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From Custer to Cookeville

Putnam County’s Lazy G Ranch builds South Dakota-sourced buffalo herd, constructs durable working system for the massive animals
Story and photos by Chris Villines 11/15/2018

 

Some of Eddie and Frida Gaw’s 85-head herd of American Plains buffalo roam on their 150-acre Cookeville farm, Lazy G Ranch. Eddie began raising the animals 15 years ago and he and Frida have steadily built their herd numbers primarily through purchases made at auction in the heart of buffalo country, Custer, South Dakota.
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Every two years, Eddie Gaw and wife Frida make the 1,400-mile trek from their farm in Cookeville to the Black Hills of Custer, South Dakota.

But the clear mountain water, granite peaks, and open plains, while nice, aren’t the main attraction for the couple. What draws them to the region is the buffalo auction that takes place each November at Custer State Park, where between 250 and 400 buffalo are sold.

“We pull a trailer out there,” says Eddie. “We’ll leave home three or four days before the sale and sightsee a little. Usually, we buy eight to 10 buffalo and haul them back. We pull a large trailer so they have room to lay down once we start down the road.”

The evidence of these repeat trips can be seen upon entering Lazy G Ranch, which is part of farmland that’s been in the Gaw family for 60 years. On 150 rolling acres, Eddie and Frida have built an 85-head herd of the formidable animals. The National Bison Association estimates there are 385,000 buffalo in North American private, public, and tribal herds, and there is a push led by the organization to increase those numbers to 1 million by the year 2025.

“I’ve always loved buffalo and the old cowboy lifestyle of the West,” says Eddie, who is in the property management business and before that was the fourth generation to run his family’s wholesale produce operation. “I used to run both cattle and buffalo, but the buffalo just bring so much more [at sale].”

He expounds on an eye-opening experience which led him to go to an all-buffalo operation.

“About four years ago, I sold five buffalo bulls for $20,500,” Eddie says. “Just before that, I had sold 20 head of cattle for $20,000. That convinced me. I loaded up the rest of my cattle and sold them, too.”

As the buffalo operation grew, however, so did the need for adequate handling facilities. Frida attests that working buffalo is an entirely different ballgame than working cattle.

“[Buffalo] can get kind of crazy when you work them,” explains Frida, whose family runs the Cookeville Boat Dock, where Lazy G Ranch buffalo burgers are served in the restaurant. “You need to have a safe way to work them without a group getting so scrunched up that they start goring each other or trying to climb out.”

Eddie concurs.

“You have to just ease around them,” he says. “You don’t holler, you don’t scream. And anything they can lay their chin on, they can jump. It’s important to keep them moving in a circle, and you don’t want them to see where they are going because that’s when working them can become a nightmare.”

Eddie says he knew where to turn for advice on the proper working equipment and help with constructing it — Co-op. The longtime Putnam Farmers Cooperative member consulted with manager Jere Cumby, assistant manager Jerry Borden, and Tennessee Farmers Cooperative Hardware Specialist Bryan Wrather to design a setup to meet the Gaws’ needs.

After careful planning and regular communication between Eddie and his Co-op partners, the group greenlighted a heavy-duty, galvanized, fully sheeted W-W 600 series system with panels measuring 7 feet tall when installed. That’s a full foot taller than most traditional systems since buffalo can jump over barriers as high as 6 feet, 6 inches.

Under roof and fully concreted, the impressive W-W system was constructed in September by Bryan, Jerry, and additional personnel from the Co-op. It features:

• 24 feet of alleyways; alleys consist of 8-foot sections with rolling block doors at each section,

• A 10x40 holding pen,

• 8-foot-high pole gates, at each section with double latches for safety

• Custom-made palpation cages, and

• Fully hydraulic W-W Stampede 2K Hydraulic Squeeze Chute with a front-mounted buffalo crash gate.

“With the pole gates configured like they are, if one of the buffalo was to go down, you can get the animal out before something really bad happens,” explains Bryan. “You can quarantine them.”

Another safeguarding feature constructed for the Gaws is a catwalk that extends all the way around the system so work can be conducted without having to get in the pen with animals that are already on edge.

“You’ve got to work them as quickly as possible, and because of that you need about 12 people on hand,” says Eddie. “A buffalo will stress out on you, and I’ve seen them die on the spot. That’s why you wait until cooler weather to work them — work them in the heat, and they’ll be more stressed.”

Both sides agree that this new working system will last for many years to come.

“It’s one of the most durable setups I’ve ever seen,” Bryan says. “The main challenge in putting it all together was the weight of each individual piece and getting everything hooked together with that much weight being there. We had to think ahead and use a tractor whenever we could to set the pieces.”

“We’re all set,” Eddie adds. “Nothing’s going to be getting out on us when we’re working buffalo.”

There’ll be no stopping the bi-yearly trips to South Dakota, either. It’s where Eddie and Frida gather with fellow buffalo producers, talk shop, hopefully add to their stock, and witness North America’s largest land animal roaming free in its natural habitat.

“The buffalo is making a comeback,” says Eddie. “There are a lot of people wanting to get into the business. Maybe they’ll make it and love these animals as much as we do.”

 
 
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