, bison might look like domesticated animals, but it’s not like raising cows.
“The wild comes out right away. It’s always right there,” Greg said.
Adults usually weigh more than 1,000 pounds, but Greg watched one of his bison jump a 6-½ foot fence. They’re also powerful and fast. They can run 35 miles per hour.
“I don’t walk out there. I’m always in a vehicle or a tractor or something,” Greg said. “You don’t want to be caught out there. You don’t want to be surrounded by them. No place to go.”
Greg and other ranchers love the challenge of getting to know an animal that has a mind of its own.
“I can spend all day out there with them just watching them,” said Quinn Kahrig, a bison rancher from Woodsfield, in eastern Ohio. “I took that risk of raising them. People said I’m crazy, but I never looked back.”
Bison in the Tri-State
Ohio: 46 ranches with 849 bison
Kentucky: 41 ranches with 1,411 bison
Indiana: 58 ranches with 1,319 bison
Source: 2012 USDA Agricultural Census
The Ruters look forward to when they can give up their day jobs and raise bison full-time, but not yet.
Jacqueline has a master's degree in environmental science, and a job with UC Health. Greg has a degree in economics, which helps him run a small, family-owned trucking company, in Finneytown.
In the 1980s and '90s, while Greg was driving moving vans across the country, he discovered bison. When he ate bison burgers, something clicked.
“I realized there was a market for the meat,” he said.
That’s when this love story turned into a food story.
Where to buy Owl Creek Bison
- Montgomery Farmers’ Market: 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday
- Hyde Park Farmers’ Market: 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday
- Holzman’s Meats, 10815 Montgomery Road, in Montgomery
- Green Bean Delivery
- Chillicothe Farmers’ Market: 8 a.m. to noon Saturday
- Hirsch’s Market, 41 Seney Road, Chillicothe
Greg is raising a type of red meat that appeals to the growing number of health-conscious shoppers. Bison is lower in cholesterol, calories and fat, and higher in protein than beef. And, all of the Ruters’ bison are grass-fed and grass-finished, which means they eat only grass, instead of going to a feedlot to fatten up on grain right before they are processed. Grass-finished meat is higher in beneficial Omega 3 fatty acids and has a subtly different taste.
In addition, the Ruters use no growth stimulants, hormones or antibiotics.
“We’re just doing it as naturally as we can, keeping it close to what the animals would be doing if they were on their own — because it makes the best quality meat,” Jacqueline said.
With so little fat, bison can’t be cooked like beef. Overcooking bison is the most common mistake. That’s why the Ruters like to sell at farmers’ markets, where they can talk to each customer about how to cook bison.
Greg and Jacqueline are happy to help customers. After all, they combined their new profession with their passion.
“They’re gorgeous animals. And they’re so smart. And it’s just neat to have such a tradition — an American tradition — right in our backyard,” Greg said.
How to cook bison
Here are tips on how to cook bison and recipes