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Rural Missouri Magazine


At home on the range
Bison abound at Sayersbrook Ranch

by Jim McCarty

Skip Sayers keeps a wary eye on the herd as he educates visitors to the state’s largest bison ranch. Once an apple orchard, Skip introduced bison to the ranch in 1975.

The photo shows Skip Sayers feeding a massive bison bull, just inches away from a pair of wicked horns. It was taken before his insurance man found out what Skip was up to.

“When I did this I thought about gapping spark plugs, sky diving, anything but this,” Skip says. “Like horses, they can smell fear.”

You won’t see Skip get that close to his bison anymore. On this day he keeps a wary eye on the herd as he educates another trailer load of visitors to his bison ranch near Potosi with a small sample of the information he’s learned about the all-American animal.

He tells every tour group the shaggy beasts on his ranch are bison and not buffalo, which are native to Africa and Asia but not the United States. Call them buffalo and Skip will quickly correct you.

An early entrant into the bison industry, Skip and his wife, Connie, had to learn how to raise bison the hard way. They were one of 10 ranchers in North America who wanted to bring back a vestige of the great herds that once roamed the continent, Missouri included. In the early going they made a lot of mistakes.

“We were killing a lot of animals because we didn’t know how to manage them,” Skip says. “We were treating them like cattle and they are not, they are wild.”

Skip works in his office at the ranch. Together with his wife, Connie, Skip was a pioneer in America's modern bison industry.

Finally the original 10 put their heads together and came up with a manual others could follow. “From that, almost anyone can get into the business today and not worry about mismanagement,” Skip says.

It’s hard to imagine those humble beginnings when you survey what Sayersbrook Bison Ranch has become. Much more than a ranch, it’s also a destination for extreme hunters and off-road drivers.

In 1975 Skip and Connie bought three bison from a used car salesman and brought them home to the ranch located 9 miles east of Potosi. They promptly walked through the fence and led the Sayers on a chase that lasted six months.

In those days the sight of a bison roaming the Ozark hills was unheard of. Once close to extinction, bison numbers were on the rise when the Sayers got started.

From those humble beginnings the herd grew. Today Sayersbrook Ranch is home to 1,100 bison, give or take a few dozen. Look beyond the herd, however, and you’ll see the ranch has grown into something as magnificent as the shaggy beasts that roam its range.

Sayersbrook Ranch got its start in 1928 when Skip’s grandfather received the deed to 600 acres of land as payment for a printing debt. The elder Sayers designed accounting systems for St. Louis firms like Shapleigh Hardware and gradually eased into the printing business.

While earning his living from printing, he found time to improve his patch of Ozarks. By 1931 he had planted 7,000 apple trees which were irrigated, an unheard of thing.

In addition to bison, Sayersbrook Ranch features trails and lakes. Abover, a tour group motors around a mile-long lake. The boat ride includes a trip through a canal that connects it to a smaller lake.

In time the land passed to Skip’s father, who added cattle and sheep to the orchards and built a mile-long lake in 1957. As bordering land went on the market, the acreage increased until there were 1,600 acres when Skip took over.

Bringing bison to the land worried his father, Skip says. “My father thought the cattle herd had mutated and come back with humps on their backs. He did not think it was funny at all. He said, ‘You are going to scare all the apple buyers away.’ ”

Instead just the opposite happened. People started driving from hundreds of miles away to see the bison. Before they left, they bought apples.

Skip’s investment proved providential to the ranch. His father’s work in the orchard turned into a labor of love and not money, with apples fetching the same price today they brought in 1940. Meanwhile the bison herd has prospered to the point where Sayersbrook now markets bison meat worldwide through a gourmet catalog.

In 1996 Skip sold the printing and advertising business to devote his efforts to the ranch, now measuring 6 square miles and 4,258 acres. Besides the big lake, there are 65 ponds. There are eight bison herds separated by 100 miles of electric fence.

Bison cows challenge each other by butting heads. Skip has also seen them hold swimming races, sway to music and play “king of the hill.”

Visitors to the ranch are always welcome and over the years it has become a popular tour destination. On any given day a tour bus pulls up to the office and dozens of guests file into the amphitheater to learn the history of the ranch. Then Skip takes over to lecture on the benefits of eating bison.

USDA nutritional information backs up what Skip has to say: Meat from bison is lower in fat than skinless chicken. It also is lower in cholesterol than any other meat and has fewer calories, pound for pound, than everything except ostrich.

Bison has 40 percent more protein than beef, so it takes less to satisfy your appetite.

It was these facts that led Skip and Connie to invest in the first three bison. On the eve of the nation’s bicentennial, Skip had just finished reading a 1,200-page anthology of the Plains Indians. The book claimed American Indians, whose diet was primarily bison, never had cancer, heart disease or strokes.

After 10 years selling the meat, Skip surveyed his buyers to see what kind of person was buying in bison meat. He expected it to be health-conscious people interested in the low-fat meat. Instead, it was gourmet cooks who just like the taste.

“It’s catching on,” Skip says of his efforts to educate the public about the benefits of eating bison. “It’s more expensive than beef and that’s the main deterrent.”

Bison graze on the ranch.

But considering the facts, the price may be a misleading. Skip says 40 percent of beef can’t be eaten because it is fat or grease that cooks out. Then with 40 percent more protein in bison, smaller portions can be served.

“You take those things, you can pay twice as much for bison as you can for the best beef. Then you add the health benefits — what price would you pay for that?”

The average person would be content to rest on the success of the bison herd. Not Skip. Every day includes a new list of dreams for the land. In fact, the bison are just one part of what the ranch has in store.

Sayersbrook offers the ultimate outdoor adventure for the hunter with deep pockets. For $7,000 Skip will put you up in his well-furnished hunting lodge, complete with hot tub, pool, putting green, open bar and a gourmet chef cooking meals.

The hunter chooses his setting — prairie, woods or a combination of both — and a bull bison is turned loose in the environment. The next day the hunter matches wits with his prey, warned of the fact that a misplaced shot can result in a charge from a wild bull that can run 42 mph and clear a 7-foot fence with ease.

Included in the price is a mounted head and meat worth $3,000.

Other amenities include tennis, access to 18 holes of golf at nearby Fourché Valley Golf Course and a world-class sporting clays range. There’s fly fishing for bass and bluegill on the spring-fed creek or lake fishing from the pontoon boat.

Skip and off-road instructor Rob Reitz watch an H2 Hummer wind its way through a challenging section of trail on the ranch, which is home to an off-road driving school.

Cheaper hunts are available. The ranch bills its hunts as anything from “5-star” to “under the stars,” where the hunter does his own cooking and sleeps outdoors.

The most unusual activity available at the ranch involves target shooting with .30-caliber Browning machine guns. Skip also has a pair of armored cars from the Gulf War and two H1 Hummers.

The Hummers, civilian versions of the Army’s new jeeps, inspired a network of trails that are the latest project at the ranch. Now in its second year, The American Off Road Training Center teaches would-be off-roaders to master the sport through classroom work, an obstacle course and graduation to nearly 50 miles of progressively difficult trails.

Recently Sayersbrook played host to two dozen brand new H2 Hummers brought in by General Motors to demonstrate their prowess to owners of competing vehicles. Once the drivers reached the end of the course they were rewarded with gourmet meals featuring Sayersbrook bison served on fine linen.

Whimsical murals add to the entertainment at Sayersbrook Ranch.

The ranch is also home to a September event designed to send Washington County youth to college. Bisonfest, set for Sept. 20 this year, has paid the way for 250 students to date in one of the state’s poorest counties. The Sayers also donated a building to the city of Potosi that now houses the Sayers Senior Center. They also built an apartment complex where down on their luck people can live until they get back on their feet.

Skip and Connie continue to play an active role in the workings of the ranch, from driving the tractor that pulls the tour groups to cooking lunch or brushhogging weeds.

“That’s part of the fun of this job,” Skip says. “We’ve got to improve the bottom line. That will make it more fun.”

You can reach Sayersbrook Ranch at (573) 438-4449 or via e-mail to info@sayersbrook.com. The ranch is on the Internet at www.sayersbrook.com. Groups of 20 or more need to make reservations that can include a bison lunch. Individual tours are held every Saturday at 10 a.m.

 

 

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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