Bloody hands: bison harvest at Madroño Ranch

The very first fruits (though “fruits” hardly seems the right word) of our very first bison harvest are ready to sell, but getting to this point has been a long and sometimes frustrating process. The last stages of that process were both harrowing and, in a dark way, fascinating; squeamish sorts may want to stop reading here. “Meat is murder,” the Smiths sang in 1985, and whether or not you agree with them, it is undeniably a bloody business.

The harvest took place on Monday, January 24. We’d been both dreading and looking forward to it, and planning for it, for months; Robert, our redoubtable ranch manager, had ingeniously cobbled together a refrigerated trailer to haul the dead animals to Mercantile Meat, in Utopia, to be turned into packages of meat, and we had long since chosen the two young bulls, the bison equivalent of obnoxious adolescents, who would be the first to go. Despite all the planning, though, the reality of assuming responsibility for the death of so large and magnificent an animal was more than a little intimidating.

Early on that beautifully clear but chilly Monday morning Heather and I drove up to the flat near Robert’s house, where the herd had gathered. There we met Robert, Meat Inspector Mike, and Robert’s buddies Robert (whom I will henceforth call Other Robert) and Keith (whom I will henceforth call Not Robert), who were there to assist. We all gathered in a circle while Heather read a prayer she’d written for the occasion, which I suspect disconcerted several of those present. Then Robert, Meat Inspector Mike, and Not Robert climbed into Robert’s Chevy Tahoe with Robert’s .270 rifle while Other Robert, Heather, and I kept a safe distance.

A few minutes later, it was over. Two rifle shots shattered the stillness of the morning, and after each, even before we’d finished flinching, 1,500 pounds of bison was dead on the ground. This was the moment we’d been waiting for, and fearing, and the magnificence and sorrow of it were overwhelming. Both deaths were instantaneous and humbling, and strangely intimate; all the world seemed somehow to have narrowed to this short stretch of dirt road; other places, other people, were unimaginable. Robert, Other Robert, and Not Robert worked quickly and efficiently to bleed the first carcass and load it into the trailer, and we turned our attention to the second.

At this point things got really interesting. We knew that bison tend not to scatter when they hear gunfire or see one of their number fall; in fact, frequently the other members of the herd gather around the victim, curious about what has happened to him or her, or perhaps paying their last respects, before getting back to business as usual. But this time, the head bull went over to the second carcass and repeatedly butted and pawed at it, determined to revive his fallen comrade.

This was a problem, since we were not particularly interested in arguing with nearly a ton of angry bison. By yelling and waving, we convinced him to back off a few feet, just far enough so that we could go to work on the carcass, but Robert kept one eye on the angry bull (and on Heather, who had appointed herself the designated angry-bull-shooer). He glared at us throughout the process, but kept his distance.

With both carcasses safely inside the trailer, which had been set to minus-ten degrees, Robert, Other Robert, and Not Robert climbed into the cab of Robert’s pickup and our little caravan set off for Utopia, some thirty miles away.

All had gone about as smoothly as we could have hoped to this point, but we encountered some metaphorical bumps on the road to Utopia. As Robert’s pickup was hauling the laden trailer up FM 337 west of Medina, smoke started pouring out from under the hood: a blown radiator fitting. They limped to the top of the hill, where they found a couple of empty whiskey bottles at the side of the road and, after coasting down the other side, filled them with water from Mill Creek which they poured into the overheated radiator.

Thankfully, the truck made it the rest of the way into Utopia—a little later than we’d planned, true, but it made it. After Robert backed the trailer up to the tiny loading dock we had to drag the dead bison out of the trailer, across the loading dock, and through the tiny door and into the plant—not an easy undertaking, and one which required the combined efforts of Robert, Not Robert, Other Robert, and me, as well as Joe, the owner, and a couple of plant employees. When we were done, I had blood on my hands literally as well as figuratively.

After all our efforts to honor and respect the death of the bison, the way in which they entered the plant seemed disrespectful and undignified. But necessity is a mother, as we say at our house, and it was a tremendous relief finally to have them there.

When we got back to the ranch, we were still a little stunned by the morning’s events. It had already been a long day, and we were still a little unnerved by the magnitude of what we had seen and done (or, more accurately, caused to be done). And we know we still have a lot of work ahead of us; actually figuring out how to sell several hundred pounds of bison meat is way out of our comfort zone. (We’re hoping to sell all of it wholesale, and only in the Bandera/Kerr County area.) But we feel like we’ve taken a major step.

After witnessing a bison harvest at our friend Hugh’s ranch several years ago, Heather wrote a poem called “Sacrifice.” The details are necessarily different, but it still captures some of what we felt:

Ash Wednesday: one year I stood in thick cool
dust along with several others, waiting for
an ancient drama to begin again,
waiting as if I weren’t an actor in it
too. Through the thorny brush the bison
entered, awkward bodies wary, dense beneath
the bulky wreath of muscle draped across
their shoulders. One shook her head—so massive
that her horns looked dainty—watching us with
eyes black as moonless snake-filled summer nights.
We climbed into the pick-up, all except
the shooter, who moved with quiet purpose
as we sat in silence, waiting for the shot
that finally came—shocking, if expected—
and penetrated mercifully, the cow dead
before she finished sinking to the dust.
Another man performed the bleeding when
she was hoisted, limp, still warm, head-down,
carotid artery cascading blood
a color and consistency I had
never seen before, a frothing cochineal
oasis in the thirsty dust. I asked
the shooter if and how he steeled himself
for harvest. Pray two days before, he said,
Sit quietly. We watched the hands prepare
her for the journey, another kind of life.
Her body, treasury of light and grass
and epic wanderings, will enrich
a larger body now, a body more than
body when it knows the incarnate cost—
be it hoofed, winged, scaled or even rooted
life—of nourishing itself. Around us,
bushes burned in lilac, white, and yellow
flames, their incense rising toward the hawks
and caracaras, wheeling in mandalic arcs,
awaiting our departure so to gather
in the dust and then consume the bloody
pool, their bounden duty.

Perhaps subsequent harvests at Madroño Ranch will become more or less routine; doubtless we’ll have a better idea of what to expect, and be somewhat better prepared. (We may even buy a more powerful pickup, one that can pull the trailer to Utopia without overheating.) But I pray we never completely lose the profound sense of awe and, yes, sorrow that attended this first harvest. May we never lose the full awareness of what we do and have done. May we remain humbly thankful for the life—and death—of these magnificent animals. May I always remember the blood on my hands.

What we’re reading
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Martin: Roy Bedichek, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist

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7 Responses to Bloody hands: bison harvest at Madroño Ranch

  1. Patricia says:

    No matter how the harvesting is poetically expressed, it is still taking the life of an unsuspecting non-threatening animal.
    I grew up in a family who hunted and fished, and I married men who excelled in hunting and fishing. I do not judge you.
    I killed (harvested) my last animal when I was 44. I didn't know at the time that I was pregnant. After I had my late in life surprise, I couldn't hunt, fish, shoot skeet/clay pigeons or even scuba dive. I literally became nauseated if I tried.
    I have no judgements, no recriminations, I just know that whenever i need to justify my actions, I'm usually going against my inner values.
    Lex Breckenridge explained it beautifully to our children when he explained that the inner quesiness we feel is like the San Andreas Fault line, ie, platelets rubbing against one another. Be aware. Something is not right within your value system. The main thing is to listen to yourself and to respect others' value systems, for their platelets are always different from yours.

  2. Heather and Martin says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Patricia. It was not my intent to justify our actions, but merely (hopefully) to indicate that we're not undertaking them lightly. I certainly agree that one should always pay attention to that inner queasiness.

  3. Tink says:

    This is a fascinating post. I've always said I wouldn't eat meat if I had to participate in its death–but that's because I'm a moral coward (and a bad reader of Kant). Well done, Martin and Heather.

  4. joyhowie says:

    This was so moving to read, Martin (and Heather). Most species survive, at least in part, by taking the lives of unsuspecting, non-threatening animals (as well as those that suspect and/or threaten). That the two of you, along with your collection of Roberts and Not Roberts, are doing so with such deep awareness of life's rich complexities and unfathomable ambiguities is awe-inspiring to me. I am profoundly lucky to know you both. And I love you to pieces, too.

  5. Ellen Jockusch says:

    What a writer you are, Martin. Riveting prose and, clearly, a riveting experience. You had your eyes and your hearts open, as you have so many times with things and people you love. I echo Tink: well done, my friends.

  6. M Gaskill says:

    Everything eats, and everything gets eaten. It is not cruel, or wrong. It is the way of the world. Where it gets ugly, I believe, is when it becomes industrialized, remote, and driven solely by profit – i.e. our modern agricultural industry. Our ancestors knew and respected what they killed and ate, whether wild animal or livestock. They knew what went into their meals, and did not take any of it for granted. They knew that meat came from a living, breathing animal, not a plastic package in the store. I believe that makes all the difference. In the end, I do not think we can consider eating an animal any more wrong or cruel than eating a plant, and eat we must. What you are doing is bringing humanity back to the process. I could go on, but I won't, at least not here. Thanks for sharing the story.

  7. Brandi says:

    Heather, you wouldn’t be willing to share your prayer, would you? We are development workers in a coal-mining valley in Romania (my husband is from TX), and we have 9 university students here with us, in our study-abroad program. This morning we are gathering to “cut” (the Romanian translation) our Thanksgiving Day turkey. Blessings to you and joy in the journey, strength for the struggle….Brandi Bates (

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