Bowles grew up just north of the Coosa River west of Rome. He left Floyd County to attend the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry-dock Apprentice School on the coast of Virginia. He worked at the huge shipyards in Newport News before starting his own shipbuilding operation, turning out everything from commercial fishing boats to spectacular 54-foot yachts.
When his parents health started to decline, he gave it up and moved back to Floyd County about 25 years ago and got into the construction business, along with running cattle on the lowland pastures off the Coosa River near Fosters Bend.
“When cattle prices got way low a number of years ago I got rid of all of them,” Bowles said. “Then I went out one day, and I bought three bison just for kicks, and it progressed up to about 36, which is the most I’ve ever had.”
It’s taken more than one motorist aback as they drive out Old River Road and notice a herd of bison.
Today Bowles has 22 bison roaming his range. That number will be increasing soon.
“Right now part of them are breeding in the spring and part of them are bred in the fall. I should have 4 or 5 more calves in September or October,” Bowles said.
He’s actually had four calves join the herd already this year.
Bowles does not consider himself a big producer and said there’s not a whole lot of money in the bison business, even though the National Bison Association reports that the industry entered 2012 in the strongest economic position in its history.
Market prices at the end of 2011, almost $4 per pound for a young bull carcass, were up 65 percent from prices as recent as 2008. Live animal prices at auction have also skyrocketed.
Bowles initially acquired much of his herd from a producer in Kentucky, most of them from the plains buffalo herds, though he does have a few that are cross bred with the wood buffalo species out of northern Canada.
“There used to be a small gene pool 10-15 years ago, Bowles said. “I have to really study them to tell a difference.”
Bowles said he wanted to take advantage of the booming business and tried to pick up a trailer load of calves at an auction in Custer State Park in South Dakota last fall, but his sealed bids were way short.
“I didn’t really want to pull a trailer all the way to Rapid City, S.D., anyway,” Bowles said with a grin. “The price to buy them right now has gone up ... way up.”
A yearling calf that would have cost $350-$400 three or four years ago is now bringing as much as $1,600.
The sale in South Dakota last fall brought an average of $1,510 per animal, up $50 per bison from 2010.
That’s good news when he’s getting calls all the time from people wanting to buy a bull and a couple of heifers to start a herd. Selling to other producers is probably the largest part of Bowles business.
“I also sell a lot of them to people that just want two or three to put in their yard, their pasture just to have something to look at,” Bowles said.
Bowles does sell a relatively small amount of his herd for slaughter to be used for production of meat.
“To be able to sell them, I have to take them to a United State Department of Agriculture-inspected place, and the closest one is in Carrollton, Ga., to be able to sell it,” said Bowles, referring to West Georgia Meat Processors.
The market for bison meat is growing almost exponentially, even though the price is somewhat higher than traditional beef.
“It’s got a sweeter taste than beef, very similar to roast beef, but it’s a little sweeter,” Bowles said. “There’s almost no fat; it’s low cholesterol; it’s supposedly the healthiest red meat you can eat.”
The National Bison Association reports that the average 100-gram serving of cooked bison contains 2.4 grams of fat compared to the 10.1 grams of fat in a 100-gram serving of traditional beef or 10.9 grams of fat in a 100-gram serving of salmon.
There are challenges
Handling of the bison is the biggest challenge to raising buffalo. He said the working chute specifically designed for bison could be very expensive; say $18,000 as compared to $400 for a traditional beef cattle chute.
“Being undomesticated they go crazy. When they get in the chute, they’ll abort the fetus, so you’ve only got a small window of time that you can work bison in a handling area,” Bowles said.
The animals are naturally immune to most diseases but they are very susceptible to parasites, and Bowles has to pay close attention to strict parasite control.
Beyond that, the expense side to raise bison is minimal. The animals don’t need any artificial shelter such as barns; they prefer to be outside in virtually any kind of weather. They’re extremely tolerant of the heat, a trait that belies the shaggy coats that they start the summer with and take long periods of time to shed.
The bison are able to get by without having to supplement their diet much. Bowles does occasionally give his herd a protein supplement but said he has to be very careful. The bison only require 8-percent protein and going much above that can be dangerous to the buffalo. Too much protein could actually kill them.
Bowles said there are major differences between raising cattle and bison.
“You’ve got to forget the cattle business, they’ve got their own specific needs. There’s a huge learning curve in raising bison,” Bowles explained.
Like dealing with the dominant bull, for example. He’s got a 9- or 10-year-old bull that rules his range.
“I try to sell off my other bulls. Probably the worst thing you can do is have two unrelated bulls in here of that size,” Bowles said. “You’ll have the worst fight you’ve ever seen. I’ve done that before, had two big bulls in here at one time, they’ll tear down more than you can fix in a couple of days.”
He said one of his big females is the matriarch of the whole herd and pretty much rules the pecking order. The big bull does his thing at the right time and then he goes off and frequently distances himself from the rest of the herd.
The bison also require pasture fencing that is stronger than a typical cattle fence.
Bowles said part of the reason he bought the first three bison was to cut down on the need to bush hog his pasture. He hasn’t given bush hogging a second thought ever since.