Published Sep 5, 2014

Field Day Report: At Home on the Range, Hawkeye Buffalo

By Liz Kolbe

“You have to keep feeding them or they’re gonna go away – they don’t really care about us.” I used to say that about college students at seminar, but as I learned from Martha McFarland, the same is true for hand feeding buffalo ears of corn from the wagon.

Twenty field day attendees were piled into a wagon, pulled into the woods by an Allis Chalmers driven by Martha’s father, Dan McFarland (he bought the tractor new in 1958). The McFarland family homesteaded the property near Fredericksbury in 1854, and though they sold 80 acres to Chickasaw County in the 1960’s (for $165/acre) to create Split Rock Park, they still keep buffalo, hereford cattle, two adopted burros, an adopted mustang, and 21 yard-roaming chickens.

The field day began with two staffers from Green Iowa Americorps discussing their energy audit and weatherization program, highlighting the work they did on Dan McFarland’s house and the chicken coop. Practical Farmers and Green Iowa Americorps collaborated to do energy audits and weatherizations on five farms during the summer of 2014, McFarland’s being one.

The most adventure for the Americorps crew came in the chicken coop, which provided a “treasure hunt” through the coop’s attic as well as a much improved, insulated envelope for the chickens. “I can’t say enough about the program,” said Martha. “For someone to come in and say,’ let’s check this out for you and do it really well – and we’ll actually do some of the work for you,’ was so wonderful.”

Said Ashley Craft of Green Iowa Americorps, “It’s really great know that the possibility exists to translate the work we do in residential areas to other buildings – we were a little nervous starting out!” She continued, “It’s so great to have met the expectations of the homeowner, to see the final product, and I’m excited to see the difference in egg production during the winter months!”


The group then moved on to the buffalo portion of the tour. Dan McFarland brought buffalo to the farm in the 1990’s, and over the years has provided tours, guided hunts, and sold meat in the on-farm store. Martha returned to the ranch three years ago to help her Dad with the business, grow the buffalo herd and begin re-establishing a herd of hereford cattle. Among the challenges they face, Martha noted removing multiflora rose from the property (they use a brush hog) and establishing cross-fencing.

“One of the things that has been frustrating for me is knowing that we should be able to support more animals back there than we can right now. Buffalo eat less than cattle, that’s great news in the winter time with hay. But they’re very picky, especially if they’re allowed a large space to go anywhere they want, and that means things like burdock have really grown up in places, things that cattle will normally munch down. Most literature says buffalo will naturally rotate themselves, and that’s true. What you’ll find in the pasture, however, is that the buffalo will pick one area that’s their favorite for awhile and then move. So they won’t overgraze an area, but that pickiness really creates a need for cross-fencing, so we’re working on that right now.”

As we rode along the property in the wagon, Martha discussed their operation and answered questions. When Dan parked us near the buffalo, they trotted up in expectation of a corn snack. People often assume buffalo are aggressive. “Not true,” says Martha, “their instinct is to turn and run. Their behavior is similar to deer – they’re only dangerous if you’re in the way when they’re spooked.” The buffalo strolled around the wagon, lightly butting for position, stepping delicately over the wagon tongue.

When the corn was all fed, the buffalo walked away, and our wagon headed back to the barn. Along the way we met the two ranch burros and the mustang, all adopted through the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse and burro program, and saw Martha’s nephew’s cattle herd out grazing (the cattle and buffalo stay near each other).

When we got back, we all enjoyed a buffalo roast dinner, prepared by Savory Spoon Cafe and Catering in Fredericka, and the company of the three ranch dogs.