By Andrew Campbell
I certainly don’t see it at every restaurant I visit, but more and more there is the option for a bison burger instead of the typical beef. As it becomes more popular, there is a growing number of farmers that are raising bison, especially on the pasturelands of Alberta and Saskatchewan. So when I went looking for a bison farmer, Roger seemed to be the perfect host. His bison fiber hat and the stuffed bison riding in his pick-up were clear signs that raising bison is a real passion for Roger and his family. Come along on this cold Alberta morning and find out just what goes into raising an animal that has its origins right here in North America.
We are here in beautiful Alberta to tour a bison ranch with Roger. It is certainly a little more unique compared to some of the other farms and ranches we have toured. Tell me about your ranch and about the bison.
Bison are an original North American animal that really are made for this climate and this country. They do well here.
The bison population diminished in the 1800s and by 1899 there were less than 1000 bison left. Thanks to a concerted effort, we have been able to grow the number of bison back to almost 400,000 in North America. As of 2017, there are 975 bison farmers in Canada who are raising about 145,000 bison. There are a lot of bison farms in this area and there’s growing demand for bison from consumers. We’re seeing a lot of excitement in the bison business.
One misconception is that bison aren’t as big as everybody thinks they are. They’re actually a little bit smaller than beef cows and they eat a little bit less and grow a little bit slower.
Are bison mainly used for meat? And what is bison meat like compared to some of the other red meats that you’d get at the store?
Bison meat is lean red meat, similar to beef. It’s very tender, rich, filling and a slightly sweeter flavor than beef.
Does it taste like a wild game might?
It’s not as gamey as you’d think. It is actually very similar to lean beef or grass fed beef.
I can’t go to my grocery store in London, Ontario and find bison. Can you find it fairly easily in Western Canada or where could I find it?
You could try a farmer’s market as you may find a local producer selling there. Some grocery stores are trying to supply bison regularly and as demand grows hopefully Canadians can find it more consistently. High-end restaurants and steak house restaurants are featuring bison burgers or bison steaks more and more often. You could also order online and have some delivered to your door. Here is a link to Canadian Bison’s Where to Buy Bison page.
What does a day look like or a season look like when you are looking after bison?
Right now it’s winter time, so on this farm we’re grazing bison on corn and hay bales. With a herd of 120 cows, we lay out 50 bales of hay, cut the strings off the bales and we let the bison graze on that over three or four weeks, and then we’ll do it again.
We’re not putting out feed every day, but we are checking animals daily to ensure animals are healthy and eating and so that we can see what’s happening in the pens.
In the summer months, we’re cutting and baling hay to save for winter feed and we’re planting cropland. Once a year we round up the bison to wean (separate the grown calves from the cows). After weaning, the bison calves are moved depending on how what’s next for them, maybe feeding them for the market or using them to breed and expand the herd.
What equipment do you need to work with Bison?
The handling system we use was originally designed for elk, but it works well for bison too. We have a series of 8 ft tall metal panels with wood inserts that reduce noise and help keep the bison calm. We bring the bison in from outside and through compartments. With bison, you always want a couple of compartment options because they’re pretty smart. If they don’t want to go one way, maybe they’ll go the other way for you. We send them around and the pathways taken always lead to the area we want them to go in, either to a squeeze chute (more on what that is below), a scale or sorting area.
The trick to working with bison is having the right equipment for things like the handling system. As Canadians, we also have made a sorting tool using a hockey stick with a flap of tarp on the end. I don’t have any animals in the system today because we only use the handling system once a year. To get them where we want them to go, we use the homemade sorting stick by putting it in front of their face or behind them (not to hit them). You want the animals to be as calm as possible when handling them. Our number one tool for bison is a set of binoculars to check them from a distance. The number two tool is the homemade sorting stick, which we use once a year when we sort the bison.
There’s a reason there is a gate and some steel between me and the bison. You don’t step inside the pens with the bison as they might charge. You stay out unless you want to have a short career in the bison business. If you want to be in this long term, stay outside of the pen and use a handling system.
You’ve got the squeeze up here. What is a squeeze and how does a squeeze work for bison?
A squeeze is the part of the handling system that safely contains the bison so that farmers can handle the animals without causing injury to themselves or the bison. At the front of the squeeze is a headgate, which safely restrains the bison between their head and shoulders, holding them in place and preventing them from moving forwards or backwards.
The important thing with a bison squeeze is to have a crash gate, which is attached to the front of the headgate. A crash gate helps to slow the bison down as they come into the squeeze and the headgate. They will run into the squeeze and the crash gate makes the bison slow down so the headgate can close and hold behind their horns. Then we can give them their required ear tag, a vaccination, or check for pregnancies. This only takes a couple of minutes usually and when we are done we open the crash gate and headgate and off they go. It’s a really quick process. You want to have everything in place ready to go when handling bison.
You’ve got to keep your own safety in mind when you’re working with bison. We’re sitting in the truck and we’ve got bison all around us, but we’re not going to get out and go tour these individual cows, are we?
No, no, you don’t! This time of year is a little bit safer than say a calving season. You never get in between a bison cow and her calf. You don’t help the cow when she is calving, she takes care of that herself. If you tried to intervene in the middle of calving, she’d take care of you before she took care of her calf! So you stay out of the way in calving season and in breeding season you stay out of the way of the bulls. These animals are made to take care of themselves and that’s what they do.
When you say take care of themselves, it’s a fairly fresh winter day here in Alberta, but the bison are incredibly calm. They seem incredibly comfortable in the cold.
Yes they’ve got a warm winter coat. They grow a coat every year and it’s made for this minus 30 – 40 C type weather and they enjoy the wind. We don’t have windbreaks and they don’t hide in the trees. They stand up on the top of the hill and feel the breeze and enjoy the winter months.
I can see that you’re dedicated to being a bison farmer, you have your stuffed bison riding with you in the truck. You have a bison hat and gloves made from the bison fiber /hair and you’ve probably got bison meat in the freezer at home. You live and breathe this industry, so what makes you like being a bison farmer so much?
Bison are a relatively easy animal to take care of and get along with. They’re made for this country and they are a lot of fun to take care of. Right now bison are a profitable business to be in too. So it’s a great time to be in the bison business.
I really appreciate you touring me around Roger, thanks for this.
View the full video from Fresh Air Farmer Andrew Campbell