Iowa Buffalo

Iowa Buffalo

Iowa Buffalo

To me a heritage breed means an animal that is associated with a human group's heritage, defined by geography. There is no animal that comes to mind more distinctly when reminiscing about Iowa's geographic history than the mighty buffalo.

The American Buffalo or Bison once numbered in the millions, were hunted almost to extinction by the European invaders of America. This herd animal along with prairie fires can be thanked for the gold mine of soil that makes up Iowa's billion dollar agricultural industry.

One might believe that the buffalo was undomesticated, untouched by man, but we now know that the Native People managed the buffalo herds using fire and selective hunting. In my mind, their management of these impressive beasts was the ideal relationship man should have with animals that are primarily food. The buffalo was allowed to have its freedom and in having its freedom it became adapted to the biosphere from genetics to feeding itself efficiently. It was perfectly adapted to the Iowa Biosphere. It is a low maintenance animal and an efficient grazer.

Today Iowa is getting back into this heritage breed which is now used as a domesticated low fat, low cholesterol, high protein, meat source.  It is interesting that it took something trendy to back the heritage of Iowa and a fine animal back to our land.  The best place to see how this effort is moving forward is the Iowa Bison Association. There are currently 12 farms in Iowa who raise buffalo and their meat can be found in all our local grocery and health stores. Once slaughtered by the millions, banned from killing on the prairie, now a heritage that Iowans are embracing and demanding at their table.

Add your thoughts to this conversation

Sonia-The picture you posted is an amazingly powerful image. When we classify instances of great loss whether of land acreage, animals, or humans, assigning this loss as just quantitative often does not provide as critical a meaning as a photo like the one you’ve shared or names of individuals on a memorial. This also makes me think of individual human responses to these images and how people are differently affected by exposure to human suffering compared to animal or environmental suffering.

I am greatly interested in the re-introduction of the American Buffalo to appropriate bioregions as well as potentially the water buffalo. There are currently about 20 American buffalo ranches across Pennsylvania, yet they do not have a state association. In 2012, two water buffalo (yearlings at the time) were introduced to a local Delaware state park’s Freshwater Marsh Nature Preserve. The two water buffalo are being used for prescribed grazing, defined as the application of livestock for specific vegetation goals. Similarly to the American Buffalo, water buffalo are extremely adaptive to certain bioregions and can eat vegetation varieties that other domestic dairy and beef breeds would not. Although not considered a heritage breed in this country, using the water buffalo, as grazers for marsh restoration and prevention of further chemical usage could be very beneficial across regions of the eastern U.S. coastal plain.

Delaware DNREC. 2012. “Your DNREC- Water Buffalo.” Posted June 28.

Eat Bison Meat. 2013. “Pennsylvania Buffalo Ranches.” Accessed June 13, 2014.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Management Methods: Prescribed Grazing.” Last updated February 2009.


Well, you and Sonia are determined to ensure that we can't rest on our laurels, content with terms and definitions or even "who belongs where." Thanks for the fascinating video, and it is constructive for us to be reminded that "livestock" in the continental US are almost all introduced species, with the exception (among our mainstream understanding of "livestock") being the turkey.  

Water buffalo are critical to culture, cultivation (similar etymological roots here, of course), cuisine, and--as your video makes clear here--ecology.  I was not aware of this use of water buffalo in the US.  I have seen a rising interest in Italian water buffalo for mozarella and yogurt production in the US.  Alas, this process we call domestication seems far from over, and the line between "wild" and "domesticated" habitats seems to be getting ever blurrier, as you and Sonia both point out in your posts.

Thanks for the added layer of murkiness.  Let's call it "complexity," as that word makes any academic feel at home and perhaps even needed...or not!  :)



Your photo is both stunning and disturbing--a testament to our collective cultural foolishness, I'm afraid.  As per our discussions throughout this course, one would hope that multimedia images such as this one might be powerful reminders both of our valuable and tenuous inheritance and how far awry we can go in a matter of decades.

I appreciate the fact that you are infusing some tension into our discussions, particularly as they relate to terminology.  Indeed, buffalo are heritage animals.  That said, they were not originally part of our notion of "livestock"; in fact, farmers with livestock actually found them threatening in many cases.  Now we find ourselves in the strange predicament of embracing them as livestock, of sorts.  It's interesting, actually, to see the confusion about status further confounded as buffalo, bison, certain species of deer, etc. run headlong into the policy world via slaughterhouse regulation.  Wild? Domesticated? Different states have different views.  

In sum, your post brings us back to the issue of terms and definitions--how important they can be but also how often they fall short. I will leave it to others to help flesh out the pros and cons of deciding whether these magnificent animals should be considered "livestock," much less managed (and marketed) as if they are livestock.

Thanks for muddying the already turbid waters!



I loved your point about the revitalization of the buffalo coming from a current trend towards low-fat/high protein meat. I guess those natives had it right all along and somehow along the way, we messed it all up! I really like your definition of a heritage breed, as well, giving such an animal a cultural meaning; the animal is more than just its product and truly lives, as you say. Do you think that buffalo producers today take this approach to tending their animals? Or are most Buffalo coming from large-scale productions like we see with cattle?

I just came back from Iowa; it was interesting to see farmers now looking at variants on the corn on soy rotation model. Some are adding alfalfa or grains like oats instead of cover crops. Others are introducing livestock. I also came across a project near Des Moines where prairie grass has been reintroduced. Where are these bison farms, Sonia, and are they connected to similar perennial prairie grass reintroduction projects?

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