Central Alberta’s best kept secret grazes peacefully in a back field off of Hwy 11A, about five km east of Sylvan Lake.
Here, 23 rare and spiritual creatures roam, massive milky specks among the hay bales: a herd of white bison.
“It is probably the world’s biggest herd of white buffalo, actually,” said Rudy Deutsch, 90, who bought his first white buffalo two years ago from Nebraska.
The blondish bison isn’t a common sight and is considered sacred to many First Nations people. According to the National Bison Association, a non-profit based in Colorado, only one out of every 10 million is born with the snow-coloured hide, attributed to a recessive gene. They are not considered albino.
“They’re so unique, so rare and so special. … They’re clever and gentle and got their own personalities,” said Deutsch, who previously raised beefalo (a hybrid of bison and cattle) for over two decades just outside of Red Deer. “It was something new to try.”
With names like Uno, Bessie, Valentine and Crystal Moon, Deutsch’s white bison are like his children.
“You know, they give me a reason to get up in the morning, purpose. … Just to go out and touch them every day, that’s purpose for me to go on living right now,” said the Second World War veteran. He was a stretcher bearer with the 5th Canadian Field Ambulance attached to the 2nd Brigade and participated in segments of the liberation of Italy 70 years ago.
Deutsch is raising the white bison with his son Allan, who also keeps a number of majestic white, two-humped camels, one imported from Afghanistan.
“We’d bought some white camels from a farm in Nebraska and they also had white bison that some Americans would trophy hunt back in the ’70s,” Deutsch said.
“They wouldn’t sell us a bison at first but after he passed on we went back and asked his wife. … That’s how it all started.”
The men plan to start a meat project in two to three years, breeding the white buffalo with domestic cows, such as holsteins and Galloways. None of the white bison will be processed for meat.
“You have to get just the right amount of buffalo. … We’re going to call it Divine Beef. The hybrid breed will be called New Horizon.”
Seven white bison have been born with the Deutsches since they began purchasing the animals. Two while calves were born this year with another expected soon. One of the holstein cows is pregnant as well as a recently purchased brown bison female from Sundre.
“We’re curious to see if she has a white calf, as No. 61 (the father) is white,” said Deutsch of the brown bison introduction.
Deutsch started his beefalo operation in 1973; he was the first farmer in Alberta to try his hand at the breed. The endeavour took him down to Nashville, where he had supper with Conway Twitty and George Jones.
“He was really nice. Real friendly,” he said of Twitty, throwing out a line of Hello Darlin as he drives the side-by-side vehicle out to the pasture to feed the bison.
He stopped farming beefalo in 1990 after back surgery.
“That was the best meat, so lean and tender,” Deutsch said. “I sold it in Nashville. … Great cows, gentle, calve easy, gain a lot of weight quickly.”
The docile disposition is even more visible in the white buffalo — multiple bulls can roam in the same field.
“They’re not aggressive. A little bit territorial, I suppose but they choose one mate per year and don’t fight over the females that way,” Deutsch said, patting a yearling on his rump while feeding another, Amanda —who is the most white of the herd — at the same time. Three of the bulls, Pear, Super 8 and Jackpot (each weighing about 725 kg or 1,600 pounds), munch grass a couple metres behind him.
Allan halter broke a two-year-old, Cye, who never grew any horns, when he was little. Now Cye follows Allan around whenever he’s in the field, playfully head butting Allan when he’s not paying him any attention, leaping away and circling back around to nudge the man’s hands.