Bison Ranching for Beginners
Bison is the fastest growing meat market in the United States today, as more and more consumers discover the delicious taste and many health and environmental benefits of bison meat. In 2007, consumer demand for bison meat grew 17 percent, the fourth straight year of double digit growth.
Bison also offer many benefits to ranchers. Due to their wild natures, they thrive best on minimal handling. They are hardier, more disease resistant, and longer lived than cattle. In general, bison cows have fewer birthing problems and are better mothers. Bison graze more efficiently than cattle and are better winter foragers, requiring less supplemental feeding
Here are some things to think about if you're considering getting started in raising bison.
One of the most common causes of failure in the bison industry is a lack of proper facilities. Tall, strong exterior fencing is an absolute requirement before bringing a bison home. Full-grown bison bulls weigh up to 2000 pounds, yet can jump 5-6 feet from a standstill and may push or rub against fences and posts. The Texas Bison Association recommends seven foot posts with high tensile wire. Fences in areas where the bison will be worked should be tall, sturdy, and easy to climb, for the safety of human handlers.
Just as important as good fencing is good stocking and management practices. A bison that gets it into its head to leave is a large and powerful enough animal that it might just find a way. With good pasture, water, and room to roam, bison are much more likely to stay put, and content bison are also less likely than cattle to "worry" a fence.
Bison can be stocked at about the same rate as cattle, even at slightly higher rates, because they are more efficient grazers. Bison spread out more evenly over pasture than cattle and can survive on marginal range that would starve cattle, though in the interest of producing the finest product, this is not recommended.
Bison are happiest in large spaces. In the wild, bison move about two miles per day to graze. (One square miles is 640 acres.) On a smaller acreage, bison can be kept happy through pasture rotation. The easiest way to move them is to open up the gates and let them move themselves.
Ideally, the minimum herd size for bison should be about 12-15 animals, due to their extrmely strong herding instinct. A lone bison will jump or tear down fences to get to other bison, cattle, horses, or even sheep in order to satisfy its need for a herd.
Bison are wild animals and should be handled as little as possible, both for their own safety and that of their handlers.
Bison might appear large and slow, even cuddly, but in fact they are capable of sustaining speeds of 35-40 miles per hour for several miles, can jump 5-6 feet in the air from a standstill, and can change directions from both their front and hindquarters. They are very fast and very agile and quite capable of trampling or goring a human being if distressed or angered.
Most bison ranchers use low stress handling techniques when the animals are at pasture. The National Bison Association recommends Moving 'Em: A Guide to Low Stress Animal Handling as a useful resource for bison ranchers.
When they absolutely must be handled, experienced bison ranchers recommend tall, sturdy fences that are easy for humans to climb. Separate individual animals from the herd as little as possible (separation can cause them to panic) and work bison slower and calmer than you would cattle or other livestock. Most importantly, always be prepared for surprises.
Raising Bison in Family Units
- The Hard Questions Of Raising Bison For Supper | Bozeman | New West Network
Bob "Action" Jackson, a long-time bison rancher and advocate, discusses the ins and outs of raising bison in natural family units
The bison market is growing fast, but the primary consumers of bison meat continue to be gourmets, health food enthusiasts, and natural foods enthusiasts. (With considerable overlap between the three groups.) Another market is in Western enthusiasts and tourists.
Gourmets and "foodies" are interested in the uniquely sweet and rich flavor of bison and are often willing to pay top price for the best quality products and cuts.
For health and natural foods enthusiasts, the appeal of bison is primarily in its health benefits. Bison meat is low in fat and cholesterol, but extremely nutrient-dense, with high levels of iron, protein, healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, and various vitamins and minerals.
Because it is often naturally raised, organic, and primarily or exclusively grass-fed, natural foods enthusiasts and "compassionate carnivores" have also embraced bison as a healthy, humane, sustainable alternative to conventionally raised beef and other meats, with their high levels of antibiotics, hormones, and chemical pesticides, and inhumane animal handling practices.
If you produce exclusively grassfed bison meat, consider giving your marketing a boost with sustainable and ethical foodies by becoming an American Grassfed Association Certified Producer.
Western enthusiasts are often interested in the experience of the West more than the bison themselves, and may appreciate a more "hands-on" approach to marketing. Bison chuckwagon cookouts are popular on many parks and private ranches, and also provide an opportunity to introduce the casual consumer or tourist to the delicious taste of bison.
Hunting enthusiasts enjoy the opportunity to participate in a hunt, especially if they get to take home the meat, hide, skull or horns, etc. afterwards. Western enthusiasts in general are more likely than the other groups to be interested in purchasing hides, skulls, and other by-products, whether or not they shot the animal themselves.
Other Articles of Interest
- Why Raise Bison?
An article from the Northwest Bison Association
A discussion with Beau Turner, Ted Turner's son and manager of the family's 45,000 head of bison
- Bison Production
A very thorough article from the National sustainable Agriculture Information Service
- Texas Bison Association FAQ
Detailed FAQs and advice on getting started in bison ranching
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