What started as a hobby has become a lifelong passion for Bob Rehman, ranch operator of Border Bison. He lives with his parents Carl and Irma Rehman on the Saskatchewan side of the Alberta border, seven miles northeast of Macklin.
Seventy-eight-year-old Carl and wife Irma raised two sons and four daughters on the farm. They retired from active farming in 1999 turning the land over to sons Bob and Mark. So how did Bob get started with bison?
“When I was doing seismograph work in B.C. I saw a herd of bison that had escaped a rancher and became naturalized in the woods. I liked how they looked and thought I would like about four or five cows to graze on our natural grass pasture,” he says.
Bob checked out bison ranches looking at the handling facilities and type of fences necessary for raising these large animals. In 1991 he purchased 11 yearling heifers and a herd sire, becoming the first bison rancher in the area. His parents and brother bought a few cows to add to the herd and later sold their interest back to Bob.
“They are very clever animals and learn fast. We move them from one field to another to provide fresh grass and when they see us coming they know the routine and come to the gate. Last year with the rain the grass was really good,” said Bob.
“They are a lot easier to manage than cattle. Over winter we feed the adult bison just baled hay and the weaned calves are fed rolled oats to supplement their diet. Last year there was lots of hay from our 400 acres of tame grass so we did not have to cut ditches.
“Over the thousands of years that they’ve lived on the prairie they’ve adapted well and we don’t have to worry about bedding or shelter. With their big woolly heads they face the winter storms or else dig into the deep, insulating snow and lay down,” said Bob, “and we give them old tires in the corrals over winter as they like to play with them.
“In summer they drink from dugouts and in closer fields we have automatic waterers. In winter they are fed in a nearby five-acre field and come to the corrals to drink from the waterer. After the animals are turned out to the larger pasture in spring, we work up the field where we overwintered them. We seeded oats there last year and could hardly believe the yield — 160 bushels to the acre — so from that one small field we have enough grain for the year for the feeders. The manure is very rich and gardeners come for some of the well-rotted stuff.”
Another advantage over cattle is that bison do not have the same health problems, but even though not one bison was found to have BSE during the mad cow disaster, borders were closed to them as well.
They also produce calves a lot longer than beef cows and have few calving problems. “Many are good up to 20 years and some even longer. I heard of one still calving at 28,” Bob said.
When he first got into the bison business Bob says prices were good, but they started to go down as more got into bison and the industry failed to build a meat market. As well there was a lack of slaughter facilities to process and market the meat.
“For years Mom and Dad sold our meat and bison hide products at the nearby farmers’ market at Provost, Alberta. The hides were tanned at an Edmonton firm and some at a facility in Unity.
Mom makes moccasin-style slippers and some of the leather is made into mitts and gloves. We send the leather out to a nearby Hutterite colony which has the machines for cutting and sewing the material for us.
“The bison is butchered, cut and wrapped at Bouma Meats abattoir in Provost and we are licensed to sell meat in Alberta and Saskatchewan as the animals are processed in this government- inspected facility. Instead of selling at the farmers’ market we now sell out of our farm home.”
Bob belongs to the Canadian Bison Association which provides much helpful information and newsletters about production sales, etc.
For more information contact Bob Rehman at (306) 753-2641.