A Montana rancher named Jim Burnett was born on this day in 1917 in Luther, Montana.
After serving in the Air Force during World War II, Burnett (a second-generation Montanan) settled down to a typical life of cattle ranching and raising his family. He had an insatiable curiosity about hybridization, however, and without any formal education in genetics, in 1958 he began to experiment with cross-breeding bison (buffalo) and domestic cattle. Although he knew that the chances of conception (either with a bison bull/domestic cow or domestic bull/bison cow combination) were barely 1 in 10, and that in all likelihood the hybrid offspring, if any, would be sterile, he "felt a secret combination with God's help would come through someday," and he held out hope that he would be the one to crack the puzzle.
In 1962, after 4 years of "failure, disappointment and expense," a live half-bison/half-domestic calf was born to one of Burnett's domestic cows. A biology professor, upon seeing the result, confided to Burnett that he wished Burnett had not succeeded, since the professor had for years been teaching his students that such a thing was impossible; Burnett confided that if he had understood genetics, he probably wouldn't even have tried.
Burnett continued to breed sterile hybrid calves until 1965, when a 3/4 bison-1/4 Hereford bull, named "903," was born and subsequently proved to have live sperm. Burnett's work, subsequently taken over by Bud Basolo in Escalon, California, resulted in the birth of the Beefalo as a recognized breed of cattle. (A full-blooded Beefalo is now considered to have 17 to 37.5% bison genetics.)
Interest in the Beefalo grew rapidly during the 1970s due to a number of perceived advantages: the Beefalo, having inherited the buffalo's digestive system, is an efficient converter of roughage, thus reducing the rancher's dependence on grain to fatten cattle; Beefalo are hardier than domestic cattle; and Beefalo meat is apparently higher in protein, calcium and moisture and lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than regular beef, while comparing in taste with "prime quality beef steak" (according to Gourmet magazine).
Burnett retired from active cross-breeding to run for the Montana house of representatives as a Republican, where he served non-consecutively from 1969 to 1982; subsequently, he served in the Montana senate from 1991 to 1998. As a legislator, Burnett was known for his support of veterans' initiatives and for a bill he unsuccessfully introduced in 1997 which would have allowed public spanking as the penalty for vandalism for anyone over the age of 11. Burnett died on August 14, 2000 in Salt Lake City, Utah from burns suffered during an accident which occurred while he was spraying herbicides at his ranch.
"Beefalo will never really catch on until some college football team adopts it as a mascot. Of course, lean and tender rump cuts are rarely a top criterion for choosing sports mascots." -- Felix Blueblazes.
Categories: Beefalo, Cuisine