The annual buffalo auction at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge in Kansas educates participants while dispersing bison to new herds and for meat.
By Jerry Engler in the Hillsboro Free Press
Milling, stamping and pawing the sandy ground, the buffalo put on a good show for spectators and buyers alike Wednesday at the 23rd annual buffalo auction at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge northwest of Canton, Ks.
The humans were herding together, too, as chilly, windy weather drove the crowd early into the bleachers with the best windbreak, or back and forth to the tent for more coffee, pie or bison burgers and chili.
For anybody who had seen some near breaks for escape by buffalo in other years, or watched the animals hunker down and refuse to move, this year was almost tame.
A new $135,000 "buffalo corral," built this summer by Linn Enterprises of Linn, eased handling the wild animals as much as handling buffalo can be eased. There were still broken horns here and there, and resistance to going where a buffalo didn't want to go.
The corral includes pens, walkways for the buffalo, the auction arena and metal catwalks above the pens where Kansas Wildlife and Parks herders were able to guide the buffalo with 10-foot long poles without getting in with them.
The poles are "just one and a quarter-inch closet rods," said Cliff Peterson, assistant manager for KW&P at Maxwell.
"The whole thing is a big improvement for personnel safety," Peterson said. "The catwalks have handrails on both sides. They're all built on the same level, so there's not a lot of stepping up and down, a lot less chance of missteps and accidents."
Plus, the catwalks were a great place for buyers to view buffalo close-up in advance.
Metal barriers were built in each corner of the auction arena for workers to stand behind when they needed protection from buffalo.
One 2-year-old bull was particularly impressive when he pawed the ground and even the groups of larger cows had the potential to run into workers.
Asked if the barriers were really tall enough to keep a really determined bull from coming over the top at a worker, Peterson replied that the person only has to squat down while another worker diverts its attention because, for a bison, "out of sight is out of mind."
Peterson and Todd Perkins, designer and sales representative for Linn, said buffalo psychology played a part in the entire design.
"Bison are very unique in some of their habits, and if they don't want to go somewhere, you can't make them go. You design it so they have to go," Perkins said.
Peterson said the corral was built with funds from last year's buffalo auction and state capital improvement funds for Maxwell.
The gross sale of $49,425 from 32 buyers for a little more than 100 head of buffalo from Maxwell and Finney Game Refuge at Garden City will be needed for similar projects, he said.
The money goes into an "agricultural fund" which can be used for most any improvement at the refuge, he said.
The top-selling animal was a 2-year-old bull that went for $1,500 to Jerry Schmidt from Haven. It was a big-framed bull, with good hair coat, and in general good health that Schmidt will use as a herd bull.
It was the type of animal buyers look for to upgrade genetics, Peterson said. He estimated the bull's weight at 1,200 pounds and guessed it would weigh 1,800 to 2,000 pounds at maturity.
The average price paid for buffalo was $504.34. Bull calves averaged $391, heifer calves $493, yearling heifers $503, yearling bulls $558, 2-year-old bulls $888, and cows $489.
Peterson said it was unusual that males brought more than females.
"It may be an indication, I suppose, that some people may be running out of room to expand herds, and they're looking at replacement bulls that might improve herds," he said.
"A fair number went to people who intend to use them for meat too. In general, the 2-year-old bulls went to breeding, but some of the yearlings and calves went to feed out, and then butcher."
Roger Hiebert, auctioneer for Seibel Real Estate and Auction Service at Hillsboro, which has done the Maxwell buffalo auction the past seven years, said the price decline for female buffalo was "a shock."
He pointed out that in previous years prices for female buffalo ran into the range of two and three thousand dollars, although prices for male bison haven't changed much.
"We may have to find out what these things are worth just for meat in this market," Hiebert said.
While people were getting into the buffalo business, prices for breeding stock may have been inflated. The market for buffalo will always be good because people like to eat buffalo, and it has the reputation for being lower in cholesterol.
"All those females we sold in previous years are having calves for people," Hiebert said. "If they bought a heifer calf, in all likelihood it would be at least three years before they could have a calf, and they don't have one every year. I don't think they could saturate the market the way emus did. Demand might increase by finding more outlets in the meat market."
Hiebert said his company will be carefully watching the next buffalo auction in December in Salina to see if the trend continues.
Peterson said: "It's tough for breeders to get any new genetics in herds because bison are 98 percent similar in make-up. There's not a lot of difference. It hasn't seemed to make any problems."
He said many persons have noted differences from most buffalo in the bison herd at Yellowstone National Park, believing they may be a "strain of mountain buffalo."
"Their humps are larger because the pawing they do in snow and ice favors animals with bigger, muscular humps," he said.
At Maxwell, Peterson keeps heifers for breeding, and sells most cows when they are around 10 years old. Bulls are traded with other government wildlife herds.
"We've had them from Nebraska, Montana and Utah," he said.
Many buyers at the auction took several animals to justify the time and expense of bringing a livestock trailer to the sale. The largest group-21 animals-went to Pauls Valley, Okla., along I-35 near the Texas border. Most buyers came from Kansas.
Some made small purchases, like Deb Welch from Cummings, which is near Atchison. She bought one heifer for $600.
"We have 18 buffalo at home, cows, calves, heifers and a couple of bulls," she said. "We raise them to sell to people who call us to take them to have them butchered. We graze them on brome grass, and we have hay ground.
"We just use regular five-strand barbed wire to pasture them, and we have some high tensile strength electric wire on some area. They've been no problem."
Some potential buyers, like James Koehn of Canton, came to see if there were any bargains but went home empty-handed. He said the best bargain was a half-size younger bull calf that caught the eye of spectators as it kept up with a group of larger calves that went for only $75.
Perkins said buffalo producers are becoming increasingly important in the economy, and now account for 40 percent of Linn's business, which also is dedicated to building pens for other livestock.
He said the Maxwell corral project, which began being planned three years ago, is the largest his company has ever done.
"It's much heavier metal than we would do for cattle, and it's taller," he said. "For cattle, we build five-foot gate panels, and these are six and a half and seven feet tall.
"All the gates are built so they can be operated from overhead. The panels are double-weight. The posts are all closer together, and they're tied together over the top with pipes. The corners of the sales arena are rounded for easier movement of buffalo.
"If you'll notice the entrance and exit gates are located side by side instead of opposite sides like most cattle auctions because the buffalo remember where they came in. They want to go out the same way."
Peterson said $7,000 of the corral construction money went for electricity, water and dirt work at the site, and $128,000 into the corral.
The next big project at Maxwell, now under construction, is a tour center that is expected to be completed before next spring.
Peterson said the cost should come in near $56,000 with half of the money coming from a state tourism grant and half from fund raising by the Friends of Maxwell.
The building will replace a portable building where tours meet. It will be "rustic looking" with rough cedar siding and a large wooden porch on two sides built with weathered wood from the old buffalo corrals.
Peterson said the building will house public displays and storage.
The Maxwell herd roaming native prairie now has 200 bison and 70 elk. The elk are best seen in winter from December to April. Reservations for tours can be made by calling 316-628-4455.
©Hillsboro Free Press 2007