Carol Klein raises buffalo on a small ranch tucked into the short hills of southwestern Missouri, about 10 minutes from the Arkansas state line.
But Klein is more than a buffalo farmer, she’s sort of a buffalo enthusiast. Her wood-paneled walls are adorned with framed buffalo art and mounted buffalo sculpture; the towels in her bathroom have embroidered buffalo heads stitched onto each end. Klein has named her dozen or so buffalo with grand titles like King George, though others get more familiar-sounding, almost nicknames like her favorite, Tootsie.
But after 15 years running Oakcreek Buffalo Ranch, Klein says 2011 might be her last as a buffalo rancher. Her husband and ranch partner Leon passed away last year, it hasn’t rained almost all summer and now her adult buffalo will likely not breed this year because there’s just not enough grass to go around.
You see, the same drought gripping Texas and Kansas is now creeping up into southwest Missouri.
A buffalo's life
Oakcreek Ranch buffalo spend their morning grazing what green grass they can find between the thatches of drought-stricken foilage. A buffalo pond remains low and univiting to bathers. This is the worst drought to hit the ranch since owner Carol Klein began raising buffalo in 1996. (Photos by Jessica Naudziunas/Harvest Public Media)
I contacted Klein because I was heading to a conference in Joplin, and I wanted to see if the Missouri drought rumor held any water. One of the first things Klein told me was her drought has been “devastating,” so I made plans to visit her. As I drove to Joplin the next day, I watched the land change before me. Back in Columbia, the grass was pretty green and most of the fields I passed in central Missouri seemed healthy. But as the road south took deeper passes up and down in the Ozark terrain rising out of Missouri flatland, I could see the drought and feel it, too. It’s so dry and the heat compounds the feeling of the bright yellow and stale surroundings.
For Klein, this is no small difficulty. She makes a point to raise her buffalo the way she thinks they like it best: grass-fed, free-range and very, very loved. Though, with little grass to go around and her energy waning, Klein says it’s just getting too hard.
I asked Klein to give me a tour of Oakcreek’s sun-baked pasture and introduce me to her buffalo herd, which she did via all-terrain vehicle.
Sitting side-saddle on the big seat and maneuvering with both hands clasped tightly around the handlebars, Klein says she’s not as spry as she used to be. And without her ATV, she’d hardly get to spend time with each buffalo.
This was my first time in a pasture with buffalo. I’d seen them before, but also peering at them behind a fence. Out here with nothing between us, I was surprised. The animals are hardly startled by the rumble of the ATV rolling over the desiccated yellowed grass and weeds. They stand or lay in groups of three or four, and the protective mothers are the only buffalo to relocate as Klein drives close.
Buffalo are graceful in their long-held stances, and it’s hard not to imagine, as they allow us to come so close with this noisy vehicle, that buffalo might contain some unity in nature to their human owners. At least I found it difficult to avoid imposing my own understanding of what they were seeing or thinking as they stared across their now dry pasture.
What struck me was how unlike traditional farm animals these buffalo were. Klein’s grass-fed bison lack the urgent, jerky herd-like nature of a big group of cows; they’re not inclined to get out of your way just because you’re the one with the tractor, seed cap or ATV in this case. It’s more likely a six-foot tall behemoth like Tootsie would slightly nudge your body away from the direction of her wallow, the depressions of dirt and other farm material collected for a good sit in the midday Missouri sun. They’re sort of shy, are prone to galloping if frightened and their young sometimes grow into adolescence with bright orange coats of dense fur. They have deep and wide set eyes; big pools of brown surrounded by thick hair.
I’ve met farmers who love their animals, and others who see them as objects to raise, slaughter and bring to market. Whatever works to keep the farm running. The morning I was there to talk drought, and we did, but my mind kept turning to how emotionally close Klein keeps her buffalo.
In particular, her favorite, Tootsie, maintains this interesting relationship dynamic. Even though the young buffalo was raised as Klein's dog, now as she’s grown older, perhaps she struggles to be buffalo and human by proxy. She used to amble right over to Klein without urging, but now her mother must coax her to her with soft sounds and her name repeated over and over with different versions, “Tootsie girl” among them. Tootsie is a new mom, and seems more preoccupied with giving into instinct than placating the woman who raised her with such care.
It’s quiet out here on the ranch, and our eyes are on Tootsie as she drinks from the freeze-proof water trough at the edge of the ranch. Tootsie’s deciding if it’s really worth it to come over for visit. Once she does, her nose is almost resting on my leg, her mouth dripping with cool, precious water. I’m told to let her sniff my hand, and she explores up to my elbow and takes in whatever identifying characteristics a buffalo can pick up from this part of my body. Then, she moves in closer and stands flush with the vehicle. Only a few moments pass before another buffalo walks by, one who has more seniority in the herd, and Tootsie gets out of her way.
I’ve never met a farmer like Carol Klein before. She can go on and on about her animals like any other rancher could, but now, as the drought strangles her land and buffalo like Tootsie move on, Klein’s the one who will make the next move and turn the page on the life and herd she’s built around her.