A labor of love

Dan Martin enjoys his time at Lay Valley Bison Ranch

David Pressgrove

The story of how Dan Martin became a bison rancher sounds like something out of a Spaghetti Western.

One night at a bar in Craig, Martin started a conversation with a friend about bison, commonly known as the Great American Buffalo. As the conversation continued, so did the drinking.

When Martin went to work the next week, he was told about a conversation he didn’t remember.

“I guess I stayed at the bar too long because I started getting a little boastful,” he said. “I claimed that any animal can be kept as long as you treat them right. Then I said I would buy buffaloes to prove it.”

Martin purchased his first two buffalo 29 years ago as a result of the conversation.

“I’m a man of my word,” he said. “With that said, I stopped going to the bar that late.”

Today, Martin’s Lay Valley Bison Ranch, 17 miles west of Craig, is the home to a buffalo herd 150 strong. For Martin, the ranch and its livestock are his life.

Not a place for a forester

Martin came to Craig to work for the Bureau of Land Management as a specialist in forestry.

“When I came, I expected to stay my six months and punch my card to get out of here,” he said. “I came with the thought that anything you had to look down on wasn’t worth looking at. But this place started to grow on me.”

Martin stayed in Moffat County and retired from the BLM in 1994.

By then, he had established his buffalo ranch. During that time, he developed a respect for the animals, as well as a wealth of knowledge. He also learned that although he may have been under the influence, he knew what he was talking about at the bar.

“You can’t force a buffalo to do anything,” he said. “But at the same time, they’re easier to raise than cattle.”

Now, more than 30 years after coming to Northwest Colorado for what he thought would be a short time, Martin doesn’t plan to leave.

“I don’t know who will take over after I’m gone,” he said. “But I have no interest in leaving.”

Buffalo Dan

Martin’s ranch is full of tributes to his herd. He has a stuffed mount, several paintings and a buffalo rug, for starters. In his mind, he is also full of information about the animal.

“Any business you’re in, it behooves you to know the history,” he said. “What’s great about the buffalo is that it’s a part of America’s history.”

It was easy to see that one of Martin’s most enjoyable times is sitting down with his pipe and talking about the animal.

“The only true buffalo is the Water Buffalo of Africa,” he said. “There are studies that say buffalo meat is more lean than skinless chicken.”

Other information: predators are rarely successful attacking buffalo because the herd protects its members, buffaloes raised on ranches tend to have meatier hind quarters than those raised on protected wildlife habitats, and buffalo meat cooks fast because there is little fat.

Oh and, “I’m not a scientist, but I’m pretty sure that the protein is higher in buffalo meat. It takes a smaller portion to get full,” he said.

The business

If it’s on a buffalo, Martin sells it.

He said a typical day involves work around the ranch, and the other half is working with customers.

He mainly sells the meat, which he advertises as chemical free and raised without hormones, antibiotics and synthetic activities.

“It’s a niche market,” he said. “I sell to hunters who aren’t as successful as they hoped. I sell to health-conscious people. I also sell to people who think it’s a delicacy.”

Martin doesn’t do a lot of marketing. He relies mostly on word of mouth. Still he’s shipped to customers on both coasts.

“What I like is that I sell to happy customers,” he said. “That’s because people buying it aren’t doing so because they have to have it. It’s a want more than a need.”

He’s also become quite the buffalo chef.

“I’ve made buffalo everything,” he said. “But I still like pork bacon because buffalo bacon just doesn’t taste like bacon.”

By researching the uses of the buffalo, Martin also has created a market for other parts of the animal. Those products include tanned winter robes; mounted heads and skulls; leather; and bones, teeth and tendons that can be made into jewelry.

The ranch is also a unique outfitter. Buffalo hunts are offered just like at elk farms.

“We can do any kind of hunt one prefers,” Martin said.

He hesitates to call it a hunt, though.

“It more of a shoot than a hunt, because a true hunt is a sport,” he said. “But most of the time what we do is staged, just like a bear hunt when you bait it. If someone wants to track an animal, we can do that, too.”

He also offers hunts similar to those in the 1800s.

Personality similarities

Although he says the buffalo is a high-strung and easily excitable animal, Martin said that as long as they’re allowed to do their thing, they’re manageable.

The description sounds like that of their owner.

“They’re independent and ornery,” he said. “But there’s a reason why I’m the only one on payroll out here, and that’s because I’m similar.”

He feeds the herd once a week, which is less maintenance compared with cattle, which need to be fed more often.

“I can go off and fish for a while and come back three days later, and they’re fine,” he said. “It’s perfect for a retiree.”

He runs the bulls with the cows all year and does his best to stay out of their way. He doesn’t brand, castrate, dehorn or doctor his bison.

“They have a strong will to live,” he said. “The only problem with that is if they do get sick, it is almost always fatal.”

A labor of love

Because buffaloes are resilient in the Northwest Colorado climate, Martin rounds them up only once a year. Other than that, he leaves them alone.

“It’s a labor of love,” he said. “You go through the ups and downs, but knowing and understanding your product, it helps you get through the downs easier.”

Thirty years after a boast he doesn’t remember, Martin wouldn’t have it any different.

“Everybody has to have a reason to get up in the morning,” he said. “I look out the window and see mine.”

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