Milliken rancher reflects on 40 years in the bison business
Where to go
The Spomer Ranch and Red Barn Bison are located at 23675 Weld County Road 27½. Take Two Rivers Parkway south off U.S. Highway 34. They’re open most daytime hours, but if someone is coming from a distance, owner Dave Hayes suggests calling first. If somebody is looking for a specific meat, Hayes recommends calling or emailing. He can be reached at (970) 587-2001 or at email@example.com. To find out more go to http://www.redbarnbison.com.
Dave Hayes has been raising bison for 40 years, and sometimes it seems like the bison are more pets than food.
Hayes knows his herd well — after all, some of the cows are in their 20s now.
When he walks over to their field, he calls out to them, offering “cookies,” which are treats made of alfalfa.
“These aren’t real buffalo — these are spoiled rotten buffalo,” he said with a laugh as he threw treats to them on Monday at his farm northeast of Milliken.
As soon as the herd hears his call, they start to migrate toward the fence.
“That one there, she’s ornery,” he said, pointing at a cow, or a female bison, a few feet away.
Hayes has been at Spomer Ranch, home of Red Barn Bison, for 25 years. It’s a family ranch, but he’s the only one who has ever raised bison there.
The bulls aren’t small — they make the average farm cow or horse look small, but they’re pretty tame as far as buffalo go, he said.
Hayes calls them buffalo, but he makes the correction for the sake of others — bison are native to North America, buffalo are not.
“We’ve always called them buffalo so you just assume that if you’re talking about North American buffalo, you’re talking about bison.”
It’s a common mistake for those who didn’t grow up around the livestock.
Hayes has about 30 at the ranch, but at this point they’re for show — for the tourists, he said — but he does send a few to be slaughtered now and then.
To fill the meat market, he works with other local ranchers and orders bison from meat packers. He gets a delivery every Wednesday.
When arriving at the ranch, customers ring a bell that sounds out over the few acres of farm land to get Hayes’ attention.
After a minute, he will mosey up to the meat market, which is literally in a Red Barn, fresh from whatever project he was working on.
There are always projects at Spomer Ranch.
“It’s a maintenance nightmare when you have a place that’s 100 years old,” he said.
Hayes grew up in Wyoming but he’s been visiting the ranch since he was a kid. Back then it belonged to his grandparents, and Weld County Road 27½ was a dirt road. There was also no running water.
In the ’60s, Hayes’ father installed sewer, and they tapped into the city water and the dirt road has since been paved.
Hayes has been improving the ranch regularly since. He said he still fixed most things on his own.
“People don’t realize what’s all involved with farming,” Hayes said. “You’ve got to be a mechanic to fix your equipment, you have to know how to run the equipment. You’ve got to know plumbing, electric.”
Everything was modest and understated back when the ranch started, and it still is at Spomer Ranch compared to other high tech ranches in the area.
Hayes believes Red Barn Bison is the only place that you can get all of the bison meats. He sells ground bison, burger patties, stew and fajita meat, brisket and all kinds of roasts and steaks. He also has summer sausages, sausage links, bison dogs, heart, liver, tongue and jerky.
He estimates about 80 percent of his business is of repeat customers. “I’m one of the few places you can actually buy buffalo meat on a ranch anymore,” he said.
The Red Barn Bison meat market on the ranch is really the attraction for locals.
Ernest Medina of Dacono is one of the many. He stopped by Monday for the jalapeño jerky, but he walked out with the habanero.
He said he kept coming back because bison meat was good, and it was a great price on a typically expensive commodity.
“I’ve been coming here for a good couple years,” Medina said. “His prices are very reasonable. I don’t think you can get it anywhere else. The variety is a lot bigger. Most places you go you can get the jerky but the prices are more expensive and you can’t get the steaks.”
Hayes said he saw as many as 20 customers on the weekends, and there were always people stopping in to ring the bell and pick up some bison steaks when the sign at the meat market indicated it was open.
“It’s not Safeway or King Soopers, but for a little place like this,” it’s good business, he said. ❖
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