On their first date, Brent Nofziger told his future wife Stacy he’d like to raise bison.
“No way! Bison are horrible!” she replied.
Now married three years, the Nofzigers have established the Bracy Gold Bison Ranch at 11616 County Road 4 in rural Swanton. It’s the sole bison ranch in Fulton County, and the couple hopes to provide the healthy benefits of bison meat to their community.
In March, they were the recipients of one bull, 18 females, and five calves from locations in Connecticut and Kentucky. The starting cost to found the ranch was steep, but the Nofzigers are confident their locally unique business will profit in a health-conscious culture.
“There wasn’t a place in northwest Ohio where people can get bison meat regularly,” Stacy Nofziger said. “We know that there’s a big need for people to know where their food is coming from, and how it was raised. We’re raising our bison as naturally as possible.”
Her husband added, “We just thought it would be something different. We’re looking to get into that niche market for people that are looking for something a little bit leaner, a little bit healthier.”
Corralled on the couple’s 86-acre property, the herd respects the surrounding eight-foot fencing and prefers to stay together, so strays are not a problem. The herd includes 10 pregnant “cows” ready to give birth over the summer. The Nofzigers expect to add 10 more calves to the herd this year, and hope to breed 18 calves annually.
The animals are mostly self-sufficient and low maintenance, and, due to their origins on western U.S. plains, can withstand both extreme cold and heat. The cows weigh in at about 1,000 pounds, and eat between 20-30 pounds of food daily, mainly grass. The bull towers at about a ton.
Brent Nofziger said bison experience few medical problems and, due in part to low-weight births, have a 100% birthing rate. He said they require attention for as little as 20 minutes per day.
“They thrive here,” he said.
An accountant for DTE energy in Ann Arbor, Mich., he became interested in raising bison after reading an article about it eight years ago. Having grown up on a hog farm west of Archbold, he was familiar with agriculture and raising animals. “I thought, ‘Hey, that looks like fun,’” he said.
A Waterville, Ohio, native, Stacy Nofziger earned a degree in zoology from Kent State University and worked at zoos in Cincinnati and Akron. Currently, she’s a veterinarian technician at Cat Tails, a clinic in Holland, Ohio, where the couple formerly lived.
The Nofzigers’ plan is to process bison as freezer-kept meat, accumulating customers directly through their Bracy Gold Bison Ranch Facebook page and other advertisement. Their current product, which they get from their mentor, Broken Wagon Bison in Hobart, Ind., until they can process their own, sells for $11.50 per pound for ground meat and $12 per pound for burgers.
Brent Nofziger said a local market for the leaner, lower-calorie meat is evident in the current health-conscious society. “The younger adults like to know where their food came from, they like to eat locally, and they like to eat healthy, maintained animals,” he said.
And while raising bison may require less work than raising traditional cattle, they’re still wild animals, Brent Nofziger said. Although they’re not aggressive by nature, they remain wary of humans, especially those around their calves, and can regard domesticated pets as predators.
“They can run 35 miles per hour,” he said. “If they decided they’re having a bad day, or they don’t like the way you’re acting, they will get on you very quickly if they decide to.”
For that reason, the Nofzigers are cautious around the animals, making sure to keep their distance. They invite people to the ranch by appointment only to view them, and escort the guests throughout the visit.
That said, a bison’s behavior is more fight-or-flight, and they usually become aggressive only if they’re cornered or feel threatened, Stacy Nofziger said.
An exception may be their daughter, Leona, whom they jokingly refer to as “the bison whisperer.” Though she follows her parents’ strict rules in the bisons’ presence, they have reacted to her in a friendlier manner, at times licking and nuzzling her.
The Nofzigers are members of several bison associations, which are working toward a goal of one million bison in the U.S. Presently, there are about 400,000 in the U.S. and Canada, most in private herds. At least a dozen bison ranches operate in southern Ohio, others are located in Indiana and Michigan, and a ranch is scheduled to open in Port Clinton, Ohio.
Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has listed 183,780 bison on an estimated 1,775 ranches in the U.S., including 986 listed on 30 ranches in Ohio in 2017. He said raising bison will become even more prevalent as the benefits become clearer.
“People have discovered the great taste and nutritional benefits of bison. We see it continuing to grow,” Carter said.
And while some are leery of the taste of bison meat, “our challenge is getting them that first bite. Then they come back for more,” he said. “And what’s more sustainable than the animal that’s been here for thousands of years.”
Stacy Nofziger said their Fulton County ranch fulfills both her husband’s goal of raising bison and her longtime goal of a pastoral life surrounded by animals.
“This was a way that he and I could both achieve our dreams,” she said.
The Nofzigers can be reached on the Bracy Gold Bison Ranch Facebook page and at [email protected]