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Buffalo bone fertilizer — forgotten days of agriculture

  • Market demand first devoured buffalo hides and meat — and then bone.

But the vast majority of buffalo bones were consumed by the fertilizer industry. The bones, high in phosphorous content, were machine ground and sold as bonemeal, which was tilled into poor soils. (It also was sometimes added to cattle feed as a calcium supplement.)

The bone supply grew short by 1890. A bone crisis developed, prices rose, but there were simply no more buffalo bones to pick up. In short time, the fertilizer industry began crushing rock to obtain fertilizer phosphate.

An odd period of agriculture history had passed — a time when farmers harvested buffalo bones; sold the bones to fertilizer companies; and then bought back the bonemeal to till into their cropland.

Rinella’s excellent account includes this blunt 1885 advertisement from the Grafton News and Times, emblematic of a forgotten window in agriculture history. It ran on the front page: “Notice to Farmers: I will pay cash for buffalo bones … I want 5,000 tons this month.”


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