Up for sale - Brian Newton of Trochu brought two of his bison bulls for the Wildrose auction in Ponoka which took place on Saturday

Up for sale - Brian Newton of Trochu brought two of his bison bulls for the Wildrose auction in Ponoka which took place on Saturday

Tips from knowledgeable farmers promise profitable future in bison farming

“Being a wild animal, bison has a slower digestive process and therefore can extract more protein from lower grade feed.” Dick Staudinger

A few farmers who knew exactly what they were talking about made an impeccable case last Friday, March 14 on why bison farming is something that should be seriously looked at as an option to make good money on investment.

Paul Kolesar of Athabasca region, Dick Staudinger of Alix and Frank McAllister of Kitscoty shared their knowledge and vision of bison farming during a seminar before the start of the Wildrose Bison Convention at the Royal Canadian Legion premises.

Kolesar, who spoke on the management aspects of the bison farming drew an optimistic picture regarding the investment/revenue ratio in the business, maintaining that a properly structured bison farm could bring as high as $600 in profits per head per year due to the low cost of maintaining a bison herd.

He gave a history of several North American bison farming companies having to close down their operations due to the lack of an established bison meat market and the high prices commodities.

But he said the tide had turned and the price of bison meat had almost tripled from its lows in 2003 and that the demand for bison meat was on the rise.

A more interesting and informative presentation by Dick Staudinger, who has a bison farming operation himself, included relevant details as to why bison farming could be more profitable as compared to beef farming.

Staudinger said there were both operational and practical aspects of bison farming that compared favorably to raising beef.

Among them is the need for less protein in the feed for bison.

“Being a wild animal, bison has a slower digestive process and therefore can extract more protein from lower grade feed and that allows a lower feed cost in the operation,” he said.

Being not a protein animal, Staudinger says, bison reacts negatively to excessive  protein. Not only does the cost of the additional protein added to the feed go to waste, but also the animal’s winter hair-coat will get thinner and may create complications in cold weather.

“You have to work them only once through the mating season,” Staudinger said.

Bison is a social animal

“Because they are smarter than cattle, they learn their way around the farm and you don’t have to run after the bison as you have to with cattle.”

The tougher build of bison also has a lot of advantages for farmers, according to Staudinger.

“Because bison faces the wind and does not turn its back, there is no danger of a bison bull freezing his testicles and losing its ability to breed.”

But for a good bison farming operation, fences have to be built a lot stronger than on cattle farms.

Staudinger suggested using minimum six-feet high steel fencing to ensure that the animals are kept under control.

Some interesting information on the social structure of a bison herd was also included in the Alix farmer’s presentation.

Staudinger said a bison herd would be preferably composed of a minimum of 10 animals.

“Because they like to be in a group, if they are left isolated, they want to approach the cattle, if it is a joint operation,” he said.

A bison herd is a matriarchal group and despite a larger size of the bison bull, a bison cow in the group will have the lead position and also have her calf have a special position as compared to the other calves, this continues until the calf reaches mating maturity, according to Staudinger.

Nutrition for healthy bison

Frank McAllister, the third presenter of the session focused on the nutritional aspects of a bison farming operation.

“Bison is the best return on the grass,” said McAllister, “but you can’t finish a bison on grass only.”

In order to prepare the bison for the market, McAllister suggested a well-designed feeding regime that would contain the necessary minerals that would ultimately allow the animal to reach its optimal weight.

Touching upon the healthcare for the bison, McAllister said the most important weakness of the bison was its inability to handle parasites and that it meant the parasite control in the nutrition regime was important for the health of the whole herd.

In total, there are not more than half a million heads of bison in the world and McAllister says this number could be grown comfortably through successful farming.

While there is virtually no bison farming business other than in North America, there is increased demand for bison meat both in Europe and Asia.

Touching upon the reproductive characteristics of bison cows, McAllister said weight control was a key function of ensuring the healthy growth of a herd.

He said it was important to allow a bison cow to lose weight after calving because that would allow the cow to rebuild its strength before the next mating season by being able to put on more pounds.

He said continuing to give high quality feed to the animal after calving would produce negative results.

See more agriculture stories in this week’s Agriculture 2014 supplement.