The western Canadian bison herd needs to expand, says the Canadian Bison Association. While bison numbers have been steadily shrinking in the last years, demand for the meat has doubled since 2005. Now demand is outstripping supply. Some beef ranchers are wondering if this is a good time to sell cattle and buy bison.
Bill Bouffioux of Fort St. John B.C. is the president of the B.C. Bison Association. He and his wife Fayette made the switch from beef to bison in l989, when “Grandma said, ‘no more!’” as Fayette puts it. The B.C. couple was getting older and tired of getting up at night during calving. “Beef are way more work,” she says. They began with 12 pregnant bison heifers and one bull, taking three years to make the complete transition.
The Bouffiouxs now have 100 bison cows, with a total herd of 250 roaming on their ranch along the Peace River. Bill says 100 cows is a minimum economic herd size, and producers should plan to run one bison cow for every 2.5 beef cows they had.
There are many advantages to producing bison instead of beef. There is no dehorning, castration, or branding. They calve by themselves, without any help. “Bison are easier once you’re set up,” says Bouffioux, who also refers to the species as buffalo. He figures the two terms are interchangeable, with buffalo being more of a nickname for the American Bison. Wildlife experts, however, say in fact, buffalo are distinctly different animals from bison. Although both bison and buffalo belong to the same family, Bovidae, true “buffalo” are native only to Africa and Asia.
But whether referred to as bison or buffalo, Bouffioux says vet bills for his herd are almost non-existent. “My dog costs me more than all my buffalo together,” he adds. The species has no problems with navel infections, scours, foot rot, or pinkeye. That brings the cost of production down significantly, which Bouffioux says is far lower than with beef.
The Bouffiouxs do use Ivomec on bison to control internal and external parasites. Bison are susceptible to two conditions, he says — to pneumonia and stomach worms and lungworms. Worms tend to become a problem when animals are crowded. They also have no immunity to malignant catarrhal fever, which is a virus transmitted by sheep. So it is not a good idea to have bison and sheep close together.
Tagging is mandatory, with a $4/tag levy through the Canadian Bison Marketing Association. It is also important to have a proper fencing and handling facilities to control and process animals — especially in B.C. where the bison are legally considered wildlife and ranchers need a Game Farm Permit to own bison. Bouffioux says beef farmers can adapt their present handling facilities to accommodate bison, but the system does need to be stronger and taller.
“As a beef producer switching to bison, you have to change your philosophy,” he says. “You can’t get in a pen, for example, and work them like you would beef cattle. Once they get excited, you can’t do anything. You just have to go away and leave them for awhile.” If excited, they also begin hurting each other.
“You can’t just run them into a corral — they absolutely won’t go,” Bouffioux says. So the process is to move them more gradually from one feeding area to another, with the new one being smaller than the last. “Any person up ahead of them is always viewed as a potential predator,” he says. “So we always work bison from behind.” They do get used to being handled to some degree.
Bouffioux was able to use much of his existing fencing for the bison, noting most of his fences are barely five feet tall. He uses five wires, with a mix of barbed and smooth wire. “The buffalo will stay inside the fences,” Fayette says. They actually like to stay home more than beef.”
As wild animals, bison have a rutting season in July/August, sometimes into September. Cows only cycle once, and if the grass is poor they might not cycle at all. In a dry year like 2009 in Fort St. John, the Bouffiouxs’ number of pregnant cows was down.
Most bison females don’t breed until they’re two and calve at three years. “Maybe it’s because we’re feeding them better — but now 40 per cent of my heifers will end up calving by two years,” Bouffioux says. He uses a ratio of one bull for every 15-20 cows.
“Bison pay for themselves quite quickly, because they live longer,” Fayette says. With beef you have to replace at least 10 per cent of your cows every year. Bison have a much longer, healthy life span than cattle.
“Our oldest cows are 21 years old now and look just as young as the young ones,” Bill adds. Not only does that mean a rancher has a higher percentage of slaughter animals to sell, but they also need to replace bulls less often.
The major meat brokers want grain-fed bison because it is more consistent in quality than grass fed animals. The Bouffiouxs finish their own bison. “You double your money by feeding them out,” Bill says. Grain fed bison put on more pounds faster; the meat is tenderer and has a nice layer of white fat. He feeds slaughter animals a half-bushel of grain per day.
The ration for feeder bison is supplied only once a week. Even the grain is put in self-feeders. Bouffioux never worries about the bison bloating or getting scours.
Bison eat as much in the summer as beef, but are more economical with feed in the winter. “They don’t waste any feed,” he says. Where he used to calculate five to six round bales per beef cow, for the winter, he now plans for three to four bales per bison cow. He says higher nitrogen content in their stomach enables bison to recycle the nitrogen and digest much coarser material than beef. Bison would graze all winter if there was sufficient pasture.
And bison are good for maintaining pasture life. “Their hooves are like deer hooves — they aerate the soil,” Fayette says. “The pastures seem to last a lot longer.”
The cold doesn’t bother bison that have 14,000 hairs per square inch of hide, while a beef animal has only 6,000 to 7,000 hairs/ square inch. With the heavy hide providing protection from the elements there is no need for sheds or straw. Their ability to handle cold is another reason they don’t need as much feed in the winter.
Bison take longer to reach a finished market condition than beef. The average age is about 22 months, however, Bouffioux says some of his animals are ready at 18 months, which is only about four months more than beef. Bison are under the same BSE regulations as beef, although there has been no known case of a bison contracting the disease. Slaughter animals cannot be more than 30 months of age.
With the switch to bison being both a good management and economic decision, Bouffioux says he’d like to see more beef producers move into bison production. ” They’ve certainly been good to us,” he says.
A good source of information on bison production is ‘The Bison Producer’s Handbook’ from either the Canadian Bison Association or the National Bison Association. For more information and links to provincial associations and producers visit the Canadian Bison Association website at www.canadianbison.ca
MarianneStammisafreelancefarmwriter fromJarvie,Alberta.Contactherbyemailat: [email protected]