Ohio's largest bison farm is Steve Slifko's retirement dream
Steve Slifko has a home where the buffalo roam. Two hundred and fifty buffalo, also known as North American Bison, if you're counting. It's a childhood fascination that began as a hobby and over the past eight years evolved into Red Run Bison and Horse Farm.
This all took place at the hands of a guy who admits to not knowing the difference between straw and hay when he launched this venture.
For 35 years, Slifko owned Slifko Construction Company and built hundreds of custom homes and apartments throughout the Akron area. He planned to retire young and move onto something new - although he wasn't sure what that would be. When a National Geographic program about bison caught his attention, it also captured his heart and became his focus. With the support of his wife, Sylvia, Slifko immersed himself in self-study about the species and received guidance from the National Bison Association on how to raise bison, which were hunted to near extinction during the early 20th century. Today bison are finding favor among cooks and health conscious consumers for their nutritional value, taste and lean qualities.
Must have land
First on Slifko's agenda: land. Lots of land. Buffalo like their space and each needs at least an acre of pasture to roam and graze. More acreage was needed to grow hay to feed the herd during the months when the pastures go dormant. He found 300 acres of prime grazing and farmland in Marshallville in rural Wayne County. There was plenty of lush grass and water but what made it the ideal setting for Slifko were the unimpeded views of sunrise and sunset.
The Slifkos had just moved into their newly built home, when one month later, their new "hobby" arrived by livestock truck in the middle of the night - 22 adult bison, each about 1,200 pounds, twice the size of beef cattle. Fuzzy, yes, but hardly warm and social. "They're nervous and excitable wild animals," Slifko said. "Nothing like their domestic cousins in the bovine family - It's like comparing a zebra to a horse."
While Slifko was armed with knowledge, he knew that to stay ahead of the learning curve and be a model producer he would need help. He hired Chuck Eicher, an experienced local dairy farmer, to help manage the farm and give Slifko the time to focus on the business and sales end of the operation.
In the world of livestock farming, Slifko likes the fact that bison are relatively low maintenance. The inch of fat on their hides keeps them warm in the winter, cool in the summer and allows them to live year-round in an open field. "There's no barn to maintain, no stalls to clean," Slifko said, "and they also consume less hay and water than beef cattle." Slifko's herd is corralled with 8-foot steel pipe fencing. "They might not look like it, but bison can bolt into a sprint at 35 miles an hour and clear a fence from 20 feet away," he said.
A different focus
Slifko's original plan was to breed the herd and sell the calves to other breeders and producers. Ten years ago this plan had the potential of being very profitable, but by the time the first calves were ready to sell in 2004, the market fell flat. Slifko discovered that newfound fans of bison meat preferred only top shelf cuts such as tenderloin and steak and were not paying much attention to what they considered the lesser cuts such as ground beef and roasts. "It was costing producers money to raise an animal that wasn't being fully utilized." Bison farms around the country began going out of business. Slifko found himself with pastures full of bison and no market. To stay in the game, he shifted his focus and decided to sell the meat and to be successful he would have to educate the customer. He found niche markets at farmers' markets, independent grocery stores, organic food stores, select restaurants and on-farm sales. These are the perfect venues for winning customers one at a time.
"The taste is marvelous," Slifko said. "Almost sweet," which he attributes to the good grass Wayne County soil can produce. He's quick to point out that bison meat is lower in fat and calories than any other meat. And when customers question the price, which can be twice as much as similar cuts of beef, Slifko explains that it takes twice as long, almost up to three years, to raise the bison to market weight. Slifko sells bison sausage, dry aged steak, tenderloins, steak cuts and ground bison processed at Tucker Packing, a USDA-inspected processing plant in Orrville.
Of the seven Ohio bison farms registered with the National Bison Association, Red Run is the largest with 70 calves born last year. The association reports that since 2000, consumer demand for bison meat has experienced steady growth, about 15 percent each year. Executive Director Dave Carter said that the same growth is expected over the next five to 10 years because of three factors: "Consumers are making a direct connection between diet and health and bison is a lean, nutritious meat; they demand great taste; and people are becoming more interested in locally produced, sustainable food."
"Nothing," he says, "is more local in the United States than bison."
Marilou Suszko is a freelance writer from Vermilion.
Red Run Bison and Horse Farm
Steve and Sylvia Slifko
9143 Coal Bank Road
Marshallville, OH 44645
e-mail: [email protected]
- Today there are about 500,000 bison in the United States. If they were all processed for meat and made into burgers, they would serve McDonalds’ customers for one weekend.
- Media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner is the largest private landowner and producer of bison in the nation.
- Buffalo milk or buffalo cheese for making mozzarella cheese does not come from a bison, but rather from a water buffalo, which can be domesticated.
- The largest free roaming herd of bison in North America — 3,500 head in all — can be found in Yellowstone National Park.