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Ag class hunts buffalo in Nebraska

Junior Wes Zylstra from Kellogg, Iowa, had and unusual assignment this semester. He was asked to shoot a buffalo as part of an agriculture class field trip in November. Dr. Robb De Haan, Zylstra, and students in the Agroecology class, along with Dr. John Olthoff and two students from his 'beef and sheep' class, traveled to the Sandhills of Nebraska to see how another agricultural ecosystem works-specifically the Perfect 10 bison ranch that raises organic buffalo to sell for meat.

"It was an eye-opening experience to get out of the type of environment in which I have lived my whole life and see how other individuals manage the ecosystems in which they live," says Zylstra.

Agriculture students shared their lunch break with the buffalo during their visit to a bison ranch. The ranch uses farming practices that will maintain the ecosystem of the Nebraska Sandhills.

Agriculture students shared their lunch break with the buffalo during their visit to a bison ranch. The ranch uses farming practices that will maintain the ecosystem of the Nebraska Sandhills.

De Haan used the opportunity to help his students see how an ecological system works and how agriculture can be compatible with sustaining that system. He also wanted them to help with the actual harvesting of an animal.

"Since agriculture has become industrialized it is seen as a technological rather than an ecological enterprise," De Haan believes. That shift makes a difference in how a farmer farms. Seeing agriculture as a sustainable ecological enterprise means farmers are more constrained by such things as soil nutrient quality, water quality, and energy use when they decide what to grow and how to farm the land.

De Haan's class saw how rancher Dave Hutchinson earns a living farming a 5000-acre bison ranch, which he manages in a way that maintains the land's ecosystem. Hutchinson lets the buffalo be as wild as he can, rarely even treating sick animals so that the herd remains strong. By using rotational grazing-moving the animals from one area to another, the grass, which is fertilized by the animals, remains of good quality.

In contrast, cultivating the Sandhills (which boasts sand dunes that are fifty to 200 feet deep and plentiful wetlands and streams) and using the wetlands to irrigate, would change the landscape in dramatic ways, ultimately depleting the land's ability to sustain its wetlands, streams, and habitat.

The bison ranch earns its owner a living through direct marketing of buffalo meat. Like De Haan and his students, some people come to the ranch to shoot their own animal and have it dressed. De Haan's students, primarilyBrian Vander Ley, a pre-veterinarian agriculture major from New Holland, South Dakota, and Dan Hanson, an animal and plant science major from Papillion, Nebraska, field dressed the animal, learning about its anatomy as they did so. De Haan, Olthoff, and several other faculty members purchased the buffalo and took the meat from the animal to be processed at Woudstra's in Orange City. The ranch also supplies buffalo meat to retail stores.

"There's something good about direct interaction between farmers and consumers," says De Haan. Farmers have more of a sense of responsibility for what they produce and consumers better understand where their food comes from when they interact.

In addition, in this case, De Haan notes that bison meat is a healthy alternative for people to eat, especially at a time when obesity and disease are being tied more closely to diet. Highly nutritious and lower in fat, calories, and cholesterol than beef, pork, or even skinless chicken, it is raised without growth hormones and is considered a tasty gourmet meat.

"I ask my students 'If we were to design an agricultural system based on ecological principles what would it look like?'" De Haan says. "The bison ranch is one example of a system that allows you to earn a living and keep the ecosystem viable for years to come."

Students responded differently to what they saw. Some are skeptical of approaches that don't fit with conventional approaches to agriculture, but many are curious and inspired. De Haan hopes that such examples will encourage students to seriously consider how their use of land resources will honor the Creator and sustain the land he has given for future generations of people, too. For that reason, such trips are definitely worth doing, he says.