By Clint Brown
A family’s passion, as genuine as you will find, has led to a total of what will be a herd of 66 bison located on 800 acres in southeastern Marion County.
The DeCook family, Mark and Kay along with sons Mike and Dan, want to return the 800 acres in which the bison will roam into a mixture of organic farming and a restoration of natural wildlife that was once found in the 1800s.
The DeCooks, who in the past raised cattle for over 20 years, 10 of those years raising organic beef, raised the cattle using mob grazing where the cattle were situated on a small unit of land for a short period and then moved to a different area and the land that had been used would rest for a long period time - usually 60-80 days.
“It was working to a sense, but it wasn’tgoing as fast as we wanted,” Mike said.
The DeCook family wanted something more, while still keeping the passion they had for restoring the past.
“The passion of the family is protecting Iowa wild lands and open space,” Mike said. “This project is something that will combine that passion of a working ranch that maintains Iowa wildness. Our family has always been interested in native animals and species. We finally came conclusion - why don’t we just raise bison like bison?”
The bison purchased by the DeCooks came from Tallgrass Bison in Promise City. Tallgrass Bison is ‘big’ into the social order of bison and keeping them within the family units Mike commented.
“We want to keep that up and it makes sense to us to keep the bison stress-free,” he said. “The family structure mellows them out some too. We will use burning to bring back native grasses. The hope is to burn a little of our pasture each year to attract the bison to the fresh vegetation and also a way to rotate them around the ranch. They kind of do this naturally and move around themselves.”
Mike and his family also plan to harvest the seed of prairie remnants and broadcast the seed to the area which was burned off.
“Over time we would like to see some of the native prairie species back in our pastures,” Mike said. “It’s a simple, natural way of raising meat with low inputs and expenses. We are excited about the project.”
With the help of a conservation easement from the Iowa Heritage Foundation the land which the bison will roam on will be protected from future development forever. Mike hopes that future generations will carry on the tradition of what his family is trying to do.
“This project will take time,” he said. “We took out most of our interior fencing and now have a wildlife-friendly fence that will detour livestock but wildlife can go under or over it. It’s important to have your animals in a stress-free area. They won’t want to leave if they have what they need right here. Everything we do we want to blend with natural environment and have it fit together.”
The DeCooks plan to use the marketing of the meat from the bulls along with the sale of the byproducts of the animals as a source of income for the project.
“The meat is in low supply and high demand,” Mike said. “It is similar to beef. It’s a touch sweeter. I really like it. There is also a lot of value in the byproducts, such as the leather, bones and skulls. We want an animal that can be fully utilized and try not to waste anything. We might also try to do some eco-tours and maybe a bison ‘hunt’.”
The DeCooks hope to increase the herd, over time, to around 200-250. At that point the herds will split into 3-4 family units and will come back together during the rut in July and August.
“This is a simple ecological solution,” Mike said. “We want to let an animal be an animal. A lot of the bison in the industry have been treated like cattle. They like the wild, open spaces, not contained. They are wonderful grazers, so we are going to let the bison be bison. It’s a sad story of what happened to bison in 50 years, but it will be fun to bring a native animal back and make a living at it as well.”