Soul Food

Tracing the path of the mighty Colorado bison from ranch to plate.

April 2010

This article was included in the 2010 edition of Best Food Writing.

One hundred miles east of Denver, a bison herd roams the endless horizon. Silhouetted against the frozen January sky, the beasts' woolly humps and sheer size distinguish them from grazing cattle. We bump along in a dirt-caked GMC truck, following a crude trail of crescent-shape hoof prints. The herd hears us coming from over the rise and scatters, thunderous bodies kicking up dust and churning dried prairie grass into bits. As we get closer, a curious few turn to face us, tossing their massive, bearded heads and sputtering puffs of icy breath.

The truck slows to a crawl. We're close enough to see the thick, tricolored hair tousled and matted by the wind, the black ring of soft fur that encircles both eyes, the sharp horns, and the coffee-brown eyes that look both wild and placid in the same stare. I can read the handwritten numbers on the tags that hang from the bison's left ears.

"She's a beauty, ain't she?" says Larry Higgins, pointing to a cow affectionately referred to as Pretty Woman for her stunning coat and large, sculpted head. She doesn't know it, but she's lucky. As just one of four bison among the 60-plus animals to receive a name, she'll never be carted off to the packing plant. The Higgins slaughter about 30 animals a year and sell the meat—jerky, quarters, halves, and whole animals—under the Heart Rock Bison label. "I just go by ear tags," Higgins says. "I don't like to name anything I'm going to eat." With one hand he adjusts his yellow and navy baseball cap. "Heart Rock Bison" is embroidered on the front; "Jesus is Lord" is stitched in blue on the left side.

We inch along, allowing Larry's wife, Jacki, and their third son, Josiah, a 13-year-old with a baby face and wise blue eyes, time to heave bales of hay from the truck bed. The family has raised bison on its fourth-generation ranch near Genoa since 2000. For most of the year, the herd subsists on nutrient-dense natural prairie grasses. In the winter, though, when food is in short supply, the Higgins supplement with hay from their own land and with protein-packed nuggets they call "cookies."

Larry puts the truck in park and digs a handful of the treats out of a bucket on the seat. He instructs me to keep my palm flat and thumb tucked, as if I'm feeding a horse. He also tells me to which bison I should direct my offerings—and to beware of the animal suddenly throwing its 150-pound head. I stick my arm out of the window, and within a couple of minutes a woolly face sizes me up, gives the cookies a sniff, and snatches them with teeth so white and square they remind me of dentures.

Each year, Larry sizes up the herd's calves and then separates the ones that show the most promise of health and vitality. Instead of roaming the ranch's 6,000 acres, the chosen 450-pound youngsters (all now wearing white ear tags) spend their remaining days in a corral. This high-fenced pen—bison can jump up to six feet—is located about 10 yards from the main ranch house in the shadow of a silvery windmill that never seems to stop spinning. Here, the bison freely graze on hay (about 1,800 pounds every five days), corn, and cookies, until they reach an optimal weight of about 1,100 pounds. This takes about a year—sometimes less, sometimes more. "You learn how to eye it," Larry says, directing my attention to his son's hulking yearlings, whose ear tags dangle with #7B and #142. These animals, plus two others, are due for slaughter shortly.

And that's why I'm here, riding around in Larry's truck and chasing the herd. I knew before I arrived this morning that time was short for four of these beasts. I'm here to follow the process, to track an animal from the ranch on which it grazes to the plate on which it ultimately lands.

Josiah, wearing a too-big Carhartt vest and oversize leather work gloves, helps dump a new load of hay into the corral, and he fills up the feeder with corn. "Everyone knows me at school as the person who has buffalo," he says, mentioning that he's the youngest member of the National Bison Association, and that he wants to be a rancher like his dad when he grows up. He also plays football, basketball, baseball, and runs track at Genoa-Hugo Middle School, which is 25 miles away. There are nine kids in his seventh-grade class. "I did have a pet buffalo one year; I loved it," he says, kicking at the dirt with his boot. "Now I don't name them because I don't want to get too attached."

In just a few days, father and son will load four bison—including Josiah's bull (#142) and heifer (#7B)—into a trailer and drive north 168 miles to Pierce. Their destination is the loading dock behind the town's slaughterhouse.