Where The Bison Roam

This time of year, Todd Crocker never gets a good night's sleep. Crocker is the grounds manager for the huge Domino's Farms office park. And while his job may not sound particularly challenging, you have to keep in mind that early April through late June is calving season for bison. You see, part of his duties is managing the Domino's Farms American bison herd (aka buffalo).

"I usually check the herd continuously this time of year - [even] all night," Crocker says. "I can't intervene in calving. They become terrified and their heart rate jumps. It could kill both mom and calf. They're so wild - they've only been domesticated for 50 years."

Herd mentality

Members of the Bison bison species are shy creatures. They speak in grunts and prefer the company of their own kind to that of humans.

Three people, including Crocker, care for the hairy beasts year-round. His crew swells to as many as 20 to 30 people in summer, juggling bison, farming and office grounds. The herd consists of 34 cows and two bulls, not counting yearlings or newborns. It will grow by around 24 calves this year. It's a rompin' stompin' handful, especially 16-year-old Rowdy, the oldest bull.

Crocker has worked at Domino's Farms for 18 years. He's taken courses in bison management, including a seminar on low-stress animal handling. Its principles form the core of his bison management style, he says. "They stress out really easily. We don't touch them unless it's absolutely necessary," he says.

The bison have three concentric circles of "personal space."

"The first is awareness. They're watching each other," Crocker says. "The second circle is protective - you're a little too close. They're wondering if they should choose fight or flight. The third (innermost) circle is fight or flight, the decision has been made."

On this day, the herd is pretty relaxed, he observes. The calves are playful. The yearlings head-butt one another. They almost play tag.

"The herd has its own well-defined social structure - and it's matriarchal. One cow dictates the grazing area. Even a calf can get bored with one area of the pasture and say (figuratively) 'Let's go somewhere else,'" Crocker says.

"The love they have for one another, the family structure, is incredible. They protect each other. One cow in the 'nursery' will watch the calves while the others graze. They know this truck, they know our smells."

A prairie architecture companion
 
Crocker knows the bison well - including their strong musty aroma that's quite unlike a horse's scent. He's been working with the herd - 90 head at its largest point - since it was assembled in 1993. The Domino's Farms herd stock came from farms in Cheboygan, Hanover and Cadillac, Michigan, and North and South Dakota, Crocker says.

Domino's Farms founder Tom Monaghan had the notion that the emblematic ruler of the plains would match the standing of American architectural icon Frank Lloyd Wright, who inspired the building's design. It's a quirky aspect of a quirky town, and a defining feature of Ann Arbor. Drive along M-14 and you can't help but notice the dark, hulking herd.

Since 1985, Domino's Farms has been an office park with a strongly rural flavor. It's always featured livestock, according to John Petz, director of real estate and public affairs for Domino's Farms Corp.. Management believes the herd is an amenity for the office park's tenants, calling it a signature feature. They even made the bison part of their logo in 2007.

Though some confuse the herd's residence, the popular non-profit Domino's Petting Farm (not a zoo, Petz points out) holds only domesticated farm animals - not necessarily indigenous to the Great Lakes - no bison.

In appearance, the shaggy ruminants have little in common with the long low lines of the office complex. Adults have curly horns. Yearlings have shorter horns. Calves have tiny white buds where their horns will emerge. At the moment, with hunks of their winter coats hanging in untidy bunches, they look less than sleek. The rainy weather postponed the start of the molt. When they move to the summer pasture, they'll rub off the last vestiges of the ultra-furry winter coats on trees. Sometimes, their wool is sold, Crocker says.

The herd is rotated through several pastures totaling 100 acres to control parasites. The summer pasture is wooded, a shady wetland providing a cool retreat for the herd.They're sensitive to heat. Anything above 70 degrees Fahrenheit may cause heat stroke within minutes, Crocker says.

On the day I visited, the herd was standing shank-deep in a mud wallow, the result of a rainy spring. The pond's liquid is augmented by frequent animal contributions. The grass is covered with neat flat disks of "buffalo chips." Look out if you see a raised tail. Grounds maintenance doesn't include poop-scooping the pastures.

They eat grass in the summer, hay - grown at Domino's Farms - and grain in the winter. Nursing moms get grain well into early summer to insure a good milk supply, Crocker says.

In the fall, they're vaccinated and wormed. This year's calf crop will be weighed and ranked for conformation. The University of California at Davis analyzes their hair to match them to their sires. Then Crocker decides which will be sold and which will remain with the herd. The top four calves always stay.

"We've done well," Crocker says. "We rotate bulls more than cows. Once you have a good bull - Rowdy is good - you keep him. I've known him since he was a baby. Rowdy's a happy boy. Just look at him - you can see how happy he is. I really enjoy working with him."

Bull happiness is not overt. It's probably not obvious unless you know Rowdy very well.

An adult bison cuts an impressive figure, nearly twice the size of any other North American mammal. Males weight up to a ton, females half that. Rowdy tops out at 1,900 pounds but may drop 500 pounds during mating season from all the running around, Crocker says.

"June-July is breeding time. Gestation takes 9½ months. We don't want to breed the cows too late in the season because a late birth the following summer will keep them from breeding again for a whole year," Crocker says.

Bison can hear at subsonic levels - they hear the digestion of other animals in the herd, Crocker says. There's a lot to hear. Bison have three stomachs; they regurgitate and chew their cud.

When provoked, bulls roar. "They're as loud as a lion if a rival bull is around. You feel very privileged to hear it," Crocker says.

"Calves can run in the first 15 minutes of being born," he says. "They're nursing within seconds of birth. They have more stamina than a horse."

With a top speed of 45-mph, a running bison is a creature to avoid unless you wish to experience a ton of fun first hand. Unbelievably, they're more agile than rabbits. "Even Rowdy can turn around quickly," Crocker claims.

The bull doesn't look that speedy, scratching himself by rubbing his head on the tires of the bison crew's beat-up and muddy truck. He's one of an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 remaining American bison from a species that once numbered in the tens of millions.

Preservation and restoration

Biologist Tom McHugh estimated that no more than 30 million bison could have been supported by the grazing capacity of the Great Plains, according to Harold P. Danz' book, Of Bison and Men. Other estimates of historical bison populations range from 10 million to 60 million.

The 19th century was nearly the end of Bison bison. Early in the century, explorers reported seeing herds that covered many square miles of territory. Their only predators were Native American tribes who hunted them with spears.

Then came rifles - and the railroads. Hundreds of thousands of bison were killed to feed the railroad builders. Their hides became leather belts for powering industrial equipment. Furry winter hides were popular for blankets back East. The Great Slaughter took a fearful toll.

Today, bison are still found all across the country, including nearly 50 herds in Michigan, Crocker says.

Most bison (90-to-95%) sold from the Domino's Farms herd go to other farms that are establishing herds or increasing their genetic diversity. The rest are sold for meat.

Last March, Crocker transported 10 bison to the Eastern Bison Association Show in Pennsylvania, winning second prize for one of the females. The year before, Domino's Farms brought home the Grand Champion Female Award. All 10 bison were sold at auction, the largest sale since Domino's Farms improved its breeding program two years ago.

Now Crocker has set his sights on a bigger target.

"We're gearing up for the National Bison Association show in Denver next January. We have high hopes - a couple of the yearlings have potential. We have a yearling bull that we hope will develop well," he says.


Constance Crump is Concentrate's Senior Writer. She's also an Ann Arbor-based writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine. Her previous article was A Wall Of Their Own.

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Photos

Todd Crocker with the bison herd at Domino's Farms

A bison up close

Todd checking the bison herd at Domino's Farms

The bison herd grazing at Domino's Farms

The bull Rowdy at Domino's Farms

Todd feeds Rowdy at Domino's Farms

All photos by Doug Coombe

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