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‘There’s no more Americana than this’ at Union Township bison farm

Daisy, who was bottle-fed and had one horn shorter than the other, walked towards the fence first. Others soon followed; these included Blackjack, one of three breed bulls at Broken Wagon Bison in Union Township, and Pink, who, unusually within the breed, was named for the color of his tongue.

Then the three of them and the rest of the herd on the farm would flock to a trailer full of hay bales for a chance to snag a compressed cube of alfalfa from Bud Koeppen, who owned the farm with his brother Wally and his wife Ruth.

Roosevelt and Blackjack, another breed of bull, go to Bud Koeppen for their treats. Later, to keep Daisy from following the grassy journey to the farm, Bud offers to empty the rest of the bucket of alfalfa cubes for her, which he says are horse food.

It worked.

“It doesn’t get any more American than this,” Bud said, standing in the wagon between handing out treats and inspecting the 160-acre ranch, now home to about 130 bison.

Once upon a time, bison (no buffalo, Bud said, all bison actually) could be found all over the land.

According to statistics, North America was home to 30 to 60 million bison before 1900. National Bison Association; By the end of that century, the number had fallen to fewer than 1,000 before efforts were made to preserve and restore the species.

The herd is currently estimated at 362,406, according to the NBA.

“The American bison has suffered greatly. That was the culture of the time,” said Bud, whose conversation, mostly filled with Old West tales and stories about bison herders, veers toward the wholesale slaughter of ruminant animals.

“We want to see 1 million bison back in our country and in North America,” he said.

Wally Koeppen waits to close the field gate as his brother Bud heads to Broken Wagon Bison, a hidden bison ranch in Porter County, on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2023.  (John Smierciak/Post Tribune)

The best way to accomplish this, Bud said, is to promote them as a food source and continue to increase the demand for bison meat on American dinner plates. “It will always be higher priced. “We’re not competing with beef, we’re competing with lobster,” he said.

Half-jokingly and wearing sunglasses to prove his point, Bud suggested serving bison, whether it be steak, meatballs or tacos, on “Hunchback Wednesday.”

Broken Wagon Bison, in conjunction with Lakeshore Public Media, will host a screening of Ken Burns’ newest documentary, “The American Buffalo,” on October 20 and 21. Anyone interested can go to the screening. www.lakeshorepublicmedia.org/buffalo For more information and to register.

Bud said he watched the first 15 minutes of the movie and although his own farm was not shown, he knew most of the farmers.

“They filmed the places I know,” said Erdogan, adding that he expected the documentary to increase interest in bison.

The Koeppenes started the bison herd on their third-generation family farm in 2003. Wally was a driver for United Parcel Service and Bud fixed cars.

They learned about bison farming from a friend who took photographs at Bud and Ruth’s 1979 wedding and moved from Villa Park, Ill., to downtown Rockville. The Koeppens started with 10 bison, including a young bull they named Big John.

Bud Koeppen (left) explains what kind of clothing it was made into as his wife Ruth (right) holds a piece of bison hair.  Koeppens and Bud's brother Wally own Broken Wagon Bison, a bison farm in Porter County, on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2023.  (John Smierciak/Post Tribune)

Big John died in January at the age of 21. Even though her breeding days were over, she was still the center of attention on the farm.

“He became famous. He wasn’t an alpha anymore, but people came to see him,” Ruth said.

The farm and its herd grew over time, with bison acquired from across the country and Canada, and so did interest. Visitors wanted bison meat before Broken Wagon was ready to produce its own meat, so for the first few years the farm contracted for it.

Now all the meat sold on the farm comes from the farm, except for dried meat, which will soon be made from the herd.

“I would never have imagined 120, 130 bison or this store or tours,” Bud said as he looked around the store, which has a seating area with folding chairs for school groups, Boy Scout troops, tours and other visitors who come to visit. Learn more about bison.

The store has products made from bison skin, but they are not made on the farm, and there are a variety of stuffed animal bison, large and small, to attract the youngest visitors. There are t-shirts, puzzles, and Native American-themed artwork by local artisans, among other products.

Ruth said of her husband: “He’s not normally a people person, but he found his passion and that brought him out.”

Bison are curious about anything that comes close to them, as at Broken Wagon Bison, a bison farm tucked away in Porter County on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2023.  (John Smierciak/Post Tribune)

One of the store’s displays is a three-fold poster labeled “Walmart of the Plains,” the kind used at science fairs and other school presentations.

The poster highlights the many ways bison were used by Native Americans beyond their meat and hides.

“There were more than 100 uses for the bison,” Bud said, adding that the animal’s stomach was used as a cooking vessel, its tail was used as a fly swatter, and the sack around the bison’s heart could have been a bucket to carry water.

The No. 1 question Bud hears from visitors is about buffalo, the common misnomer for American bison.

“There are no American buffalo. “There are no buffalo in America,” he clarified, adding that French settlers called oxen “les boefs,” revealing centuries of confusion.

Bud said buffalo (water buffalo) is found in Asia and Africa, but in this country, buffalo ground meat and cheese are imported and sold as if they come from buffalo, further confusing consumers who think they are buying bison products.

“I don’t care if they sell or not, but be honest about the labeling,” Bud said.

But American culture is obsessed with buffalo, misnamed or not.

“We don’t have a Bison Bill Cody in this country. “This is not in our culture,” he said.

The Koeppenes are members of the NBA and travel across the country to network with other farmers and attend conferences to learn more about animals.

They tell bison facts about breeding and maturity, and although they raise bison for a living, they clearly have a love for the animals, knowing their names and personalities, and also acknowledge that large mammals (bulls) can weigh up to 2,300 pounds or more. – should not be taken lightly.

Pointing out that bisons are not pets, Bud said, “I got beaten a few times, nothing serious.”

“We don’t treat them like cows,” Wally added. “We don’t wander around them.”

The newest addition to the herd, the calf, was born on October 2nd. Calves weigh 35 to 50 pounds at birth; The Koeppen’s aren’t sure yet of the calf’s gender.

“This was a surprise to us,” Wally said, adding that every November a veterinarian comes to give bison vaccinations and does “pregnancy checks” for pregnant heifers. Mating usually occurs in August or September, and since the gestation period is nine months, most calves are born in May or June.

Wally Koeppen (left) opens the field gate and stands in the open as a herd of 114 bison rushes to Broken Wagon Bison, a hidden bison farm in Porter County, on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2023.  (John Smierciak/Post Tribune)

Back in the field, the mainly hay-eating bison saw Bud pulling the hay wagon and, like big dogs lining up for treats, made a short detour around their fenced enclosure toward a red metal gate.

“Here they come. Come on, come on,” Bud called to the bison while Wally led the way to open the door using the alligator. Visitors ask how the Koeppenes manage to get the bison where they want them. Bud tells people, “Open the door and get out of the way.”

Bison eat hay 200 days a year; The Koeppenes rent 110 acres of land to grow hay to feed the herd, and the rest of the time they feed on pasture.

“They like the new field,” Bud said as the bison started munching on the grass.

He paused for a minute, scanning the herd as he prepared the alfalfa cubes.

A baby calf (center) stays with its mother at Broken Wagon Bison, a bison farm in Porter County, on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2023.  (John Smierciak/Post Tribune)

“There’s a new baby on the left,” he pointed out. “They are born orange, not brown or black.”

Soon the large creatures headed towards the wagon. Along with the shamrock treats, Daisy also got a few scratches from Bud.

Roosevelt and Blackjack are not far behind.

For more information on Broken Wagon Bison, go to: https://brokenwagonbison.com/.

alavalley@chicagotribune.com

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