Raising Bison

 

The following questions and answers may be of interest if you have ever considered making bison a part of your farm or ranch business.  The new Bison Producer's Handbook is available now and contains a wealth of detailed production information.  See the producer's home page for information on how to obtain your copy.

What are the advantages of raising bison?

BISON VS GRAIN FARMING - Nearly all the nutritional needs of bison can be met through grazing perennial grasses that are readily grown in the agricultural regions of Canada.  As a result, raising bison involves considerably lower input costs than growing annual grain, oil seed and pulse crops. Managing grazing for bison of course requires grassland, a water source and good fences, but it doesn't require the expensive machinery and energy gobbling operations like seeding, summer fallowing, and combining.  While supplemental hay and grain are often fed to bison in winter, the bulk of their annual diet comes from grasses that grow naturally on the prairies. In addition to preserving huge tracts of native prairie, Canada’s bison producers have returned hundreds of thousands of acres of formerly cultivated land to permanent forage cover. This is good news for the prairie ecology: soil erosion is checked; fossil fuel consumption formerly required to operate crop production machinery is virtually eliminated, and habitat for wildlife and natural plants is increased.

 

BISON VS OTHER MEAT SPECIES - Bison are naturally hardy, requiring less intensive management than other domestic meat animals such as cattle. By virtue of their evolution on the plains of North America, bison are well adapted to the extremes of weather and forage quality that nature produces on the Canadian prairies. Bison readily tolerate the extremes of winter. Their thick hair coat and ability to slow their metabolism during winter, enables bison to thrive on a much less energy-rich diet than cattle require. Bison are also well adapted to obtaining their daily water requirements from snow, whereas cattle generally require liquid water in their winter diet. Obviously, bison don’t need to be kept in the barn for the winter. Because of events like prairie fires and droughts, nature didn't always provide an abundance of the choicest grasses for bison to eat.  Bison adapted to this challenge by developing a slower digestive system than domestic cattle.  The grass a bison eats stays in its system longer than it does in cattle, enabling the bison to capture optimal nutritional benefit from the forage it eats.  In effect, bison are thriftier than domestic cattle and are less expensive to maintain through winter.

Bison evolved to become one of the most successful mammal species in North America without the benefit of veterinary care.  Today, bison producers continue to benefit from the bison cow’s natural ability to calve without human assistance.  The bison cow’s instinct to protect her calf and the calves of her herd mates eliminates most worries a producer might have about predators or rustlers.

SUSTAINABILITY – Raising bison is a highly sustainable form of agricultural production because: a) It requires fewer inputs than nearly any other form of agriculture and leaves a minimal footprint on the natural environment;  and,  b) The nutritional benefits of bison have resulted in a growing consumer demand for bison meat at prices which ensure the economic viability of bison farms and ranches.

How similar are bison to cattle?                                                 

Like cattle, bison are grazing ruminants with split hooves. Both bison and cattle have multiple stomachs and chew their cud. Both male and female bison have horns, while not all breeds of cattle grow horns. As with cattle, the bison cow typically raises one calf per year (twins are rare but possible). While beef or dairy cows often have their first calf at two years of age, bison cows typically don’t have a calf until they are three years old. The gestation (pregnancy) period is typically around nine months for both bison and cattle. Bison calves are naturally weaned by their mothers around a month prior to the arrival of a new calf. Calving and breeding seasons for bison closely follow the patterns in nature, with calves arriving in May and June and the breeding season running from shortly after the start of calving through August. Males of both species are capable of impregnating females between one and two years of age.  However, in practice, bison bulls do not become dominant active breeders in the herd until they are at least four years old. Calving and breeding seasons for dairy and beef cattle can potentially occur at almost any time of year. Bison have retained their natural instincts to a greater degree than domestic cattle and require some specialized handling techniques. Of course the two species differ greatly in appearance, the bison has a distinctive hump and impressive shaggy hair coat over the front quarters and head. The tails of bison are less than half the length of the tails on cattle.

Are bison dangerous?                                                                                

Bison can be dangerous to humans; especially for people unfamiliar with bison behavior. Bison have stronger natural instincts than cattle and their “wild” nature requires specialized handling methods and skills to ensure the safety of the bison and their handlers. By taking the interest and time to learn about bison behavior and proper handling techniques and by constructing safe bison handling facilities, raising bison can be as safe as raising domestic cattle. Canada’s bison producer associations (the CBA and its provincial affiliates) provide information such as codes of practice and advice to new producers as well as new techniques for safe handling that can benefit even the most experienced bison ranchers.

Are bison prone to escaping their pastures?                                          

Bison can be safely contained by fences that are only modestly more substantial than typical beef cattle range fences. The solution for preventing escapes is simple – if the bison are comfortable, have adequate feed, water, and space and aren’t unduly disturbed they will stay inside their fences. An old saying in the industry goes, “You can chase a buffalo anywhere he wants to go and keep him anywhere he wants to stay.” Canada’s bison producer associations can provide prospective producers with information on constructing effective bison fences.

Are special permits required to transport bison?

Yes, some provinces require the completion of an official livestock (brand) manifest when transporting livestock off the producer’s premises. Check with your provincial department of agriculture for the rules in your region.  In addition, the Canadian Bison Association (CBA) and its affiliates strongly advise producers to complete an official CBA Bison Record of Movement Form when transporting bison to slaughter, to a new owner, sale barn or for exhibition.  The Record of Movement Form was compulsory for bison producers until quite recently.  They were collected by the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in conjunction with its herd health surveillance program.  While technically the forms are not legally mandatory, today, it is very likely they will again become a legal requirement in association with the national traceability system for Canadian livestock.  The experience of leading Canadian bison producers attests to the major benefits of voluntarily completing the forms. They are a tremendous aid in proper herd management and record keeping and in the rare but scary event that a producer has an animal test positive for a reportable disease the forms can save a producer tons of grief. To order Record of Movement Permit Books, contact the Canadian Bison Association.

 

Are special identification tags required for bison?

Yes, and CCIA cattle tags cannot be used. Bison legally require a species specific radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, available exclusively through the Canadian Bison Association. The Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has indicated it will be prosecuting producers who fail to properly tag bison that are transported off their premises at some point in the future. Penalties will not apply for bison tagged with regular CCIA cattle tags, prior to January 2004 or for bison tagged with a CCIA dangle tag prior to January 2006.  For more information on tagging, click here.

 

Are bison only suited to the prairies?

Bison can thrive in virtually any of Canada’s agricultural regions and they are being raised in nearly every province; although over 75% of Canada’s bison are being raised on the prairies. The wood bison is native to Canada’s north and both public and private herds are located in the Yukon and there are a number of wild herds in the Northwest Territories.

Are special permits required to raise bison?

Raising bison is considered a regular agricultural pursuit in Canada’s three prairie  provinces and no special permits or licenses are required. However, other provinces sometimes have special requirements. The CBA office can advise prospective producers about the requirements for their region.