When Hugh and Sarah Fitzsimons of Shape Ranch decided to switch from raising Hereford cattle to bison, Hugh thought it was important to educate himself. The initial lesson in “bisonry,” however, quite literally left a bad taste in his mouth.
“I’d never tasted bison, so I bought one and had it killed at a slaughterhouse,” he says. “I took a bite and spit it out.”
The unpleasant experience, he discovered, was not inherent to bison meat, but rather a matter of processing. “It was because of the fear that animal had encountered during transportation and slaughter,” explains Fitzsimons. “The adrenal gland secretes cortisol, which is a fear response. It results in a horrible taste.”
A desire to produce better-tasting meat while simultaneously adhering to their personal principles regarding humane animal welfare led the couple to recently become the first bison ranchers in the U.S. to score Animal Welfare Approved certification.
“As with approved organic products, there’s stringent criteria for the health and well-being of animals that must be met for certification,” Fitzsimons says.
“Andrew Gunther, the program director for Animal Welfare Approved, personally inspected the herd and said, ‘Hugh, I am in love with what you do.’”
What the Fitzsimons do is allow their herd of over 300 bison to roam freely and eat only grass. They’re also dedicated to maintaining the social integrity of the group. “Bison need feed, water and each other for security,” says Fitzsimons. “The each other component is so often left out in other enterprises. These are very social animals with a hierarchy. Ours stay from birth to death with their natural family group. If you keep all of these social structures intact they stay comfortable and secure.” This system ensures that Shape Ranch bison remain calm, and, as a consequence, cortisol-free.
“We shoot them in the fields under direction of the Texas Department of Health meat inspector,” says Fitzsimons. “I make sure they’re all calm before I start. It’s one shot between horn and ear, which severs the medulla. The animal just collapses. Not another twitch. It’s completely at peace.”
Fitzsimons says the meat, sold as Thunder Heart Bison, has a taste and smell that’s completely different from traditionally processed bison—clean and slightly sweet. It’s also very healthful, high in nutrients, low in fat and cholesterol and has the same level of omega-3s per serving as salmon. Bison meat also has a high concentration of the mood elevator selenium—a trait that leads Fitzsimons to refer to his products as the “original happy meal.”
Find Thunder Heart Bison at the Austin Farmers’ Market, Boggy Creek Farm, Hut's Hamburgers, Sunset Valley Farmers Market, Wheatsville Food Co-op, Vino Vino, Greenling Organic Delivery, Magnolia Cafe, Wink and Olivia. For more information, visit thunderheartbison.com.