SELFRIDGE, N.D. — The temperature had warmed up to about 20 degrees below zero before Ernie and Beverly Fischer's annual bison sale began on Jan. 7. Despite the bone-chilling cold, buyers weren't too numbed to raise their hands and bid, showing the continued strength of the bison market.
The sale moved through approximately 400 head in less than an hour, the small crowd walking pen to pen, their breath coming out in steady puffs of fog as they looked over the frost-covered animals. Auctioneer Greg Ryken, of Yankton, S.D., warned he wouldn't be begging for bids: "We're not going to stand around all afternoon."
But the buyers, many who drove hundreds of miles to attend one of the country's larger bison sales, were ready to buy. The first pen, 19 head of 300- to 350-pound mixed heifer and bull calves, sold in about a minute for $900 a head.
Given the scarcity of bison breeders, those in the industry are used to hitting the road. Brad Beavers, of Jefferson, S.D., missed the Fischers' sale last year to attend one in Kansas.
"They aren't like cattle," said Ryan Hastings of Britton, S.D. "You can't get them just anywhere."
Beavers said the bison market has been going up for the past 10 years, with more consumer demand for meat than producers can supply.
It's hard to get new producers into raising bison, Beavers explained. The bigger, stronger animals require heavier corralling and working facilities than cattle, and few cattlemen have been willing to switch, he said.
Bison also grow slower than cattle, meaning more outputs up front with a longer wait time for profits. Beavers said bison are processed at 22 to 28 months old, so a spring calf bought now will take about 14 more months to finish.
Hastings and Jay Melius, of Faulkton, S.D., were at the sale in search of bred heifers, which they said had been selling recently in excess of $3,000 a head. Melius has a cow-calf operation. He sends his calves to Hastings, who has a bison feedlot. From there, they go to a bison slaughter facility in Rush, Colo. Beavers also sends his calves to Rush.
The Fischers were pleased with the results of the sale.
"Everybody went home happy," Beverly Fischer said.
"The market was tremendous today," Ryken said. He noted the crowd was smaller than at the Fischers' sale last year, which featured about 800 head, but there were enough buyers to keep things moving.
"We had enough people to support the animals we had," Beverly Fischer said.
Though the buyers didn't think twice about braving the cold, one group that didn't show up was protesters. The Fischers have subleased land on Cannonball Ranch, which has been at the center of the controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline. Protesters, fueled by misinformation and misperception, made threats to come to the sale, either to buy bison or to protest.
Despite rumors and talk, Beverly Fischer said few of the bison sold on Jan. 7 ever had been at Cannonball Ranch. The Fischers, tired of cut fences and stress on their animals, sold out their interests in animals located at the ranch. Additionally, she explained, the bison in their herd — and in virtually every other herd in the nation — are domesticated.
"They were never wild animals," she said.
The online conversation regarding the sale propelled the Fischers to move it from Cannonball Ranch to their home place in Selfridge and to request special security. The North Dakota Highway Patrol had several squad cars stationed north of Selfridge, and the Sioux County Sheriff's Department had a car at the entrance to the Fischer farmstead. Buyers and spectators had to register and get wristbands at the gate.
In the end, the sale was uneventful. But the Fischers still are recovering from a summer and fall where they had to deal with a new batch of stresses. Beverly Fischer, who is Native American, sees the side of the protesters who worry about the possible long-term repercussions from the planned oil pipeline. But she hasn't been happy "with some of the events that occurred."
"That activity has been detrimental to the health of our herd, to our health level and to our stress level," she said.
The Fischers' have subleased U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' land for haying, including land on which one of the main protest camps is located. That means they may have lost their hay land for the foreseeable future.
"In my eyes, that land has been destroyed for future years," Beverly Fischer said.
The Fischers, neither for nor against the pipeline, hope protesters will respect the people living and working in the vicinity.
"Whether you're for or against the pipeline, we're all here for a better tomorrow," Ernie Fischer said.