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The bison industry is on the move

It takes specialized management, but there are opportunities in bison

Saskatchewan farmers Les and Kathy Kroeger have been sold on bison for nearly 30 years.

While North American bison populations are nowhere near where they were 200 years ago, conservation measures and private breeding programs have helped to bring numbers back to support a successful, albeit specialized, agriculture sector. An estimated three to four million bison once roamed freely on the North American continent, providing the aboriginal peoples with many of their basic necessities including food, clothing, shelter and tools.

By the 1880s the bison had been slaughtered to where less than 1,000 animals remained. In 1905, because extinction seemed imminent, the American Bison Society was formed to protect the animals. About 50 years later parks and game preserves began selling surplus bison to private farmers.

“Today there are probably only between 7,000 and 8,000 bison free ranging on public land in North America; 3,000 to 4,000 in Canada,” says Les Kroeger, president of the Saskatchewan Bison Association and owner of Rosedale Bison.

“However, we now have over 200,000 bison on privately owned farms. Altogether in North America, we’re getting close to half a million bison back again. It’s been a very successful conservation effort by many people. Without getting bison back into agriculture, that wouldn’t have happened,”

27 years in the bison business

Kroeger has been raising bison since 1989 and today he and his wife Kathy run a herd of 150 animals on their 650-acre farm near Hanley, Sask. His enthusiasm hasn’t diminished since he and his father purchased their first four cows.

“One of our reasons for getting into bison was the romance of the animal,” says Kroeger. “There’s just something that grabs you when you start working with them.”

“They’re majestic and intelligent animals,” says Kathy. “I think there’s a spirituality about them as well. They looked after themselves long before we decided to take care of them.”

Les and his father initially purchased the bison as an alternative to their dairy operation. Grain prices were low and farm diversification was the buzzword in agriculture at the time.

The bison remained a hobby for the first few years while Les continued to help with the grain operation and worked off farm as an automotive technician.

Les’s father passed away in 1991. As Les began focusing on building good breeding stock, the bison operation gradually expanded. Prices for breeding stock were high in the 1990s with bred cows selling for $8,000 to $10,000, and breeding bulls as high as $10,000 to $15,000. There were over 400 producers in Saskatchewan at the time.

“Then BSE closed the borders to the U.S. markets,” he says. ”We were also in a marketing crunch — the industry hadn’t developed a good infrastructure for the meat market. The economy also took a downturn, so many people exited the bison industry.”

Today, the bison industry is strong, with about 1,900 producers across Canada, the majority (80 per cent) of which are in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The rest are in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and B.C.

“The demand for the product is high — we’re developing a phenomenal market,” says Kroeger. “It’s a niche market, but we’re not filling it. We’re exporting in excess of 60 per cent of our slaughter animals to the U.S. And domestically, we’re hardly scratching the surface on the possibilities. Currently, most of our focus in the industry is expanding the herd size and getting the numbers high enough to meet market demand.”

Accessing markets

Marketing bison meat and other products is one of the greatest obstacles facing producers, Les says. One option is local bison sales. “We have larger (wholesale) marketers willing to buy animals right off your farm, and many farm-gate their meat products. So there are a number of different avenues, and, as the industry develops, those markets are built with it.”

While there are provincially inspected processing plants that help local producers, there are no federally inspected processers in Saskatchewan, which limits out-of-province meat sales. In order to sell to other provinces or export the meat into the U.S. the animals have to be sent to a federally inspected facility. Many Saskatchewan bison are transported live to a federal plant in Lacombe, Alberta, to North Dakota or Denver, Colorado.

With the growing trend in “locally grown” as well as an interest in organic, grass-fed meat, bison is the perfect fit for conscientious consumers. Bison meat is a nutrient-dense, flavourful meat that is high in protein, low in cholesterol, and very low in fat. It also has a greater concentration of iron, zinc, and essential fatty acids than beef.

Easy keepers

Bison are healthy and hardy animals that require very low maintenance. They thrive on the native prairie grasses and are adept at converting the energy from lower-protein forage more efficiently than other species.

Les has never seen any calving problems. Because cows don’t breed until they’re two years of age, they are physically mature when they give birth. Calves generally weigh between 40 – 50 pounds. “If you’re feeding cows grain late in pregnancy, they might be trying to give birth to 70 – 80 pound calves, and that’s when you could see difficulties,” he says.

Breeding season for bison starts late August and goes into October. Bulls are very protective of the cows at this time and can be dangerous. Cows are similarly more protective when they have small calves. Generally, however, bison pose minimal danger.

Because bulls do not reach maturity until they’re two, they are left intact and go for slaughter about that age. “Leaving them intact is like a natural growth hormone,” says Kroeger. “We don’t use any antibiotics, growth hormones or stimulants of any kind — that’s an industry standard.”

There are three important health factors producers have to keep in mind. Having mineral supplements available is recommended. Treating animals annually for parasites is also important. Bison were nomadic animals historically, so they may have only grazed the same ground every second year. Now that they’re confined in smaller areas, their resistance to parasites is lower. The third health consideration is stress, which poses a big factor in their ability to stay healthy. Anytime they are under stress it makes them vulnerable to illnesses and diseases.

Low-stress handling

The Kroegers are advocates of low-stress handling procedures. “Our members have a strong commitment to animal welfare. In our operation, we handle them as little as possible,” he says. “We’ve got handling facilities built specifically for bison, which is a huge asset. We don’t do anything fast when we work with bison — the less activity around them means we can work them calmer and slower. Once a year we separate the calves, put ear tags in and treat the cows. Then they go right back out to pasture.”

“The way Les handles the animals is incredibly humane,” says Kathy. “You never see them upset or agitated, even when he works around them.”

The animals are monitored closely during shipping to keep stress at a minimum. This includes the use of proper trailers and limiting the amount of time they’re in transport.

Bison do not require man-made shelters. They seek out natural shelter in trees, and their thick coats are well designed for cold winters.

Bison do require more substantial fencing and handling equipment than cattle. Kroeger uses high tensile wire on eight-foot posts. “We have all our perimeter fences five feet high,” he says.

The voice of experience

What advice does he have for anyone who would like to get into raising bison? “Talk to other producers and have your plan in place before you begin,” says Kroeger. “There are many different ways you can get into the industry and markets are there for everybody — straight cow-calf producers or breeders, for example.

“There’s also a lot of information available through the Canadian Bison Association. Every region has a local association, including B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec that all work together.”

The Kroegers butcher bison for their own use and do some farm-gate sales. “By doing the slaughtering here means there’s less stress on the animal and a better quality meat as a result,” he says.

The couple has converted all their grain land into pasture and they’re currently focusing on building good breeding stock and growing high quality forage. “By putting more effort into growing good grasses, we’re getting more grazing days and the bison are utilizing the forage more effectively,” says Kroeger.

Kathy works full time as a superintendent in a school division. She also helps Les with paperwork and herd record keeping for breeding purposes.

Les frequently gives presentations to school students about bison farming. He also works with agriculture and veterinary students on the University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon. Educating the youth serves two purposes, says Kathy. “First they learn about farm life and where food comes from, and secondly, they learn to have an appreciation for these animals and how healthy bison meat is,” she says.

“These students will be our industry’s future consumers, so the more we can help educate them on what we’re doing on our farms and ranches, the better off we’ll be. This is a labour of love for both of us,” she says.

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