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Published July 30, 2012, 09:03 AM

Bison mentor

Life is turning out exactly as Kevin Leier hoped. At age 23, he has a new career as a high school teacher in Rugby, N.D. The job is 20 miles from the Heartland Bison Ranch he helped his parents build.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

RUGBY, N.D. — Life is turning out exactly as Kevin Leier hoped.

At age 23, he has a new career as a high school teacher in Rugby, N.D. The job is 20 miles from the Heartland Bison Ranch he helped his parents build. He’s an assistant football coach, has a new family and is an emerging leader in what he sees as a healthy bison industry.

Leier was elected to the board of the North Dakota Buffalo Association when he was 19. He was the youngest board member on any regional bison board in the nation, and was elected vice president of the 150-member group in December 2010.

“I can tell you that on the state level, the board of directors is constantly concerned that there are too few animals and too few producers, compared to a decade ago,” Leier says. “The population of medium-sized herds is half of what it was. We need to push to get more people to come in. We want to get the word out that if you want to diversify your ranch a bit, this is a good possibility.”

Leier acknowledges there are some high-rollers in the bison business on a continental scale. It’s a good sign that smaller operators have come to North Dakota from as far away as Missouri, Kansas, Texas and Montana. North Dakota can use more herds in the average size of about 65 to 85 cow-calf pairs, he says.

The North Dakota buffalo Association recently implemented a mentoring program, available online, at www.ndbuffalo.net.

“It’s set up to give anybody who’s looking at getting into buffalo some real people to talk to,” Leier says. “My Dad and I are one ranch in the mentoring program. There are about five or six.” The Leiers are cow-calf specialists, but others specialize in feedlots, handling or feed rations.

Mentor at home

Leier’s main mentor was his dad — naturally.

Kevin was born in 1988, the fourth of eight children, and started life with the family when his parents lived in Las Vegas. “Dad would tell us about growing up on the farm in North Dakota, and it was something I wanted to do,” Leier says. He was eight when the family moved from Las Vegas in 1996 to start the buffalo ranch. The live bison market bottomed out in 2002, and Kevin was 16 when he took out a Beginning Farmer loan from the federal Farm Service Agency.

“I thought, if I got some now, and things kept inching up, it could be a good move for me.” The market came back and the bison helped pay his college bills.

Leier played football in high school and graduated in 2007. He continued football at Minot (N.D.) State University, and was often home on the ranch. He met his wife, Anne, at a friend’s wedding.

Kevin came out of MSU with a social science education degree in 2011. He expected to come back to the ranch eventually, maybe starting as a full-time substitute teacher. But a long-time social studies teacher in Rugby decided to retire. Kevin applied and got the job, and was named defensive coordinator for the Rugby Panthers football team. Anne landed a teaching job at an elementary school in town.

How it all works

Teaching fits nicely with raising bison, Leier says. “In the winter, when I’m teaching, the bison are minimal work. You put the feed out there and they’re content.”

In a windshield pasture tour in late July, Leier explains that the herd is kept in an area of natural springs in the winter. They come up to a 115-acre pasture — sandy soil, formerly cropland — where they calve on their own. The best time is the first or second week of April, but all should be calved out by the end of May.

“Every four or five days we come out and check them,” he says. “They’ll single themselves off in groups, and go off into the trees and bushes. We don’t see them for about six or seven days, and they come back with babies.”

The bison come in to be worked in an annual Thanksgiving weekend roundup. The whole family comes. “We try to work them really slow, with the least amount of stress as possible,” Leier says. Gate systems are run pneumatically, with an air compressor. “One guy from one spot, here, can control six gates,” he says. “For separating calves from cows, it works real well. Usually they’ll come in by themselves because they only see one way to go. One guy walks on the catwalk above them.”

Leier says his long-term goal for his family is to become part-time teachers and full-time ranchers. He doubts either he or Anne will ever give up teaching entirely.

His mother, Rebecca, seems pleased with the whole arrangement. Kevin and Anne live a mile away, where they have 10 acres of their own. In 2010, Kevin and Anne moved into a ranch house they relocated from a farmstead about 100 miles south in Woodworth, N.D. He’s fixing it up with a log cabin décor — the start of a new household.

The Leiers are philosophical about the whipsaw bison went through 10 years ago. They figure the industry encountered logical cycles of growth and change. “Now they can’t kill enough animals to meet demand,” Kevin says. “It’s a whole different ballgame than it was in the late 1990s.”

Things are balancing out, he says.

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