Bison industry labors under misconceptions

Melissa Burke Special to the Farm Forum
Farm Forum

“The bison industry still deals with many misconceptions,” began Jim Matheson, assistant director of the National Bison Association, located in Westminster, Colorado. “Opinions continue to abound that bison are wild and dangerous, their meat is gamey, they get out all the time, and that they need fencing rivaling that around Fort Knox,” Matheson said at a workshop known as the Bison Advantage. It was co-hosted by the Dakota Territory Buffalo Association (DTBA), headquartered in Rapid City, South Dakota. Held on Feb. 2 in conjunction with the Black Hills Stock Show in Rapid City, the session was geared toward new and aspiring producers but had something for everyone.

“What is the Bison Advantage?” Matheson asked. “It is a marketing campaign to producers to explain that this is a viable livestock endeavor they can take advantage of.”

Although a relatively young and very small industry, there is an excellent market for bison meat. It is a sustainable source of high quality protein while also being low in fat. Demand exceeds availability and consumers are willing to pay a premium for it, even for hamburger and items such as jerky and other snack foods.

The most current bison count is about 200,000 head in the United States, including private, tribal, and park herds. Only 200 head are processed per day nationwide, and carcasses on the rail have been selling for $4-$5 per pound for six solid years. In 2017 retail meat sales were $350 million.

South Dakota is the number one producing state, followed by Nebraska and Montana. There are bison in every state in the country except for Rhode Island. The average herd consists of 60 head.

Bison are very adaptable to their environment, and they live long, productive lives. Cows on occasion live past the age of 30 and still calve every year. Bulls have been known to reach 15 years of age and still get the job done.

“Bison are low- but not no- maintenance,” stressed Matheson. Females calve on their own, but unlike cattle, they don’t breed for the first time until they are two years old. A.I. isn’t performed on bison, not only due to excessive stress on the animal but also because the technology is not yet there to make it a viable option.

There is no branding or castration, and by and large no dehorning, although Canadian producers practice it on occasion. Horns on bison can be a problem if animals are bunched too closely together and are unable to move away from each other. They don’t like to be cornered, so the best places for gates are toward the middle of a fenceline.

Fencing is always a big concern for producers just getting started; so much so that sometimes they spend too much money on it and then don’t have enough capital left to buy breeding stock. According to Matheson, cattle fencing is pretty easily converted to fencing for bison. Everything from barbed wire to woven wire to a strand or two of hot wire incorporated into a fence will work. A good visual deterrent is to have the top strand higher than the animal’s line of sight.

“What is more important,” he points out, “is daily management. Keep the animals happy.” This means clean water and good, abundant grass through a rotational grazing program. The stocking rate for bison is similar to that of cattle.

In breeding stock we desire athleticism, length, and a straight topline “from hump to rump.” Sound legs are necessary, especially for bulls, and there should be appropriate characterization of masculinity and femininity.

Bison are generally resistant to many native diseases, and the ones they are susceptible to often seem to be transmitted by other species. Malignant catarrhal fever (MCF) is a herpes virus carried by sheep that is deadly to bison. Brucellosis is sometimes found in elk and is an issue for the bison in Yellowstone Park. Mycoplasma bovis is a pneumonia-like disease that can be hard to detect as well. While not many bison-specific vaccines exist, producers can utilize available cattle vaccines for preventive care.

Bison are enjoying renewed popularity with the help of organizations like the National Bison Association and the DTBA. In 2016 the bison was named the first ever National Mammal of the United States through the collaborative efforts of the National Bison Association, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Intertribal Buffalo Council, and the Obama Administration. The Bison Advantage can benefit anyone who may be interested in becoming involved with this wonderful animal.

Over the final weekend of the Black Hills Stock Show, the DTBA holds its annual conference. The Black Hills Buffalo Classic Show and Auction is a highlight of every conference, and a good source for purchasing quality breeding bulls and heifers.

Lot Y830 looks the sale crew over during the Black Hills Buffalo Classic breeding bull auction. He was the high seller of the day at $8,500. Consigned by Cammack Buffalo Ranch of Stoneville, S.D., he was purchased by Jay Melius of Faulkton, S.D. Photo courtesy of Melissa Burke