Cibola Farms is one of the largest bison farms in the state of Virginia. Several hundred years ago, Virginia is thought to have been home to the largest population of bison in the Mid-Atlantic. An estimated 70 million American Bison once roamed in herds across the the country. Due to mass over-hunting which escalated during the railroad expansion, bison were close to extinction by the late-1800’s. Through the bison protection law, land preservation, and increasingly, bison farming, the species have made a come-back and are now an estimated 70,000 in population. Today you can find one of the largest private bison herds in Virginia on Cibola Farms.
Located ten minutes from downtown Culpeper, Cibola Farms rests on nearly 300 acres of lush, green pastures and tree-lined hills. Cibola Farms is own and operated by Rob Ferguson and Mike Sipes, whose mission is to produce healthy foods through natural, chemical-free methods that are founded in ecologically sound agriculture practices. Rob has a background in business and wildlife management, and he sought out bison farming for the challenge. Mike came to farming by way of his career as a personal trainer and nutritionist, after he discovered the American Heart Association recommends bison as a healthy, lean red meat. After purchasing the property in 1999, the pastures were cleared, hand-built, and the traditional cattle equipment was custom-built in order to properly handle the much larger and stronger bison. Together with the help of the main farm assistant and craftsperson, Laura, and seasonal farm hands, Mike and Rob manage the herd of 380 to 400 bison.
The pastured bison roam in packs inside enclosed pastures (paddocks) on the farm, freely grazing on natural grasses. Two days prior to our tour of the farm, the paddocks were filled with grasses standing more than three feet high. On today’s visit, the fields of grasses occupied by bison stood at a lowly three or four inches tall. Every two to three days, bison herds are moved to greener pastures as part of the intensive rotational grazing management system. This management system is harmonious to bisons natural instinct to roam in packs. Extreme care and caution is required bison because they are immensely strong, undomesticated animals. Bison require a calm environment, as they scare easily, and constant attention to predict their needs. Bison are agile creatures that can clear a six foot fence from standstill if provoked. A full-grown bull can stand taller than six feet and weigh more than a ton, while the female bison can reach four to five feet high and weigh over one thousand pounds. The custom-built paddock and chute design at Cibola Farm’s were checked by an assistant to Temple Grandin, expert livestock system architect, to ensure proper handling with low stress. During rotation, bison are guided in a calm but foreful manner by calls and directioning and one ATV to catch up to the stampede, as bison can reach a speed of 35 miles per hour when they really get going.
Cibola Farms follows a management intensive grazing system to eliminate the use of chemicals both on the field and livestock handling. Management intensive grazing is a sustainable practice where livestock are rotated to new fenced pasture every three or four days after the grass has reached a target height. By fencing paddocks, bison are separated into smaller herds , organized by a combination of factors to keep nursing calves with moms, bulls with steer only for mating season, and to sort age and weight for processing. Each paddock has its own water trough connected to a water distribution system, and stock of grain off to the side of the clearing, which allows at-will feeding to supplemental the foraged diet and help impede parasites. Nutrient-rich legumes and grain, like sorghum, are spread across the pastures to naturally add supplements to the bison diets. During grazing, bison spread waste and aerate the soil with their hooves, that naturally fertilize the fields. The pastures are also sprayed with excess cow milk (from the non-commercial farm) to regenerate the soil. Bison are rotated between paddocks to allow a period of rest for thirty days. The key to natural, chemical-free grazing is a proper pasture management system. In explaining management intensive grazing system on the tour, Mike joked that he would call himself a grass farmer just as much as a bison farmer.
Cibola Farms defines sustainability as: the combination of humane livestock handling, natural farm production, and the ecological practices. Like many of our independently owned, small farm partners, you will not find a USDA Certified Organic Label on packaging. Cibola Farms produces chemical-free, hormone-free, pastured product bison through their holistic approach to agriculture. While the public’s appetite for pastured bison is ever-increasing, Cibola Farms recently discontinued selling products at local farmers markets due to the extra labor and hours involved to set-up and run booths at the markets. Instead, their business is now streamlined to direct sales on the farm store, online sales, and direct door delivery with 4P FOODS. Cibola Farms is a great example of how our members support the livelihoods of our hard-working farm partners in a manner that allows farmers to focus their efforts on the work of managing their operations. Look for Cibola Farms pastured ground bison, steaks, or grillers included in the items in the 4P Protein Bag. Cibola Farms is open daily for self-guided tours and to patron the farm store that sells a full selection of bison meat and leather goods, like handmade bracelets and wallets.