HAWKS — In a patch of grass between northwood forests, shaggy animals with a wild-west flair placidly swat flies with their tails.
The herd of bison — often called American buffalo — on the Hawks-area farm in Presque Isle County catch the eye of passers-by, their distinctive humps, short horns, and massive size a far cry from the cattle and willowy deer more often seen in Up North fields.
Farm owners Mary and Duane Paull and Jode and Susan Paull sell the animals’ meat, butchering one or two bulls a month, Susan Paull said.
Like any farm family, the Paulls know to not get attached to their animals, she said.
Still, when the farmers recently managed to save a few calves which, in years past, wouldn’t have survived, it was hard to not let the animals become family, she admitted.
“Duke’s running around having a great time,” she said affectionately of a spirited calf she’s helped bottle feed for the past two months. “He’s full of spit and vinegar, that one.”
After years of losing calves born weak because of a mineral missing from northern Michigan soil, the Paulls last year successfully saved two calves — Homer and Clementine — when they hit upon the right formula to feed them, Susan Paull said.
Now weighing several hundred pounds each but still not fully grown, the pair usually linger near the farm house, often trotting over to greet their human surrogate mother when she calls their names and sometimes greeting her with a sandpapery tongue up one side of her face.
Years ago, she befriended a bull that would eat apples from her hand through a fence.
Shortly after she gave the bull a name, it was butchered, Paull said.
“After that, there was no more naming them,” she said. “It’s just too hard.”
Nursing the small animals back to health made staying detached impossible, though.
This spring, calves Duke and Dutchess, also stricken by the mineral deficiency, are gaining strength thanks to four-time daily feedings of lamb milk replacer.
Duke, the stronger of the two calves, gamboled near Susan Paull’s side when released from his pen on Sunday, sometimes bursting into breakneck laps of the yard and occasionally barrelling into the more fragile Dutchess in his enthusiasm.
Adult bison can outrun a four-wheeler, Susan Paull said, fending off the calf as he tried to lick her knees.
“There’s that Duke Magee,” she said, shaking her head at the exuberant animal. “He gets a middle name when he’s acting naughty. You can’t yell at someone unless they’ve got a middle name.”
Ruffling Duke’s coarse-soft coat, Jode Paull told the animal it would someday become hamburger.
No fear of that, he admitted immediately, acknowledging the family’s attachment to the small creatures and probable plan to spare them the fate of most farm animals raised for meat.
He could get a much higher price for bison meat if he lived on the other side of the state, Jode Paull said. But word of mouth keeps business brisk, with individuals and restaurants eager to purchase the lean, fast-cooking meat.
From 30-pound calves smaller than a newborn dairy cow, bison can grow to 2,500- or 3,000-pound giants with heads “that big around,” Jode Paull said, stretching his arms wide.
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As endearing and cuddly as small bison can be, a wise person will steer clear of calves if a mother is nearby, said Susan Paull.
She describing her terror when, during a check on an ailing calf in the field, she found herself sitting in her truck with the shaggy head of a very unhappy mother bison on her lap.
Jode Paull’s uncle, then a dairy farmer at the Hawks farm, bought his first bison in 1992, during a bad hay year.
The initial five females and a male have expanded — slowly, as bison don’t calve until their third year and usually only produce one calf at a time — to about 100 animals, although the Paulls aren’t sure exactly how many bison roam the farm’s fields.
Fifteen little ones with penny-orange coats joined the herd this year.
Duke and Duchess, Susan Paull hopes, will eventually be able to leave their pen near the farm house and join the other hairy animals that bunch on the horizon like a scene from a wild-west movie.
Locals regularly stop along the road just to watch the bison, she said.
As she drove a pickup truck into a field on Sunday, mother bison with tagalong calves looked calmly at the newcomer and then ambled nearer, curious but unconcerned.
Satisfied that the truck and its occupants presented no danger, the animals moseyed away, humped backs gently swaying and horns poking the air, in the little patch of Northeast Michigan where American buffalo roam.
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.