In the land of the Wisconsin dairy farm, where cows are king, something else is roaming.
Two Kenosha County farmers, and a growing number of others statewide, are choosing to raise American bison, a self-sustaining, low maintenance iconic animal that once was nearly extinct.
In Salem, 89-year-old Ron Lester is still actively tending to his herd of nearly 70 bison. And not too far away, Tom Pierson, a roofing contractor by trade, is raising a herd of 13 — soon to be 17 — in Bristol.
Statewide, there are about 7,000 bison raised on 30 some farms and ranches, according to the Wisconsin Bison Producers Association. Many of them, noted Rebecca Ries — a former officer with the organization and a bison farmer — harvest and sell the meat at farmers markets, in stores and to restaurants.
Nationally, philanthropist and television mogul Ted Turner is believed to have the largest privately held herd at more than 7,000 head.
Bison, the farmers contend, are easy to maintain. Additionally, the low-fat, high protein meat — steaks, briskets, tenderloins and ground — is gaining in popularity, too.
Most of the bison farmers, Ries said, have free-range, grass-fed animals. They are low-maintenance animals who sort of take care of themselves.
“All you need is grass, water and good fences,” she explained. “You put them in a field of grass and let them be.”
Lester and Pierson, 58 — so far the only Kenosha County bison farmers — are known by others in the state. As close friends, they assist each other whenever needed.
Both are members of the National Bison Association and attend national conventions.
Operating a hobby farm
The 70-acre Pierson Bison Farm, tucked away in western Kenosha County at 20324 45th St., Bristol, is home to a herd of 13, including a huge 5-year-old bull and four cows that are expecting calves.
Pierson grows and harvests his own grass and stores it in a barn for winter feeding.
As wild as the bison may be, he treats them almost as if they are his pets. On occasion he will hand-feed them carrots through a fence.
Pierson said he fell in love with bison 48 years ago.
“My dad brought me over to (Ron Lester’s) farm when I was 10 years old,” Pierson explained. Years later, Pierson met Lester again.
“When I met him again in 2010, I told him that I wanted to raise buffalo,” Pierson explained. “He told me to build a good fence and I’ll bring you some.”
Pierson, who operates the farm with his wife of 36 years, Meganne, had to build a very sturdy fence. He studied what he needed and two years later built one with cedar posts 11 inches in diameter that are driven four feet into the ground.
After building that fence, he got his first herd in 2012 when Lester got him started with five bison. “He mentored me all the way,” explained Pierson.
Three years ago, a fallen tree compromised a segment of the fence and some bison got out. While he got some back onto the farm, several had to be euthanized because they were out on the road.
Though it was a hard decision, he said he did it because he didn’t want anyone to get hurt.
While some bison farmers actively harvest their herds, Pierson describes his spread as a private hobby farm. His isn’t a commercial operation.
He only harvests one or two bulls a year and much of the meat goes to family and close friends. His only customer is the Red Oak Restaurant, just a few miles from his farm.
Veteran recognized bison as survivors
Lester, a retired three-time decorated Purple Heart recipient and two-time Bronze Star U.S. Marine, became interested in bison when he was in the military.
After a stint in Okinawa and Korea, he studied about them and began to teach a class on how to survive in the wilderness.
He liked the bison because it is a self-sustaining animal that can survive on its own. It’s never too cold or too hot for bison; they don’t depend upon someone to feed or shelter them. They’re very communal.
On an open range, if they feel danger, they herd together. They stick together.
“They create their own inner circle,” Lester explained. “Calves that are 10 to 12 years old still follow their mom,” he explained.
He launched his own bison farming business in 1955 in McHenry County, Ill., where he had a herd of 300.
He sold his place in Illinois and launched Lester’s Bison Farm, 31807 60th St. in Salem, in 2000.
Successful farm store
A commercial bison farmer, Lester — who has a store and operates a mail order business — has a partnership arrangement where his bison and other products are sold at farmers markets in Lake Geneva, Kenosha, Burlington and Palatine, Ill.
Lester’s grandson, Charles “Charlie” Radtke, 29, manages the farm store, which has some 40 products, including cuts of bison, some beef, pork, fish, alligator and some pickled vegetable products.
Radtke, a mixed martial arts practitioner, said marketing comes through social media, the farmers markets, cross promotion from other vendors and word of mouth from customers across the country. Lester mails products to all 50 states.
“The store really has become sustainable,” Radtke explained. “Everything came together.”
He attributes some of that to exposure to the farmers markets.
Through the years, Lester has learned that raising bison is more than a business.
Just as he was impressed with them decades ago before he actually started a bison farm, he also has learned to live like the bison live. They are peaceful and seem to be in tune with each other.
“If man lived the way bison live, there would be no need for summit meetings,” he said. “They work as one and for all.”