By Alvin Benn
It’s called a beefalo and an Elmore County man who raises them believes it could be the wave of the future—once people learn what it is.
"I didn’t know anything about them until I went to a horse show in Tennessee," said George McCain, who gladly explained the origins of his favorite animal to anyone listening.
For the record, a beefalo is a meaty mixture—3/8ths American Buffalo and 5/8ths domestic cow. It’s also a four-legged, cud-eating hybrid McCain believes fits into today’s shift toward a healthier diet.
Beefalo promoters point to an animal having more protein than beef from "ordinary" cattle. That means lower levels of total and saturated fats.
Those who raise beefalos contend steaks from them are as tender as regular beef, but without marbled fat and cooks in about as long as it takes for a tenderloin or sirloin.
|Barney the Beefalo saunters through a pasture where he and dozens of other four-legged buffalo-cow creations enjoy plenty of grass to eat.|
Traditional cattlemen familiar with beefalos said they have such little fat content that it can have an adverse effect on taste—citing the importance of some fat to provide a tasty sensation.
There are pros and cons about regular beef and beefalo meat, but as far as McCain is concerned, his herd offers something special—a flavor to savor.
As director of the Greater Tallassee Area Chamber of Commerce and a music promoter to boot, McCain has enough to keep him busy throughout the week, but he loves to drive out to his "spread" in Elmore County to check on his 83 beefalos.
There may be other beefalo owners in Alabama, but there aren’t enough to start their own association. It’s much the same around the country.
So, it appears it’s up to McCain to let people know just what they are and how they can add to or even replace traditional cattle operations.
That latter possibility is considered a bit farfetched as far as the director of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association is concerned.
"You could call (beefalos) a flash in the pan because I don’t know of anybody who’s raising them in Alabama," said Billy Powell. "I can’t see them causing a major change in our industry."
The beefalo does have a few things going for it, including the fact it can reproduce—something a mule can’t do. A mule is a hybrid species consisting of part horse, part donkey.
McCain was introduced to beefalo production while in Tennessee for a convention totally unrelated to cattle. A side trip took him to a farm where they were being raised and he was hooked.
He and his wife, Patsy, bought four beefalo heifers. One of the heifers was expecting so the McCains wound up with a bonus. Their first bull—named Barney—came from Georgia. The other bull, named Flash, arrived from Arkansas. Needless to say, Barney and Flash are being kept in separate pastures.
The first offspring was named Ace and he brought $1,500 at market. He also made the supreme sacrifice.
"A friend said to me: ‘Hey, George, how did Ace taste?’" and I said, "Just fine."
The McCain operation is an extended family affair and George said Patsy has gotten to know each beefalo so well she can tell which belongs to what. They even have names for each one.
The McCains have enough beefalos on their property to keep the grass in check. The animals are primarily grass-fed and, in effect, serve as lawnmowers with hoofs until they are ready to be shipped to market.
"Right now there aren’t enough people in Alabama raising them to have much of an impact on the beef industry," said George. "Those who raise other breeds are happy with what they’ve got. But, beefalos are very easy to handle and they prefer to eat grass. That can save a lot of money."
Nationally-known beefalo spokesman Larry Hacker of Arkansas remembered the day a neighbor dropped by to take a look at his operation. He had heard what was going on and wanted to see for himself.
"As we looked over a group of heifers grazing nearby, he commented that they were pretty good-looking animals, but he had really come to look at a beefalo," said Hacker. "I explained that he was looking at a selection of beefalo, ranging from about 18 percent to about 36 percent bison.
That didn’t seem to educate Hacker’s neighbor about the animal because he then asked, "But, where is the hump? Where is the shaggy hair and the uniform brown color? If it looks like a cow, eats like a cow, acts like a cow and bawls like a cow, why bother with beefalo?"
That’s a question many beefalo owners are asked by friends and neighbors who drop by to look at the animals.
"We just made a decision to do it," said McCain. "They’re really not that hard to care for because they’re quite docile. A friend of mine owns the Elba Stockyards so he comes up to get them and then sells them. After that he just puts a check in our mailbox."
He said he can get up to $600 for each beefalo and has had as many as 110 of them grazing in his pasture.
"They’re hot items in the Midwest and quite a few in Tennessee, too," he said. "I know we don’t have many in Alabama and I could be the largest beefalo owner."
McCain said some who raise beefalo have so few they aren’t members of any organization. He said he’s proud to be a member of his group which is headquartered in Kentucky.
One expense virtually non-existent for beefalo owners is feed. They prefer grazing and that’s why much of the grass on the McCain property never gets too high.
Dale Klenke, Lebanon, TN, said he found beefalo easy to work with, they forage better and require little grain feeding before slaughter.
American Beefalo International said "legitimate concerns" over excessive dietary fat and cholesterol have combined to reduce beef consumption among many who love a thick, juicy steak.
The leaner beefalo produces meat requiring less cooking time. Less fat in the meat also means less grease.
Those seeking to increase the number of beefalo herds in the U.S. no doubt must feel they’re swimming upstream because habits are hard to alter at times.
McCain said the more he talks about his beefalo project, the more people begin to understand what they are.
"It’ll take time," he said. "But, I think more people will eventually start raising them. I know I’m very happy with mine."
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.