What started as an ordinary conversation between friends developed not only into a new business, but a new way of living for Al Weyker and his family.
“I was talking to my friend that works at a butcher shop and he said they were getting buffalo from a producer,” and having to pay a lot for it, shares Weyker, who was at the time a fifth generation dairy farmer. “So he said, ‘You have enough land, just make a small pasture and let’s go get some buffalo.’”
Weyker took that advice and in 1996 began purchasing buffalo. “It took about three years to get going,” he says. “We got some gates and six bull calves.” The following year they bought more animals and grew to a herd of 15 bison.
“When we started you could find calves all over the place, whereas now it is hard to find baby calves. From 2003 to 2009 we lost probably 50 percent of the producers in the state,” he says, due to the bison meat market not developing fast enough to keep up with the number of growers. He says that feeder calves went from $1.25 or $1.50 per pound to $3.50.
Once their first buffalo calf was born, Weyker says they were hooked. “We couldn’t just have one,” he says.
In 2001, Al and his wife, Barbara, sold their 50-cow dairy herd and today their Lakeview Buffalo Farm has close to 110 buffalo at Belgium, Wis.
They have grown a significant customer base over the years and supply their meat to several restaurants and stores, including Libby Montana Bar and Grill at Mequon, Sports Dock Bar and Grill at Pewaukee, Meritage Restaurant in Milwaukee, Café Soeurette in West Bend, and several Sendik’s grocery locations. In addition, Weyker’s daughter, Teri and her husband, JJ Mejchar help with marketing by taking their products to the Tosa Farmer’s Market in Wauwatosa and the Milwaukee County Winter Farmer’s Market in Milwaukee.
“We try to manage our supply with the people we have and the farmers market to try to have enough buffalo for everybody,” says Weyker.
One of the challenges of getting started, Weyker shares, was building a good customer base. “I used to spend two to three days a week marketing our meat,” he says. “I went into Milwaukee and talked to restaurants and chefs and meat managers. I gave them samples of our products and had to wait to see if they liked it.”
He gave store demos, made signs for their own promotions in stores and met the customers face to face. He has built such strong relationships with the chefs and meat managers that they call him if they need something. In addition, Weyker is now able to make fewer deliveries because stores trust that the Lakeview Buffalo meat will sell and the stores are able to purchase larger quantities at once.
“The difference between when we started and now… is you had to find the market then, whereas now people find you,” he says.
Lakeview Buffalo Farm produces 20 to 22 different cuts of buffalo as well as processed products. They have found that marketing directly to customers gives them their highest profit, but it is also the most time consuming. In addition, the wholesale accounts don’t always use as many cuts as the direct market.
“We offer a good product, at a reasonable price and good service,” says Weyker. “I believe if you do those three things you will have customers.”
The market for buffalo meat is small, but it has a reputation as a healthy product. According to a study by Dr. M. Marchello at North Dakota State University, buffalo meat is a highly nutrient-dense food because of the proportion of protein, fat, mineral, and fatty acids to its caloric value. In addition, the Lakeview Farm buffalo are given no antibiotics or drugs.
“As more and more people are becoming health conscious and people are looking for meat grown without any hormones, the buffalo market will grow,” says Weyker, as he foresees greater demand for buffalo meat in the future.
Looking at the difference between dairy farming and raising his current herd of buffalo – the switch in species created several lifestyle changes. Weyker explains that he spends as much time marketing, if not more, than he does actually taking care of the animals. This is not to say he does not take good care of his animals, but simply that they require a relatively low level of maintenance.
“You don’t have to milk them,” he says with a laugh. “You don’t have to be as punctual as with dairy cattle - the buffalo cows are fed every other day in the winter, making it much less time consuming.” Depending on the time of year and group of animals, they are fed at different times and slightly different diets.
The Weyker family owns 195 acres and rent 26 acres to grow feed for their animals. They grow alfalfa, corn, winter wheat, oats and soybeans. They sell the soybeans and meat, but are able to raise all their own roughage.
“Buffalo need food and water, and require lower quality roughage,” says Weyker. The cow herd is fed a different diet than the butcher animals. “The cow herd gets pasture, green chop and dry hay for the summer months and in the winter months, first-cutting dry hay with a mixture of baled cornstalks,” he says, adding that they don’t want them overly heavy in the winter.
“Our meat animals get good first-cutting hay for dry hay, 16 to 18 percent haylage and a mixture of corn silage.” They feed that diet consistently day in and day out to get the right quality of carcass at the right size and age.
The buffalo are split into three groups. The cows are all together with the herd bulls. The calves are weaned off the cows in March and April as yearlings and kept in another pasture. Finally, there is the slaughter pen that is set-up with feed to get them into the catching corral.
“We use panels to get them where we want them, but they are very hard to handle in that regard,” he says, adding that buffalo don’t like strangers or change.
In addition, he stressed that although buffalo are low maintenance animals, good fences are key. Safety is a large concern when working with these large, undomesticated animals. They have electric wire fences and gates depending on the pens and the group of animals in the pens. “We never enter on foot – only in a skid loader or on the tractor,” he says.
Al and Barbara Weyker have six children, Robby, Jennifer, Teri, Holli, Kathi and Paul. Their daughter, Teri, is still active in the farm business, in charge of the farmers markets. Rob works in a meat lab and Jennifer runs a butcher shop. Paul is a doctor in New York and does all of the computer work, Holli is an artist and Kathi manages a candy department at a large retailer in Green Bay.
“Rob, Paul and I usually get together in May and see if we have to adjust the prices,” he says, adding that all of his children will help when they come home and offer their “two cents.”
As for the future outlook for the farm, Weyker would like to get a little bit bigger and then have one of the kids take over. “We have a good business started,” he says.