It was a roller coaster of emotions for the owners of Armstrong Creek Bison Company in northeastern Wisconsin last week.
A white bison calf — an extremely rare occurrence — was born to a cow on their farm. Such white calves are so rare they are considered to be a portent of good fortune by Native Americans.
Walter Wysocki, the patriarch of the family, said one Oneida photographer came to take pictures of the female calf and said the incidence of this color bison is one in a billion.
She was born to a first-time mother and the family's herd of 125 animals appeared to notice that this calf was different, gathering around her in a protective fashion. "We never saw them do that before.
"We didn't want to get too close and it was a bit difficult to see her at times. She was dancing around at noon and then later in the day we could see the mother kind of kick her away when she tried to nurse."
Watching through binoculars, they could sense the calf might be in trouble.
The family intervened, driving a vehicle into the herd to pick up the youngster so they could check on her. They got advice on bottle feeding a calf — something they had never had to do before.
"She looked alert and then she'd kind of fade," he said. The calf died on the evening of the second day (Aug. 7.)
"It's hard to put a value on it. We are all very sad.
"My little grandson, who is 10, said that now we'll have to wait for another billion to be born," said Walter.
Tom Wysocki, Walter's son, is also part of the farming operation along with his brother Steve and their mom Kathleen. He called the loss of the rare white bison calf "heartbreaking."
Many Native Americans they were in touch with had wanted to come see the calf.
The Wysocki family began their bison operation in 1994 on their 200-acre farm that lies between Crandon and Iron Mountain where Forest and Marinette counties meet.
Both Walter and Kathleen had grown up on dairy farms and their sons ran beef cattle when they were growing up. Research into potential new enterprises led them to bison in the 1990s.
At the start their business was aimed at producing breeding stock for a growing number of breeding operations. Then as demand for breeding animals slowed, they began producing for a meat market.
All of the Armstrong Creek bison is 100-percent grass-fed, raised on strip-grazed pasture that the bison don't return to for at least 30 days. Tom said that helps them manage their way out of parasite problems without using chemicals.
In the summer the family also runs pigs on pasture. They also raise free-range chickens and have honeybees on the farm to help pollinate their apple and pear orchards as well as their vegetables raised in greenhouses.
They sell the produce from their different enterprises from a store on the farm.
The Wysockis have gotten away from selling into farmers markets in recent years because their bison meat is limited —— for a good reason. The demand from breeding animals is once again high and thus they have fewer animals to harvest for meat.
The price of breeders has tripled, said Tom, as more people have gotten into breeding bison "There is a real awareness of it as a healthy meat.
"Some people believe buffalo is the healthiest meat but you could do this with beef too. There a big surge right now."
If they had more land, they'd be willing to raise more animals and would be able to raise and sell more meat, he adds.
The Wysockis are members of the Wisconsin Bison Association, which has 60-75 members and Tom estimates there are 100-150 farms in the state raising bison.
Their farm, which lies near the edge of Nicolet National Forest, is also open to those who want to camp and they offer stabling for horses. Tom and his wife Chris are in the process of creating a bed-and-breakfast business on the farm.
Right now, he said, it's more like a farm-stay vacation spot but they hope to make it a full bed and breakfast inn soon.
Rare births are almost common to the Armstrong Creek bison herd. They have had two sets of twins and the odds of that are calculated at 1 in 20,000.
But when this particular three-year-old cow had her first calf and it turned out to be white, they were flabbergasted. "I think we'll keep her for a while," Tom said of that cow, with the unspoken hope that she might give birth to another white calf.
The family is still trying to get over the loss of the precious, rare white calf they had named Spirit. "It's seen as a sign of good fortune to our Native American friends. We feel we let them down."