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Featured Fermilab Staff Member - Don Hanson

From the Spring-Summer 1998 sciencelines

Don Hanson has worked at Fermilab for about 22 years. For the past 16 years he has had the unique position of Chief Herdsman in charge of the bison herd. He is married and has 4 children.

Don, thank you for agreeing to participate in this interview. Please tell us about your position here at Fermilab.

I am Chief Herdsman in the Roads and Grounds Division. In this position I am responsible for the management and care of the bison. This involves developing a daily feeding program, overseeing the calving in the spring, and baling hay in the summer. In the fall I organize the vaccination of the cows and calves before our annual sale. The sale is conducted by sealed bid with the bids coming from all over the country. Throughout the year I maintain the pastures with fertilizer, overseeding and spraying. I check and repair all the fencing, and keep the corrals and gates in working order. There is paperwork necessary to keep the records on each animal up to date. The animals are numbered and tagged so I can tell them apart. Most of the time I work alone, except during haying season and vaccination time. I work an eight-hour day five days a week, but also come in on Saturday and Sundays to feed the herd. I call the vet if any of the animals are ill and when they need vaccinating in October. In the winter when the weather is bad I also help the Roads and Grounds crew plow the roads. Sometimes in winter I travel to buy new bulls to add to our stock.

Can you tell us how the bison came to Fermi?

The Lab's first director Robert Wilson thought it would be nice to bring the heritage of the prairie to the fields of Fermilab. The first bison were purchased in 1969 from two different sources; a bull from Cheyenne, WY, and four cows from Longmont, CO. In 1971 the Illinois Department of Conservation donated 21 head to the Fermilab program. In 1978 five cows were purchased from Custer State Park. Today our herd consists of 40 cows and 6 bulls. We are expecting 30-35 calves to be born this spring.

Have you ever had a bison calf for a pet?

Several years ago two calves were orphaned. I bottle fed them and they followed me around in the barn. As they got bigger they were sold. Bison are very strong and can hurt you even in play. They were sold to the same herdsman and recently both had calves of their own within days of each other. They helped each other during the birthing process.

What factors influenced you to go into such a career?

I was raised on a farm where we had livestock, mostly cattle and pigs. After high school I tried farming for awhile and then did construction work. In 1976 I went to work for Fermilab in the Roads and Grounds department. During that time I assisted with the bison whenever needed. In 1982 there was an opening for the herdsman position; I knew it was what I wanted to do because of my interest in livestock. I soon learned that bison are different from cattle. Cattle are predictable but one never knows what a bison will do.

Where did you go to school and what do you remember most about it?

I went to Kaneland High School. My favorite subjects were Biology, Math and Agriculture. I also played basketball and baseball.

What advice would you give students interested in a career such as yours?

Learn all you can about farming and livestock, both in school and through local activities. Join 4-H where you can learn about showing and judging livestock, take agriculture classes both in high school and college, and join FFA (Future Farmers of America). Working on a farm in the summer is a great learning experience.

What are the most important things in your life?

My family of course. I am married and have two grown sons who are both married. One is very interested in farming and raising cattle, and the other one works for Lucent Technology. I also have two daughters; the youngest is 15 and just learning to drive and the older one is married and lives in Georgia. I have two beautiful granddaughters.

What do you see in the bison's future?

It is very good. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, there were less than 1000 bison in the US. Now there are close to 200,000. Dr. Wilson felt Fermi could maintain a modest size herd to go hand in hand with the prairie restoration and we are doing this successfully. The bison are a unique way for the public to see animals that use to roam free all over the United States. During calving season many families come to see the herd.