Starting and Managing a Bison Operation

Entering the Bison Industry

The bison sector is a true agriculture industry. It is an industry based on meat. Because of its infancy stage, the bison industry tends to leave the impression that breeding stock is the name of the game, due to high prices, and that all heifers seem to be entering the breeding herd. Producers are selling breeding stock, and yes, all go into the breeding herd, but the price of breeding stock is still established by the meat market.

One misconception is that the bison industry is a money printing business. The bison industry is just as susceptible to Murphy’s Law, “if anything can go wrong it will.” But with good management and common sense, the industry can and will reward producers with reasonable return. The industry is basically 90% management and 10% labour (once the facilities and fences are built).

Very little research has been done, resulting in many of today’s management decisions being based on the motto, “learn to do by doing.” Effective management involves five general areas:

  1. Natural resources – land, water, facilities
  2. Nutrition
  3. Genetics
  4. Herd health
  5. Common sense

It is important to mention that for any management program to be successful, you must learn, understand and respect bison behaviour. Actually to manage bison you have to almost become one of the herd, and this means you will take a position in the pecking order status. By recognizing the position, and understanding the various guttural sounds and sign language, you will be able to handle your animals without a problem. Bison are very co-operative if you remember that saying, “you can lead a bison anywhere it wants to go.” New producers laugh at that comment but it’s true. By using that theory, bison can be maneuvered to any pasture, through your facilities and allow you to incorporate your management program.
Natural Resources

This area of the bison management cycle is too often neglected. We think of ourselves in the industry as “bison producers” when actually we are “grass ranchers.”

The grass program is an important component in the nutritional management scheme. Bison are survivors first and producers second. If part of the management is production then some dietary help is required. The amount of dietary help depends on your geographic area. Pasture size depends on the ratio of open land to bush, whether tame pasture or native grass. These factors all determine your carrying capacity. Many of these types of questions will be answered by contacting your range area management specialist.

Whether you use a rotational, complementary, continuous grazing program or a combination, the objective is the same – to feed the bison in the summer for the winter. If you want a stress-free environment, and that is what bison require for productivity and genetic expression, then this objective must be met.

Water is an important natural resource and in fact is a major nutrient wheel. Too often when developing the nutrition program water is not considered a nutrient and so it is overlooked. Water quality is important, no matter the source, and in some areas may be the weak link in the nutrition chain. The subject does raise some eyebrows, but if you are located in a snow belt in the winter, animals can use snow in place of water. However, for optimum development and efficient feed use, all growing animals require water in the liquid state. This is especially important to feedlot gain.

Too often in the past, bison were promoted on the concept that it takes very little feed to keep a bison living. Yes, bison are survivors but surviving doesn’t translate into production. Bison tend to be sensitive to nutritional deficiencies. A weak link in the chain can make the difference between a 50% calf crop and a 90% calf crop, or a profit or loss feedlot.

Generations of severe natural selection developed bison with a digestive system that is very effective in utilizing forages of lesser quality that could be used with other bovidae. It is believed that digestive efficiency is due to a slower passage rate, and therefore greater digestion of the feedstuffs, as well as a more efficient nitrogen recycling system. Researchers believe that a bacterium in the bison digestive system, called Clostridium longisporum, aids cellulose fiber digestion 15% better that other organisms.

Research also suggests that bison are capable of maintaining a larger population of rumen microbes. A larger rumen microbial population in bison requires additional energy and nitrogen, which likely was supplied by the higher available energy obtained from prolonged dry matter digestion and from an efficient system for recycling endogenous nitrogen. Considering that bison saliva is 30% higher in nitrogen than that of cattle, and that bison serum averages 38% higher in urea than that of cattle, one would think urine levels of bison urea would be higher. This does not appear to be the case. Again, this suggests efficient bison kidney urea conservation and therefore higher levels of urea nitrogen available for rumen microbial growth.

Producer observations verify that bison are capable of digesting a greater proportion of low-protein, high-fiber rations than cattle. This limited amount of research information is not sufficient for producers to evaluate effectively physiological responses of bison to changes in grass quality and quantity. Additional grazing and feeding trials are required for producers to understand better the nutritional requirements of bison on grass and in the feedlot.