FORT MYERS, Florida — Two-and-a-half miles down the dirt road that bisects Three Suns Ranch a line of trees gave way to open pastures of tall grass.
There, in a field that once grew watermelons, clusters of bison roamed, their curled horns and humped backs like dark hills against the nearly cloudless midday sky. They glanced at the approaching pickup with keen eyes, not quite wary, but not uninterested either.
"They're not very excitable," said Keith Mann, bouncing along in the driver's seat of his Ford F-250 as his wife and business partner Cait rode shotgun.
"From the tree line to the fences there, that's about three square miles, and there's almost 2,000 head roaming this area back here, not counting the ones in the meat herd up front."
Welcome to the state's largest bison ranch.
Three Suns sits on a 5,729-acre plot on State Road 31, a few miles north of the Lee-Charlotte border in Punta Gorda. Some 2,400 bison, many brought in from South Dakota, Texas, Colorado and points west, call this ranch home.
Demand for bison meat — which is leaner than beef and often considered more natural, because bison are raised strictly on grass without the need for antibiotics or growth hormones — has risen sharply in the last 10 years. In 2004, bison carcasses wholesaled for about $1.60 per pound, according to data from the National Bison Association. In 2014, that price hit $4.08, a record high.
"That's a beautiful cow, I like her," Keith said, pointing to a 1,200-pound female bison just a few dozen feet away. "From the udders to the shoulder, they should have a nice triangle shape and her's is just perfect," he said, outlining the cow's back with his outstretched hand.
Perfect is a word Keith has only recently started using.
Bison aren't native to Florida. Prior to Three Suns, few believed they could thrive here, let alone become commercially viable. Even the Manns, he a former Army medic, she a stay-at-home mom to their three sons, had their doubts.
"We were just ignorant of so many things," he said. "That ignorance is probably the only reason we started this. We had no idea what we were getting into."
The Manns' passion for bison started when the Sarasota couple adopted the paleo diet in 2009. The diet promotes a way of eating more like our hunter-scavenger ancestors did — no processed foods, no sugars, no grains, a heavy emphasis on vegetables and natural, grass-fed meats, such as bison.
Funded by a family investment group, Three Suns started in June 2012 when the group bought this former cattle spread for $18 million.
The goal was to have a few hundred head of bison within a year.
"It didn't quite work out that way," Cait laughed.
In fall 2012, Three Suns found itself snapping up bison by the truckload. Record droughts were choking the Midwest down through Texas. Grasslands turned into parched earth. Bison went on fire sale.
"We weren't supposed to grow as fast as we did," Keith said, "but these were opportunities we couldn't pass on."
Three Suns' first shipment of 86 bison came from a ranch west of Amarillo, Texas. More poured in, including a hulking, 2,500-pound bull named Marshall.
"He was this big, corn-fed, massive Texas buffalo," Keith said. "We brought him down here onto the grass and his weight just took a nose dive."
Florida's subtropical climate is home to worms and parasites these bison had never encountered.
And Florida grass isn't like grass up North. It has less protein, fewer nutrients, more moisture. Three Suns' bison had to eat two and three times the amount of grass they ate at their past ranches. Their rumen had to enlarge to handle the extra mass, a process that can take several months — if the bison survive it.
"If you take an animal from a northern climate and bring them south, it's going to take them a while to adapt," said Dave Carter, director of the National Bison Association in Westminster, Colorado, "sometimes generations."
It wasn't just Marshall. Three Suns' bison all struggled. Local veterinarians, used to treating cattle, weren't familiar with the parasites infesting these bison. Bison experts, trained to treat animals from North Dakota and Minnesota, didn't know how to handle these subtropical ailments.
Three Suns lost bison to worms. It lost bison to malnutrition. As for Marshall, when the lower-ranking bulls in the herd saw he wasn't the same Marshall any more, well, they took him out themselves.
"They killed him right there in the field," Keith said. "There were plenty of times we thought, 'This is never going to work.' More bison than I wanted to see die, died while we figured it out."
In early 2014, Keith and his ranch hands set out on the property, looking for underperformers to pull from the main herd to the meat herd. It's a selection process that favors the fit and well, preventing the scrawny and parasite-ridden from passing harmful genes to future generations.
For the first time, Keith looked out and saw a healthy group of bison.
"It's only been in the last year that we've become confident there won't be more problems," Keith said. "Until we got that cocktail of medication, grazing, vet care and animal unity working all in the same direction, it was messy."
Keith estimates some 1,200 calves have been born at Three Suns. These natives aren't likely to face the problems of their pioneering parents.
Bison are a hearty and hugely adaptable species. According to the National Bison Association, there are bison herds in each of the 50 states. Three Suns is one of more than 2,500 ranches and farms raising bison across the country.
But bison have their peculiarities, which Three Suns has learned to work around.
"All of the animals here are rifle kill. For the bison, I'll drive out into the pasture and just do a field kill so they have no idea," Keith said. "The biggest problem with bison, if they get stressed out before the slaughter, you will have an off product. And it's noticeable."
The ranch, for now, harvests about 150 bison each year. It sells its processed meats under the brand name RealMeats. RealMeats offers ground bison and bison steaks at the ranch's market, where it's sold alongside the wild-boar sausages and cuts of grass-fed beef that are also harvested and processed here. RealMeats sells to restaurants and hotels, including River City Grill and The Wyvern Hotel in Punta Gorda.
A USDA-certified slaughter facility sits near the western edge of the Three Suns property, a short ATV ride from a triangular pen corralling the feral hogs the ranch buys from its contracted trappers.
Head butcher Joey Long and his team can clean and hang a hog carcass in eight minutes. Beef and bison take a bit longer.
"These are hanging beefs down the middle, and then we've got hogs in on both sides," Keith said, pointing to three rows of meat in a giant cooler. "I've got a buyer for these pig hearts. People want to use every bit we can get them."
The ranch received its first shipment of longhorn cattle from a ranch in Myakka City last fall. It has a few dozen egg-laying chickens on site and hopes to make room for more. It has started offering tours on the weekends, to teach people about life on this modern-Old Florida ranch.
Marshall's head, stuffed, mounted and still massive, greets visitors in the office.
"You've got Worden Farm, a family-run organic grower, right back there," Keith said, gazing southeast across the property.
"I think this area can become something. I want to draw people in from the coasts and show them this new way of producing food, of raising and harvesting meat completely locally. This is what people have done here for a century or more, just never quite like this."
Information from: The (Fort Myers, Florida) News-Press, http://www.news-press.com
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