It takes millenium or two to tame a wild beast.
So, the Rengstorf bison-production family will be looking ahead a couple dozen generations at the Rolling R Ranch before the big critters evolve into calm, docile barnyard animals.
And—the next generation is already off to a good start.
The second generation is on the job now, as Dale and Beth Rengstorf set the stage for daughter Karla and husband PJ Breen to carry on the family tradition. The three Breen kids, known as the “Ranch Girls” are on the fast track as the third generation.
“It takes thousands of years to truly domesticate an animal,” said Dale. He’s a veteran “cowhand” with the big bison, but he’s still cautious around the animals. “The bulls are very unpredictable, especially during breeding season,” said Dale.
Bison are stronger, quicker than beef—and they can jump higher. You need adequate fencing; stronger and higher: “or they’ll jump right over the top.”
“I don’t go out amongst them without an escape hatch… stay close to the tractor or a fence…You have to be careful….There’s not a lot of second chances,” chuckled Rengstorf. “They appear to be domesticated, but really they’ve just become accustomed to having people around.”
“If you get too close to take a picture—you’ll find out it’s a bad idea,” said Rengstorf.
When Dale and Beth gradually phased from the hog business, beginning in 1987, there were about 80,000 bison in the U.S. and Canada. Today, the number tops 400,000.
Still a “specialty” industry in volume, but the expansion has been steady.
“We most often get compared to beef, as an industry,” said Breen, who is now ranch manager, as the family transition continues. “But more cattle are slaughtered on a Monday morning than we do all year as an industry.”
More specifically, daily cattle slaughter totals about 235,000—compared to maybe 1,000 bison a day, noted Dale. Rolling
R Ranch sends about 100 to slaughter annually, to a specialty plant in New Rockford, North Dakota.
Including rental land, the Rolling R ranch works about 2,000 acres, mostly grazing land, along with 500 acres in hay, said Dale.
Looking ahead, Breen envisions the target of a consistent 300 cow operation.
Motorists passing by the large gravel excavation pits west of Cormorant village are often treated to images of grazing bison, framed by a mining operation on the ground and wind turbines spinning overhead. Truly a diverse, rural landscape.
There were skeptics, when Rengstorf made the decision to gallop into the bison biz. “It takes more management and thinking,” said Rengstorf, of the unique specialty meat business.
The Rolling R Ranch, more or less, grew with the industry itself. The Rengstorf herd and production closely parallels the steady increase in demand for the specialty meat product over the past three decades. Also, the bison sector became increasingly more sophisticated in production, processing, and marketing along the way.
There’s plenty of farm-ranch experience at Rolling R.
Dale is a farm boy from the Mankato area; Beth was raised on a farm in the Sabin area. Of course daughter Karla (one of three Rengstorf kids) grew up on the ranch. Karla is also a teacher with the Pelican Rapids school district.
Breen is an east coast transplant, and almost an urban kid—growing up about an hour from Boston. But his construction and mechanical background are the right skill set for a ranch manager. Oddly enough, the Massachusetts guy actually earned some ranch experience when he lived in Colorado, at a non-profit horse operation—which specialized in outdoor experiences for kids, including inner city youth and families.
The experience in the Denver area helped—somewhat.
“But really, the only commonality between horses and bison is they both have four feet and they eat grass,” laughed Breen.
Breen spent some time at the ranch after he and Karla were married, getting early exposure to the family business.
“He (Breen) totally fell in love with it…he dreamed of some day being able to do this,” said Rengstorf. “With his construction background and remodeling—he knows how to handle tools, he knows how to go about work and projects…It was really an easy transition for him.”
Rengstorf won’t be put out to pasture any time soon, however. The transition, even when its a family agreement, is a financial and legal process—involving lawyers, accountants and a bundle of bookwork.
Officially, Breen is ranch manager—learning all the ropes. “He has the aptitude and he’s a hard worker,” said Rengstorf.
“I’m just so happy that somebody in the family wanted to take it over…You work all your life, you’re proud to see somebody take over.”
Running a bison outfit in the midst of a global pandemic has added some rare dynamics to the Breen’s apprenticeship.
The COVID outbreak, with corresponding restaurant shutdowns and “homebound consumers” has had an unusual effect on the bison industry.
On one hand, the restaurant market for bison specialty meat nose-dived. But at the consumer, grocery-retail level; more and more families have been introduced to bison during the pandemic.
“It’s been a two-edged sword,” said Breen. “We took a big hit on the restaurant side, but more home consumers were introduced to bison product.”
The bottom line, said Breen: Consumers who “try it once, will have it again. It’s the best red meat they’ve ever tasted,” he said confidently. “The industry will be growing.”
And that’s good news for future generations of Rengstorf-Breen bison wranglers.
Rolling R Ranch bison earn high honors at annual event
The Rolling R ranchhands have plenty to be proud of this year.
For the first time in 33 years with a bison heard, the Rengstorf-Breen operation became “Legends of the Fall,” which is the title of the annual Minnesota Bison Association’s autumn auction and gathering.
“Producer of the Year” honors Rengstorf’s Rolling R Bison Ranch, of rural Pelican.
The local ranch also earned Grand Champion Female,and Reserve Champion.
The state bison group was established in 1993 by a group of bison producers, including charter members Dale and Beth Rengstorf.
Among the bison association’s mission, to “promote the rich tradition, unique character and market potential of American Bison and the products they supply.”
The Minnesota association’s membership includes producers, processors, meat sellers, enthusiasts, veterinarians, equipment suppliers and website development. Membership reaches well beyond the Minnesota borders, including members who reside in seventeen US states and two Canadian Provinces.
The Breens, and nearly all producers in the region, ship their livestock to slaughter with North American Bison in New Rockford, North Dakota. Originally a cooperative of producers, it is now organized as an LLC. Dale Rengstorf has been a board member since basically day one of the specialized Bison operation.