Some bison you just want to leave with the seller. Considering the number bison once represented, and when they became almost extinct, bison have passed through a remarkable bottleneck. Considering how the population has increased, I think the herd average has maintained optimum (for the size of the herd) genetic variation. This situation would have likely been reversed if the bison population had been forced to remain at a smaller number, generation after generation.

Private herds provide ideal situations for breeding. They usually start with a few foundation animals in a closed group and at low numbers.

In-breeding is continually emphasized. I’m not so sure the same concern is not also warranted for continual out crossing. Continued random-type mating seems to produce rather random, inconsistent types of offspring. What is usually required is a better understanding of the factors due to heredity and those due to environment.

The bison industry is a meat industry. The carcass quality is of extreme importance. Inherited factors that influence carcass quality in bison are of substantial economic value. Fleshing ability, carcass leanness and tenderness are affected by feedlot handling, transportation, slaughtering methods and nutrition. The genetic expression of heritable characteristics can be expressed only if the relating environmental conditions are in balance.

The carcass evaluation of any herd is key to genetic selection for both the replacement females as well as their sires.

The major principles of selection for most bison herds are:

  1. Fertility
  2. Fleshing ability
  3. Carcass quality
  4. Longevity

The feedlot industry will be interested only in fleshing ability (gain) and carcass quality. The cow-calf producer is interested in all criteria, especially if he is involved in conception-to-consumer program. If the individual is strictly in a cow-calf program, then fertility and longevity are tops, with fleshing ability and carcass quality next.

Longevity is one of the areas of genetic importance least referred to. The problem appears to be that we just assume longevity in bison. A word of caution: man usually screws up something and this will be one of the first important heritable factors we will lose in bison if we are not careful.

The bull contributes half of the genetic potential of each annual crop. In short, he or she is 50% of the herd. The bull selection program of any herd, especially the smaller private herds, is important.

Remember, “it’s a rich man who can afford a poor bull.”

Replacement breeding bulls, whether selected from your own herd or another breeder’s herd, should be selected on a number of factors.

  1. Fertility – viable semen test by 18 months and at least 22 months
  2. Weaning weights – should be at least in the top 10% of the sire group; the dam’s actual weaning weight should be the average of all calves and be higher than the average weight of herd
  3. Fleshing ability – yearling weight, average daily gain, and where possible, weight per day of age
  4. Carcass data sire progeny
  5. Maternal performance – performance of sire’s daughters in the herd and performance of dam’s daughter’s in the herd

Records are important. Without records it is very difficult to make good economic decisions. Without a scale it is difficult to have records. Reputable breeders of quality breeding stock will have records and a scale that is used.


A proper health program requires an identification system. This also goes hand in hand with good records.

The key to any good health program is preventive medicine. In bison this means good nutrition, 7 or 8-way clostridium vaccination, a deworming program and a stress-free environment.

Compared to other species, a bison health program is very cheap. The selection process that will likely take place in the bison industry as a whole will result in the gradual decline of the strong immunity of the present bison. Man will gradually interfere with the natural selection process of the weak dying and the strong living.

The best health program for any producer is designed in consultation with your local veterinarian. But a word of caution is required at this point. Because of the good immune system of bison, I don’t believe we have to go needle-happy, vaccinating for everything possible. In due time, and sooner than later, we will have to vaccinate for many of the same problems that plague the beef industry. With good common sense though, I firmly believe that we have some breathing space before many of the beef vaccinations will become part of the bison program.