Buffalo graze in golden light under summer rainbows on a ranch

Buffalo

Summer rainbows at Cheyenne River Ranch. Black Hills, South Dakota. Photo by Jill O’Brien

We acknowledge that the buffalo we source come from ranches built on unceded lands of the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains, including the Oglala Sioux (Lakota), Santee Sioux, Blackfeet and Crow. We acknowledge the injustice of their removal from these lands.

Our buffalo, or bison as they’re also known, are part of an ambitious effort to restore America’s Great Plains. They roam freely across thousands of acres of open prairie, and as they graze, they naturally restore the grasslands, bringing an entire ecosystem back to life.

A close shot of buffalo grazing

Nutrition: A Better Red Meat

All that a free-roaming buffalo feasts upon—a wild expanse of prairie grasses, herbs and flowers—produces clean, nutritious, delicious meat. Cheyenne River Ranch, South Dakota. Photo by Jill O’Brien

Unlike most commercially raised buffalo, our animals never taste grain and are never administered antibiotics, instead feasting exclusively on nutrient-dense wild grasses.

The prairie provides an ever-changing seasonal buffet of grasses and wildflowers. Buffalo, which have evolved over milennia on these lands, instinctively seek out the plants their bodies need. In the spring, for instance, they may munch on green needlegrass or Western wheatgrass, while in the summer they might seek out patches of bluestem.

Their diet produces a delicious, lean red meat that is free of antibiotics, pesticides and added hormones. It’s an excellent source of protein and a good source of iron as well as vitamin B-12. Because these buffalo graze on grass, their meat has less saturated fat and more potassium than meat from grain-fed buffalo, and significantly less fat and calories than conventional untrimmed grain-fed beef.

Cooked buffalo steak on a serving board
A juicy buffalo rib steak. Bison can be cooked exactly like beef—just less, because it’s so lean. Photo by Jill O’Brien
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Dan O'Brien overlooking a herd of bison on a sunny day

Sourcing: Great Plains Reverence

Dan O'Brien, founder and CEO of Wild Idea Buffalo, out with the herd. Cheyenne River Ranch, Black Hills, South Dakota. Photo by Jill O’Brien

Our buffalo come from Wild Idea Buffalo, a South Dakota ranch alliance founded by Dan O’Brien. Wild Idea takes a holistic approach to raising buffalo, one that prioritizes the health of both the animals and our planet.

The O’Brien family respects and reveres buffalo as a keystone species, intricately connected to the health of the prairie (Dan O’Brien has written several acclaimed books on the subject, including Wild Idea: Buffalo & Family in a Difficult Land). Wild Idea buffalo eat nothing but the grass beneath their feet and are never confined to feedlots. They’re given a dignified end, too: The animals are harvested humanely in the field, far from the stress of the slaughterhouse, and are then processed in the field using mobile, USDA-approved equipment. Now with day-to-day operations run by the O’Briens’ daughter, Jilian Jones, and her husband, Colton Jones, Wild Idea partners with like-minded ranches in South Dakota, Nebraska and Montana, raising buffalo over some 500,000 acres of open prairie. In all of these places, buffalo range across large swaths of the Great Plains much as their ancestors did.

A picture of two women from the O'Brien family, wearing warm jackets and standing next to a dog
Jill O’Brien, co-CEO and marketing director of Wild Idea Buffalo, with her daughter, Jilian Jones, the company’s general manager. Founded in 1997, Wild Idea Buffalo has brought holistic, restorative grazing to hundreds of thousands of acres on the Great Plains. Photo by Amy Kumler
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A tuft of buffalo hair is caught on a stalk of tan prairie grass

Enviro: Reviving the American Prairie

A tuft of wool in the prairie grass, caught from the coat of a grazing buffalo. For millennia, bison have helped create and protect this landscape that, in return, allows them to thrive. South Dakota. Photo by Jon Levitt

The topsoils of the Great Plains were once among the richest on earth—up to 6 feet deep, versus the norm of 5 to 10 inches—and supported a thriving ecosystem. They’ve been decimated by 150 years of mismanagement, including overgrazing cattle and extractive agricultural practices. Buffalo can help bring these soils back.

When buffalo roam, they do much more than graze. Native grasses, key to the recovery of the Great Plains, evolved alongside the buffalo—which act as “prairie farmers.” Here’s how it works: As the herds brush by ripe grasses, the seeds attach to the shaggy buffalo coats and then drop off, some distance later, into the shallow imprints of buffalo hooves. The buffalo provide natural fertilizer, so the seeds have exactly what they need to spread, sprout and thrive. What’s more, the bison’s light grazing habits ensure healthy plant growth. Wherever the buffalo roam, the grasslands spring back to life—and so do native birds, reptiles, small mammals and more.

That’s not all: The grasses effectively draw down carbon, actually creating carbon “sinks” much as trees do in forests. “Conservation and the protection of prairie biodiversity are our main products,” says Dan O’Brien of Wild Idea. “Buffalo meat is the delicious byproduct that (sometimes) helps pay the bills.”

A prairie dog pops out of a hole in the prairie
A healthy pasture on the Northern Great Plains can house over 2,000 species of plants and animals, including the prairie dog. Photo by Jon Levitt
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A vintage photograph of a man standing on a mountain of bison skulls

Culture: A Violent History

Slaughtered for sport: A pile of American bison skulls in Rougeville, Michigan, 1892. At the time this photo was taken, buffalo were nearly extinct. Photo from Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

For thousands of years, the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains—including the Lakota, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Gros Ventre and Kiowa—lived in harmony with buffalo, relying on the meat for food and the hides for shelter, and taking only what they needed. Everything changed with the arrival of European settlers.

Buffalo once inhabited almost two-thirds of the North American continent, from what is now Canada down through modern-day Mexico. For the Plains tribes, they were viewed as relatives, part of a shared family of all living creatures, a fundamental source of life and spiritual strength.

In the 1800s, European trappers began shooting bison purely for their skins, killing them by the hundreds of thousands every year. With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, vast hunting parties poured across the Western plains, slaughtering the animals from the trains for sport. While the American government never made it an official policy to hunt the buffalo, the army supported this brutal tactic as a way to cut off the Native people’s main source of sustenance. By the end of the century, only a few hundred American bison survived, down from an estimated 30 to 60 million animals in the mid-1800s—and starving Native Americans were driven to reservations.

In recent years, through conservation efforts that include wildlife preserves at Yellowstone National Park and elsewhere, the bison population has rebounded— there’s an estimated 200,000 American buffalo today—but much more work is needed to repair the cultural and environmental tragedy that remains.

A map of dwindling buffalo herds in the 19th century in North America
A horrific decline: The brown area outlines the original range of the American bison, and the red spots mark the remnants of the herd in 1889. Map courtesy of Infobase Publishing
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Two men inspect prairie grasses

Partners: Guided by Science

Out among the prairie forbs and grasses, Wild Idea co-founder Dan O’Brien and ecologist Steven Apfelbaum of Applied Ecological Services collect samples to measure carbon capture. Cheyenne River Ranch, South Dakota. Photo by Jill O’Brien

One of the most exciting aspects of raising free-roaming bison is their role in restoring native grasslands, thereby combating climate change. In 2015, we partnered with Applied Ecological Services (AES) to study the link between prairie restoration and carbon capture.

A healthy prairie full of native vegetation acts as a “carbon sink,” meaning the plants’ roots draw down and store a significant amount of carbon, preventing it from warming the atmosphere. AES has collected soil and plant samples from various parts of Wild Idea’s prairie in order to measure the amount of carbon held in the soil. Initial findings showed that Wild Idea’s soils had higher carbon levels than conventionally managed ranches nearby. We’ll continue to report on our ongoing studies to see how these soils might affect carbon changes over time.

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American pastoral. Besides being beautiful, prairies restored to health by buffalo can help mitigate climate change. Cheyenne River Ranch, South Dakota. Photo by Jill O’Brien
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A metal tray on a wooden table serves Patagonia Provisions Buffalo Links, cheeses, fruits, and bread
Our Lightly Smoked Buffalo Links shake up the holiday apps platter. Photo by Amy Kumler

We produce three foods with lean, grass-fed Great Plains bison: Original Buffalo Jerky, Spicy Buffalo Jerky, and Lightly Smoked Buffalo Links.