Slim Buttes Buffalo Ranch: Limperts switch to bison
October 29, 2012
When Lawrence Oliver starting building his ranch in the early 1920s, he chose the once thriving town of Merchison, SD for the ranch headquarters. In the late 1800s, the small town had a grocery store, post office, livery stable and other businesses providing services for many homesteaders who lived in the area. There were also two small, privately owned coal mines on the ranch that provided coal for heating neighboring homesteads, and a log school house just east of Merchison where area children attended school for many years. The ranch headquarters remained there until the house burned down in the early '50s, then it was relocated south further down the creek.
"According to Lawrence, at one point in time, you could stand on a hill in the evening on the east side of the ranch and count the lantern lights of over 40 homestead cabins. Over the years, these small farms did not survive, and Lawrence purchased many of them to expand the ranch," wrote the third generation and current owners of the ranch, Sandy and Jacki Limpert.
Sandy's father, A.W. Limpert, and his brother John Limpert, came to live on the ranch with Lawrence, and his wife, Mary, in 1935 after their father passed away. The two brothers grew up on the ranch helping their Uncle Lawrence raise sheep, and eventually cattle. In 1955, A.W. married Kay Welch, and they had five children, Sandy being the oldest son. A.W. and Kay purchased the ranch from Lawrence in 1970.
In 1985, Sandy married Jacki Johnson. That same year, A.W. passed away, so the newly wedded couple purchased the 7,000-acre ranch from Kay and the rest of the family. At the time, the ranch was stocked with 700 head of sheep and 350 head of cattle, in addition to 1,200 acres of farm and hay ground. In 1989, the couple purchased an additional 7,000 acres that bordered the ranch, and increased to 450 cows and 1,200 sheep.
Time for change
As time went on, the couple found it increasingly difficult to manage a ranch that size with a sheep, cattle, farming and custom haying business, and still enjoy life. So, they started looking for ways to manage the ranch differently. "It seemed like with cattle and sheep, we only made it from one year to the next with enough to pay our note down, but not enough to expand and grow," Limpert explained. "If you don't continue to expand and grow, you won't last in the business because someone will take you out. To make a living with sheep and cattle, it seemed like we had to live like a hermit. We never got to go anywhere and enjoy life. I didn't want to live that way," he said.
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When he and Jacki decided to make a change in the management of their operation, Limpert said they were skeptical whether buffalo were the answer. However, after visiting other producers and researching the business, they cautiously, but optimistically, sold their sheep and purchased some buffalo.
As they continued to purchase more buffalo, they slowly sold their cattle until 1995, when the last of the cattle were sold from the Slim Buttes Buffalo Ranch. During that transition, they replanted all the farmland to grass and built a feedlot to finish their extra buffalo.
To this day, getting into the buffalo business is a decision the Limperts don't regret. "The conversion of the ranch to buffalo created a more profitable and lower labor input operation than what the ranch had seen in several decades. One of the best things we did when we decided to get in the buffalo business was spend money on animals with good genetics," Limpert explained. "It really gave us a leg up when we started. We use the same principles for improvement of the bison as we would in other species of animals. We were livestock people from the beginning, and realized the power of good genetics."
The couple, along with their son Brodie and his wife, implemented a planned grazing program that has improved their grass and soil, and tremendously increased their carrying capacity. The farmland was planted to primarily cool season grasses, which was divided into smaller parcels. Each parcel is grazed about 10 days with 1,000 head of buffalo cows throughout the summer. They alternate when they graze it the following year.
"It is a lot of fun to open a gate, turn in the 'haying equipment' and watch them mow it down. It also works really well to flush the cows to get them ready for breeding season," he said. The grass is a mixture of crested wheat grass and alfalfa. Limpert has found the buffalo typically clip off most of the grass first before eating some of the alfalfa. The native pastures on the ranch, which are primarily short grasses, aren't grazed until fall, which allows those pastures to be twice as productive.
The buffalo cows on the operation average 1,070 to 1,080 pounds, whether they are two-year-olds or 30 year-old cows. Although there are larger bison, Limpert said the size of the cows fit the environment of the ranch. When he first started in the buffalo business, Limpert was surprised how much less they eat than a beef cow. "My cows would eat 60-70 pounds of hay a day during the winter," he said. "The bison cows will never eat more than 42 pounds. We have found the winter feeding costs of our buffalo herd are about half the cost of a beef herd. During the winter, their metabolism slows down, and they don't need the extra calories," he said. The bison cows only consume 75-80 percent the amount of grass that beef cows consume.
The learning curve
Limpert said stepping into the bison business involves a learning curve. Bison work differently than cattle and need stronger fences. Limpert estimated the cost of putting in a new fence on a per-cow-basis at around $150 to $200, retrofitting an existing fence at $50 to $75, and the cost of building working facilities at $50 to $75. He also cautioned producers to build cattle guards at least 14 feet across, otherwise the buffalo can jump it.
"A producer must learn to work with the bison, not against them," he continued. For the Limperts, this meant rebuilding their handling facilities so the bison would funnel through easier. "I would encourage producers to learn how their bison want to flow before completing their working facilities," he said, admitting he learned that the hard way. "Don't build wedge-shaped pens with gates in the narrow end," he said, adding it may be helpful to tour other producer's facilities to get some ideas of what works and what doesn't. F
Editor's note: For more information about the Limpert's operation, slimbuttesbuffaloranch.com. This "Ranching Legacy" depicts individuals, families and businesses that have survived the ups and downs of agriculture and continue to contribute to thier community. Know someone that should be featured? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.