By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Taking advantage of a bottomed-out bison market in about 2000, Mike Sworski was able to fulfill a longtime dream of raising bison.
Mike had grown up on a hobby farm south of St. Cloud, where his father allowed Mike and younger brother, John, to raise beef cattle.
“During grade school, we got our first steers from our grandpa,” Mike said.
He purchased a farm near Richmond shortly before marrying Shelly in 1998. His beef cattle were moved over to the new farm, but Mike still harbored the bison dream.
“I had wanted to raise bison (also correctly called buffalo) from a young age,” he said. “My parents were leery of them getting out and causing trouble.”
Mike and Shelly chose the name “Wind Dancer” for their farm because of its Native American connotations. The “dancer” part was especially meaningful to them after they watched bald eagles soaring through the sky around their new farm.
After a couple of years on the farm, Mike decided it was time for the bison. Because he had been raising sheep as well, he waited a year between getting rid of the beef cattle and the sheep and buying the first bison. Sheep can carry a virus that can kill bison, but does not affect beef cattle.
Mike had visited a bison rancher near Glenwood for a tour and conversation.
“He was very helpful, sharing ‘dos and don’ts,’” Mike said. “When I went by different ranches, I’d stop and look at their setups from the road.”
“Then the bottom fell out of the bison market, and we decided to jump in,” said Mike.
The first bison were purchased in Albany at Minnesota Buffalo’s annual fall sale, four bull calves.
“Just starting out, we didn’t want to get in over our heads,” he said.
The Sworskis have seven and a half acres and rent an additional six acres from a neighbor. Their farmland is used for grazing, while they grow hay on the rented land.
In 2002, two female buffalo were brought home from Osakis.
In 2003, an electrical storm took out power to the electric fence and a neighbor and his wife helped the Sworskis bring the buffalo back in. “They were young enough — we got them back in easily,” Mike said.
Bison require very little care. “They get grass, hay and plenty of fresh water and are wormed once a year,” he said.
Bison at Wind Dancer are not given hormones, antibiotics or vaccinations.
One of the biggest challenges is moving the bison.
“They have the potential to be unpredictable,” said Mike. “We are careful the animals don’t get stressed, so we don’t get hurt.”
“You have to remember that they are wild animals,” Shelly said. “We don’t name them; they are not pets.”
About two bison per year are sold, with the Sworskis keeping about one-third to one-half of a bison. The rest is sold to friends and family members.
“We tried to keep 10 – 11 at a time, but it was too much,” Mike said. “We keep five or six most of the time; no more than eight.”
Most of their new animals are purchased as younger females at fall sales or from Minnesota Buffalo Association members directly off the farm.
The current breeder bull is one of the original four bulls. “He’s getting to be that age where it’s time to get a younger bull,” said Mike.
Shelly likes the lean meat the bison provide. “I don’t have to drain or rinse hamburger, but have to watch not to burn it.”
“It can be cooked at a lower heat in less cooking time,” Mike added. “It’s the health benefits that are most important. Bison meat is nutrient dense because of the proportion of protein, fat, minerals and fatty acids to number of calories. Bison meat has high levels of Omega 3 fats.”
“My advice for farmers is to start out with young animals — calves and yearlings,” said Mike. “It makes a huge difference.”
For more information, call (320) 453-2961.