By Jon Nichols
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Beefalo had its official debut in a Time Magazine Article entitled. “Have a Slice of Roast Beefalo” published in July, 1973. The article described how a California Rancher, DC “Bud” Basolo had developed a thoroughly fertile bison-cattle hybrid. Beefalo, it was noted, were a far cry from the old-time Cattalo which suffered from fertility problems, and Bud Basolo was credited for breaking through the Bison-Bovine fertility barrier.
Basolo proudly pointed to over 5000 fertile bison-cattle crossbreds already produced. Most were a blend of 3/8th bison, 5/8th’Hereford and Charolais breeding. He touted his new breed was much hardier than regular cattle, producing beef at up to 40 per cent less cost. They could thrive under rugged conditions and had no calving problems. Beefalo calves had small birth weights, but made up for their small size with tremendous rates of gain. Beefalo finished on a fraction of the amount of grain regular cattle needed and went to market sooner than standard beeves.
Foundation Beefalo Bull HB-14
From the publication of the Time article, Beefalo took off like wildfire. Basolo had made his money in meat sales, distribution and meat packing, and soon exerted his business savvy toward a high powered marketing program. Basolo and Beefalo were featured in numerous publications as well as an NBC Television Documentary. Joining Basolo was Max C. Barnett who had previously worked in cattle exporting and as a consultant for the Shah of Iran. Their efforts resulted in thousands of units of semen from Beefalo bulls sold throughout the USA, Canada and the entire world. There was no doubt about it. Beefalo became a household word.
By 1976 nearly 6000 cattlemen had signed on to the Beefalo Program. The year before, Basolo amazed the cattle industry by selling HB-15, one of his foundation bulls to a Canadian Breeder’s Syndicate for 2.5 million dollars. This was a record price paid for any bull up to that time. Beefalo became one of the hottest new cattle breeds, and serious competition for the exotic breed imports coming in from Europe at that time.
Beefalo though were shrouded in mystery. If anybody asked Basolo how he developed the cross, he said his methods would remain a secret. Basolo reasoned that he had spent millions of dollars developing the breed, and should have exclusive rights to Beefalo. He attempted to patent his methods, and was turned down flat. Basolo’s response was to shut the doors on his breeding records.
That secret set the stage for many controversies within the Beefalo breed. The first involved Bison Hybrid Breeder Jim Burnett of Luther, Montana.
Burnett had already developed fertile Bison-Hereford crosses on his Montana ranch including 903 a ¾ bison-1/4 Hereford bull. This was the first documented fertile ¾ bison hybrid bull on record. Basolo leased the bull from Burnett, and took 903 to California for his Beefalo Project.
As Burnett told the story, Basolo leased the bull for 2 years, but 903 went back to Montana after 9 months. 903 was getting hard to handle after being collected on a regular basis for artificial insemination.
Burnett related that Basolo was originally friendly in their business dealings. He implied they would work together on Beefalo, but when Basolo discovered he had fertile offspring from 903, all lines of communication were cut off.
After the Burnett story was publicized it became widely circulated that Burnett’s bull was the foundation sire of Beefalo.
Years later, DNA evidence would show 903 was not a sire of Basolo’s Hybrid Beefalo, however the bull contributed greatly to the Beefalo Breed under Burnett’s own name.
There is no doubt however, that both men heavily influenced the Beefalo breed. Basolo produced a tremendous number of bulls, however most were sons and grandsons of his original 14 foundation bulls. Burnett on the other hand produced bulls from different bison and cattle bloodlines successfully producing fertile bison hybrids at not only the 3/8th but at the 7/16th, 5/8ths 11/16th, and ¾ levels.
Two other bulls were also promoted heavily in the early Beefalo years; the Simmalo bulls owned by Melvin Lauriton of the Bull Bank, at Escalon, California. Lauriton had worked on the ground floor developing Beefalo with Bud Basolo in the late 60’s, collecting bison or hybrid bulls and distributing their semen. Lauriton caught bison hybrid fever himself as well.
Lauriton produced a fertile half bison-half Hereford cow, using a young bison bull from the Walt Disney herd on one of his commercial Hereford cows. When this heifer, aptly named Herfalo230 was old enough, she was bred artificially to purebred Simmental bulls producing Simmalo 100 and 200. Lauriton is quoted as selling over 40 thousand dollars worth of semen from his quarter bison bulls by mid-1975.
A Simmalo Daughter – 1/8 Bison
Basolo and Lauriton however became involved in a legal tangle. One of the points of contention was Lauriton using Basolo assets to develop and market the Simmalo Bulls.
In a 1975 legal deposition, Laurtion stated without reservation that he developed and promoted the Simmalos on his own.
His testimony also let the cat out of the bag on a piece of Basolo’s “Secret”. In describing the relationship he had with Basolo, he outlined the bulls collected for the Beefalo Project and how he was paid for his work. As far as 903 was concerned he said they just never got enough cows bred to the bull. Another ¾ bison bull also owned by Burnett, and shipped to California was 930. 930 proved to be too young to use.
Then Lauriton talks about another bison hybrid bull shipped down from Oregon and purchased out of a local stock yard. Lauriton says enthusiastically,” We hit the jackpot with this bull.” More semen was distributed to ranchers and more cows were bred and numerous calves were bought back. This bull was probably the true sire of Beefalo, a bull numbered B940. Nothing else is known about the bull outside of Lauriton’s testimony.
As Beefalo’s popularity grew, the demand for new bloodlines grew just as fast. Beefalo was essentially a “Bull Breed”. Basolo if fact sold few cows until 1979.
Most created their own Beefalo cows by breeding 3/8th bulls by semen purchase and artificial insemination to domestic stock. Many “graded up” until they got to the purebred level and let others work with bison hybrids to create the new bulls. Basolo soon recognized that breeders wanted a Beefalo Association to register stock, and registration meant added value to their cattle.
The World Beefalo Association was formed in 1974 as a vehicle to further promote Basolo’s Hybrid Beefalo. Basolo early on stated that you couldn’t have a Beefalo unless you used his bulls and a Fullblood Beefalo had exactly 3/8ths bison, no more, no less. As noted, Basolo did not produce new bloodlines. He just introduced bulls descending from his foundation stock.
Basolo always said Beefalo came from 3 distinct families and breeders should rotate their bulls accordingly. Still, there was concern over inbreeding by continuously using his Bulls. Other bulls, many of them Jim Burnett bulls were becoming available. Cattlemen wanted to use them as well, much to the chagrin of Basolo.
Out of this conflict, two new associations emerged as separate organizations from the World Beefalo Association. One was the American Beefalo Association established in 1975. The other was The International Beefalo Association formed in 1980. Later this group changed its name to the International Beefalo Breeders Registry.
Also of note was the Bison Hybrid International Association, formed in late 1974. This was not a Beefalo Association, but recorded percentage bison cattle, many of higher than 3/8th bison blood. This association was formed by bison hybridizers, rather than straight Beefalo breeders.
The new groups registered cattle from different bloodlines now coming into use. Meanwhile, Basolo’s World Beefalo Association went on made up primarily of his western states breeders.
By 1977, the hot streak in Beefalo was considerably cooled by California Researcher Clyde Stormont. Stormont had developed a blood test to detect Bison heritage. Stormont’s test identified 5 bison markers, and he used it on about 150 Basolo Hybrid Beefalo. Only one in the 150 showed a marker.
Stormont’s testing sent a shockwave through the Beefalo breed. Many accused Basolo’s Beefalo of having less than 3/8th bison or no bison blood at all.
Yet, the question of proving Bison content would haunt the breed for years to come.
Basolo attempted to deflect the bison marker ruckus as well as counter the use of new bulls with his Furmillion a new 7/16th bison blend. Basolo had developed the new cross by breeding some of his half bison-Holstein cows with his Beefalo bulls. These cows were from his original work, distributing semen from 3 bison bulls in 1968 to dairy ranches in the San Joaquin Valley. The dairies used the Bison semen on Holstein cows. From that effort, Basolo had bought back around 19-25 hybrid calves.
During his Tracy, California Rancho Basolo tours, Basolo often pointed out to visitors the half bison-Holsteins. Basolo would say these F-1 crosses were where he made his fertility breakthrough, yet Beefalo had no Holstein content. Now mature cows, Basolo was finally incorporating their blood in his newest creation. Furmillion also had fine thick hair coats like bison. Basolo even launched Furmillion’s introduction with a fashion show where models wore luxurious coats, made from Furmillion robes.
While many cattlemen bought into Furmillion, these new cattle didn’t catch on as well as expected. Basolo had done too a good job promoting the 3/8ths percentage. Breeders also liked 3/8ths because it was the amount of Brahman used to create composite breeds like the King Ranch’s Santa Gertrudis. 3/8th’s was accepted, 7/16ths seemed awkward. Furmillion also just didn’t have the previous excitement of Beefalo. After a few years, Furmillion were either absorbed into Beefalo herds or just disappeared.
A Rancho Basolo Cowboy on his roping horse lent authentic Western flavor to this Mr.Beefalo Store Grand Opening.
There was one irrefutable fact about Beefalo whether they had bison markers or not. They produced top quality beef and, it was delicious.
Many pointed to Basolo’s Mr. Beefalo stores now open throughout North Central California. The stores were selling Beefalo beef like crazy. Basolo launched his retail meat sales in 1978 but later couldn’t meet consumer demand and was caught substituting Holstein beef for Beefalo. Soon lawsuits ensnared Basolo over the substitution and finally all the Mr. Beefalo stores closed.
Basolo, sick and tired over the whole mess of consumer action lawsuits, or controversy about the amount of bison in his Beefalo, announced a complete dispersal sale in late 1981. By 1982 he had entirely sold out. He even gave a farewell address to the annual World Beefalo Association Meeting. Basolo was gone.
Basolo’s exit heralded that the big money years were over. The fast buck artists got out and some breeders sold out with Basolo. Basolo’s departure ended one chapter of the Beefalo story however the reality was that Beefalo had grown well beyond his control.
A host of breeders, too numerous to mention, stepped in to set Beefalo on a new course.
An Article in an early 1980’s edition of the Mother Earth News about Beefalo showed how much impact Beefalo had made on the general public. The article created so many inquires that the small ABA office became swamped with information requests. The stack of mail was overwhelming. So much for blood tests, “secrets” and controversy, Beefalo were in big demand and there was still a lot of work to do.
The first chore was a unification of the Beefalo Associations. In late 1983, three associations, the ABA, WBA, and the International Beefalo Breeders Registry, merged into the ABWR: The American Beefalo World Registry.
Earlier the Bison Hybrid International Association had joined with the ABA.
Unification was no easy task. A lot of compromises took place in rules and regulations to make one Association a reality.
The new ABWR logo created by Suzy Barnett. Notice the shadow of the bison behind the Beefalo Bull.
Next on the agenda, was giving Beefalo a legitimate place among the cattle breeds.
Max C. Barnett, who worked with Basolo closely for over 5 years, noted Bud had 2 bad habits when talking to the Media.
First, Basolo ran down other cattle breeds while extolling the benefits of Beefalo.
Secondly, he had an open distain for prominent cattle scientists. It was he, Bud Basolo, without the benefit of a high school diploma who had become a multi-millionaire, then applied his money and acumen to develop the fertile bison-bovine hybrid; while researchers with all their degrees and knowledge warned him against even trying such a thing. Basolo even stated egotistically in a nationally televised interview that, “They (researchers) have no importance. They are just a bunch of educated idiots.”
Backlash had occurred over his remarks for some time. Beefalo were the object of negative rumors circulating and like all good rumors they had a kernel of truth.
Most centered on the bison content question or fertility, as some bulls in the early years did have fertility problems. Even if Beefalo did have bison blood and good fertility, it was then rumored they were wild and hard to handle, just like buffalo. The ABWR went into damage control, and asserted the true facts about the breed.
The Association also toughened up registration requirements to further improve the breed’s image and creditability. Many Beefalo, even some of the ancestor animals, didn’t show bison markers. What was going on? They all couldn’t be frauds.
In all honesty, genetic testing was still in its infancy. True, blood testing had been used by cattle breeders for some time, but when it came to Beefalo, there was little knowledge of how bison and cattle genetics mixed or interacted with each other. Early bison marker tests were also open to interpretation by technicians. In view of this the ABWR started developing relationships with Stormont Labs, Texas A&M, Ohio State as well as Dr.Gerald Kraay of Agriculture Canada.
As genetic research progressed new tests took care of some of the bison in Beefalo problem. A test for 7 markers, then 9 blood markers was adopted, and by the early 90’s, a 14 marker DNA test was used in conjunction with the 9 blood marker test. In 2000,
Dr. Cecilia Penedo of the Veterinary Genetics Lab, University of California at Davis developed the 19 marker test. More beefalo were found containing bison, and even if a Beefalo didn’t have a bison marker, DNA testing was much more accurate in parent verifying animals to bison heritage.
Until then, the early 80’s were marked with some outright battles over which animals should be registered and which could not. Tom Ruland’s Thor was a classic example. Submitted as an “Ancestor Bull”, the animal was a ¾ bison hybrid, but Thor only showed two blood markers. The review committee thought a ¾ bull should show more of the 7 markers known at that time. After considerable discussion over how many bison markers a ¾ bull should have, a compromise was finally reached. Thor went into the registry as a 5/8ths bison hybrid.
Beefalo suffered a decline in the late 80’s into the 90’s.
Many grew tired of registration dust-ups, and quit the association. A few breeders broke off from the ABWR, and reformed the old ABA. Another group of breeders formed the International Beefalo Foundation. Eventually these two latter groups merged under the name American Beefalo International. (At the time of this article, reunification talks were being discussed between the ABWR and the ABI.)
Some raising Beefalo ignored the associations as they didn’t want the added cost of continuously testing for bison heritage or registering their animals. They continued to raise Beefalo, satisfied with having good cattle and a source of excellent beef. A few Beefalo men did succumb to overtures by conventional cattle breeds, switching over to cattle with easier registration requirements, and more industry popularity.
There was another reason for the decline: Age. Most of the World War II and Korean War Generation that had dominated Beefalo were retiring from cattle business.
Yet, there were bright spots and renewed interest in Beefalo during that time period as well.
In 1985, the USDA approved a sales certification for Beefalo Beef. The USDA recognized that Beefalo as unique, and could be marketed under its own name.
Beefalo had been known for some time to be low in fat and higher in protein than regular beef and had other nutritional benefits as well.
A qualified study on men with high cholesterol confirmed this. Conducted at Central Washington University in the early 90’s Beefalo beef in the men’s diet was shown to lower bad cholesterol levels.
In 1996 Beefalo beef was listed in the USDA nutrient guide emphasizing Beefalo was also low in calories. The guide gave other dietary information, including the low fat, low in bad cholesterol, and high protein facts. The guide firmly established that Beefalo had a definitive value as compared to conventional beef.
This evidence also gave a renewed interest to Beefalo, and the aspects of healthy beef created a new generation of Beefalo breeders.
Many were part of the “Back to the Land” movement, people who swapped city or suburbia for the country life. Others were more affluent; those who had made their money in other businesses who wanted a ranch and the “romance” that went with it. Beefalo appealed to both groups.
The Year 2000 was marked by the death of Jim Burnett, who many saw as the true Father of Beefalo. Burnett, going strong and into his 80’s at the time, died at a Salt Lake City Hospital. He was being treated for injuries sustained in a vehicle accident on his Montana ranch. His death closed another chapter in the Beefalo story, but another new chapter would open.
As the new millennium dawned, it presented the biggest opportunity for Beefalo since its beginning. It was a decided shift in consumer demand for beef, and it was tailor-made for Beefalo.
Consumers started questioning how their beef was raised, and grew especially alarmed over the use of hormones and antibiotics at feedlots. Animal Rights organizations fueled these concerns, yet the Beef Industry as a whole discounted their assertions as being just rhetoric of activist groups.
Consumer demand though could not be discounted, and a number of cattleman recognized new markets to exploit. Soon the words “Organic” “All-Natural” “Hormone Free” “Humane Raised” “Locally Grown” and “Grass-fed” became the buzz words of this new trend in meat production.
Many of these “niche market” breeders seemed to be after the same results as Beefalo: producing healthier beef at less cost. Yet most of their animals could not duplicate one item: The great taste of Beefalo. Beefalo beef consistently won taste tests over regular beef and bison as well.
Beefalo, unlike other cattle breeds did not have to reinvent themselves to meet consumer preferences. Testing got underway in the cattle industry searching for genetics that would produce tenderness, lean beef, better marbling or grass-fed efficiency.
Beefalo breeders found the genetic trait searches unnecessary. Beefalo already had these advantages from the breed’s beginning, and many had been selling Beefalo Beef to health conscious consumers for years.
When all is said and done, Beefalo have been long been established as sustainable cattle breed ready to meet changing market demands for healthy, safe beef with great taste.
The Beefalo Breed is now ready to meet the new challenges of the cattle industry as we continue into the 21st Century.
Agriculture Canada Bison Blood Marker Research, Request for Blood (from 1/2 or
¾ Bison Hybrids) Beefalo Nickel, Dec 1982-March 1983
An Interview with James Burnett, by Jo Kelly, 1992
Beefalo Groups Unify To ABWR, Beefalo Nickel, Dec 83-Jan 84
Beefalo Talk by Mel Wasserman, Beefalo Nickel, Ibid (re: Discrimination against Beefalo)
Bison Hybridization and Bison-influence Cattle in North America by Rodney D. Newton
May 1993 (Unpublished Thesis for Master’s Degree at Baylor University)
Bison Markers Prove Accuracy of Pedigrees by John Dodd, Stormont Labs, Beefalo Nickel Aug-Sept 1986
Bison Specific Types for New Beefalo DNA Test, by Dr. Cecilia A Penedo, Veterinary Genetics Lab, University of California at Davis, 2000
Deposition of Melvin W. Lauriton, August 29, 1975 before Helen R. McPherson, Notary
In the law offices of Nomellini and Grilli, 235 East Weber Avenue, Stockton, California
DNA Parent Testing Basolo Foundation Beefalo Bulls to Burnett’s 903 by Paul Butler 1992-1994 (Unpublished) Referenced in article “In Search of Basolo’s Secret” two part series, Beefalo Corral 2006
Furmillion by G Ray Arnett, Beefalo Round-up WBA June 1981
Furmillion Beefalo by John Cheshire Ibid
Have a Slice of Roast Beefalo, Time Magazine July 9, 1973
How I got Fertile Buffalo X Hereford Bulls by Jim Burnett, 1980
Jim Burnett Obituary, 1917-2000 reprinted by Schuler 2006
Know How the Beefalo Bulls are Related, April 21, 1977 (Basolo Promotion outlining three families of Beefalo)
Measuring Breed Purity by Jim Wells, Beefalo Nickel Dec 1982-Mar-1983
Some Pertinent Comments about the Development of the Beefalo Breed, by Max C. Barnett (Philippines Presentation)
Summary of the Central Washington University Cholesterol Study, News Release
Livestock Research and Innovation August 8, 1994
The Basics of Beefalo Raising, Mother Earth News, March-April 1981
The Future of Beefalo and Furmillion, A transcript of Bud Basolo’s Farewell Speech,
Beefalo Round-up, Feb 1982
USDA Nutrient Data Base, September, 1996
USDA gives Final Approval to Beefalo Beef, Beefalo Nickel, May 1985
1) It was often stated there were 16 foundation Beefalo bulls. There were only 14.
Max’s Pride HB-18 was later switched to being sired by HB-15 therefore a 2nd generation bull. HB-21 Natalie’s Pride was also by HB-15, hence 14 foundation bulls:
HB-1, then HB-6 thru HB-17 and HB-20.
2) Re: 903 as the first documented fertile ¾ bison bull. There may have been other ¾ bulls bred by old time Cattalo Breeders like Charlie Goodnight, Buffalo Jones, or others, but 903 was the first “documented” as fertile.
3) Re: 903 not the sire of Beefalo. Paul Butler took considerable time and effort to find semen from 903, and the Basolo foundation Beefalo bulls to parent match them by DNA testing. None of them was sired by 903. As a control, Butler also had a sample of 903’s DNA tested against 003 a 5/8 Burnett Hybrid bull also sired by 903. The DNA in that case matched perfectly. This put an end to the 903 legend much to the disappointment of many Beefalo breeders.
4) Basolo’s half bison-Holstein calves. Max Barnett says 19 calves total were bought back from Dairymen. Mel Lauriton thought there were around 25.
5) Special thanks go to Paul Butler for editing, and confirming association timelines and contributing valuable source material not generally available. Also thanks go to Will Dean and Corky Deaver, John Williams Jr. for their insights on DNA testing, Beefalo and adding a little color.