“Do you think we’ll get through this?” I ask as Rogers Franklin steers his big four-wheel-drive Ford F-250 pickup truck down into a watery ditch. He replies, “Yeah.” About 15 seconds later, we exit successfully and are back on drier, though no-less-bumpy, ground.
Franklin, chief executive officer of Three Suns Ranch in rural Punta Gorda, rides herd on the more than 800 head of bison; about 2,000 cattle; and the on-staff cowboys who manage the animals when it’s time to move them to another pasture or to the on-site mobile processing center.
“We still work our animals the old-school way — cowboys on horses, with dogs,” Franklin explains. “They herd both cattle and bison. The bison are a bit more temperamental, but on the whole, the cowboys use the same techniques.”
The ranch, at 2351 State Road 31, is almost 10.2 square miles of Old Florida at its best, with lots of native trees that provide natural shade and two spring-fed streams that ensure plentiful water. Three Suns is the largest bison ranch in Southwest Florida.
To watch a short video, visit https://youtu.be/yohD8AwYfZs.
Running free in the grasslands and palmetto thickets are a variety of wild animals, including deer, turkeys, pigs, hogs, alligators and many species of birds. In fact, during my visit, various wild pigs; at least a half-dozen turkeys, running away from us at top speed; and many quail, sandhill cranes and other birds appeared.
The bison and cattle wander around in huge fenced-off pastures, eating only natural grass and hay.
Bull bison use their big heads to shove and head-butt each other during mating season. They have a thick growth of fur on their forehead that provides at least some protection.
They grow fast
Once born, calves grow quickly. A yearling can weigh 800 pounds. Just the neck-to-nose section on an adult bull, Franklin says, can weigh 300 pounds; his total body weight can reach 2,000 pounds or more.
Bison frequently rub their shoulders and rumps against trees, bushes — or anything else that’s handy — to scratch off flies and parasites living on their hides. They also enjoy taking mud and dust baths in “wallows” — shallow wet or dry depressions in the soil.
Barbed-wire fence no real barrier
The bison are separated from the cattle by barbed-wire fencing. When I point out to Franklin that the fence looks awfully flimsy, considering the size of the animals, he quips “That fence is dental floss; it’s a polite suggestion, nothing more. If a bull wanted to go through that, he would.”
Owner Keith Mann bought the ranch in June 2012 and began buying grass-fed bison from around the U.S. to create Three Suns’ initial herd. Today, the herds of bison and cattle are hormone- and antibiotic-free. To maintain the quality of its pastures, Three Suns uses high-density rotational grazing — moving the herd from one area to the other periodically.
Three Suns raises original Florida Cracker cattle as well as mixed breeds of Angus and Brahma, and of Hereford and Brahma. They, like the bison, live out their lives on the ranch — from birth to processing and packaging in its on-site mobile processing facility, supervised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Local trappers catch the wild hogs whose meat the ranch processes, packages and sells.
RealMeats is the brand for the meats produced, which are also sold to restaurants in the Sarasota/Fort Myers area.
For more information about Three Suns Ranch, visit www.threesunsranch.com, email [email protected] or call 941-639-7070. The on-site store is open to the public from 2 to 6 p.m. Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.