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  • Ian Thompson

Into Thin Air

It was a dark and stormy night. Two rain-soaked sleuths urgently combed the woods along the roadside looking for signs of the young male who had gone missing the night before. They hoped against logic that they would somehow find him alive. Odds were that they would find his still body torn by violence. In the end, they found absolutely nothing. Not a foot print, not a bent blade of grass, not even a buffalo bellow.

We've dedicated this blog to sharing the challenges and successes of setting up Nan Awaya Farmstead. Unfortunately, tonight we are reporting one of the low points on our journey. Here are the facts: On Sunday evening, Ian rotated the herd into a new pasture uneventfully. By Monday afternoon, when he rotated them again, Bisonette’s calf was not with them. The 400-pound calf, “Baby Spike” had been there in the herd just the night before, healthy as a bull. An unweaned calf like this does not leave his mother's side without a fight from both of them. What could have happened to separate him from the rest of the herd, and, more urgently, where was he?

For the past two nights, we combed the land and the roadsides searching for any trace of Spike. If he had gotten through the fence, there should have been missing clips and trodden grass along the outside of the fence line where he tried to get back to the herd. There was none. The air should have been filled his bellows for his mother’s milk. Yet, the hills and valleys of the farmstead were eerily silent. As our search widened, we reached out to our local network of friends, neighbors, store owners, and law enforcement to see if anyone had seen or heard something. So far, nothing. The only real clue was the herd itself, which had clearly accepted that Spike was gone for good within hours of his disappearance. When Ian called loudly for the missing calf, the mother only hung her head. Usually when a bison loses her calf, she spends a couple of days looking for it. The fact that the herd was not searching for him suggests that they already knew he was never coming back. Such behavior could be explained if, for example, he had died from being gored by one of his herd members. This brings us to our dark and stormy night. After work, the thunderheads towered above, and the lightening flashed nearly every second. In rain-drenched twilight, we went through streams, swamps, briars, and open areas, but not a trace. These were not ideal search conditions to be sure, but a buffalo is hard to miss, and if a 400lb animal died within a mile of our place, at least our noses should have let us know. Nothing.

Like the herd, there's nothing for us to do now but to move on. Not only we will miss the little guy, but he was our only calf born this year. Farther down the road, his loss means 400lbs of healthy meat that won’t go out into the community, and it means a chunk of needed income that won’t go into keeping the farm running. In light of this loss, it is easy to think that every sandbur, blister, and 100-degree day spent mending fence over the past year has now come to nothing. In the bigger picture, we try remember that we still have a herd to take care of and that there will be many more calves in the coming years as our new heifers mature.

The mystery of Spike’s disappearance is going to keep us up at night for a while. Next week or ten years from now, maybe we'll sit down next to someone at Tipp’s Sacred Grounds who, upon learning that we raise buffalo, will tell us a story of the day they saw a buffalo calf high-tailing it down the road towards Kosoma. Part of the mystery would be solved. On the other hand, maybe only the buffalo are really meant to know.

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