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A herd of her own

K-State instructor uses bison ranch to educate people from around the globe


Susan Dillinger's entire life is about education. She's spent 36 years as a public school teacher, married a fellow educator and now, as an instructor of special education, counseling and student affairs at K-State, she's passing on her knowledge to the teachers of tomorrow.

Susan DillingerSo, it should come as no surprise that when she and her husband, Ed, decided to take on ranching, they ended up making an educational enterprise out of it.

When they moved to Pottawatomie County in the early 1990s, Dillinger said they started out with what they thought they could handle: two Morgan horses, animals that her husband's family had raised for some 50 years. Then they added seven Beefmaster heifers, some chickens and a couple of ponies, intending to create what Dillinger calls a "grandpa's farm."
Then, they started to think bigger.

"We didn't know squat about bison, but thought it would be a lot of fun to have a few running around among the cows, you know, as a novelty," Dillinger said.

Fourteen years later, the novelty has worn off but not the fascination with the iconic animal as the Dillingers' herd of five heifers has grown to around 80 animals.

When they first got the bison, a few neighbors and area residents called up, wanting to see the animals up close. The Dillingers, who are the outgoing sort, were happy to oblige and told people to come on over.

But since those first few calls, literally hundreds of people have been out to the Lazy Heart D Ranch, which is about eight miles southeast of Westmoreland or 10 miles west of Wamego, to learn more about the animals and the Dillingers have been able to use their "grandpa's farm" as an educational tool.

Fun facts about bison

* Bison and buffalo are no longer endangered.

* Bison and buffalo are not the same. The bison raised by the Dillingers are a different species from African or Asian water buffalo.

* Bison meat, which the Dillingers sell, is the leanest red meat around.

* Bison are one of three animals in the world that are not afraid of humans. The other two are mountain lions and grizzly bears.

* Bison are not the cuddly type of animal. In fact, they're quite territorial. "If you try to push them, they push back," Dillinger said. "There's no negotiating with them. They are truly wild animals."

"We felt that kids were losing touch with agriculture, and that they're losing touch with grandparents because they usually live far away," Dillinger said. "We also wanted the farm to be a place where families, including our own, could come together."

People from all over the world visit the farm every year. All the Dillingers ask in return is that those who can provide a donation to Community Health Ministries in Wamego.

"It's kind of grown by word-of-mouth," Dillinger said.

This time of year keeps the Dillingers hopping with area school groups visiting each day to learn about bison. During the tours the Dillingers set up educational stations, such as bones and hide, to provide visitors with a hands-on lesson in bison anatomy.

The ranch also has been host to international groups, tours from retirement homes and even a family reunion.

"They were looking for something to do and that whole weekend they had a common experience to talk about," Dillinger said.

Dillinger looks past the hassles of having people out to the farm day in and day out. To her, the education she's able to provide and the connection to the people she meets outweigh all the negatives.

And, as far as she's concerned, the more the merrier.

"We have made a million friends and know people from all around the world," she said. "This is just a part of our volunteerism. It's literally providing something for our community.

"And, it always goes back to education," Dillinger said.