Starting and Managing a Bison Operation

 Entering the Bison Industry

The bison sector is a true agriculture industry. It is an industry based on meat. Because of its infancy stage, the bison industry tends to leave the impression that breeding stock is the name of the game, due to high prices, and that all heifers seem to be entering the breeding herd. Producers are selling breeding stock, and yes, all go into the breeding herd, but the price of breeding stock is still established by the meat market.

One misconception is that the bison industry is a money printing business. The bison industry is just as susceptible to Murphy's Law, "if anything can go wrong it will." But with good management and common sense, the industry can and will reward producers with reasonable return. The industry is basically 90% management and 10% labour (once the facilities and fences are built).

Very little research has been done, resulting in many of today's management decisions being based on the motto, "learn to do by doing." Effective management involves five general areas:

  1. Natural resources - land, water, facilities
  2. Nutrition
  3. Genetics
  4. Herd health
  5. Common sense

It is important to mention that for any management program to be successful, you must learn, understand and respect bison behaviour. Actually to manage bison you have to almost become one of the herd, and this means you will take a position in the pecking order status. By recognizing the position, and understanding the various guttural sounds and sign language, you will be able to handle your animals without a problem. Bison are very co-operative if you remember that saying, "you can lead a bison anywhere it wants to go." New producers laugh at that comment but it's true. By using that theory, bison can be maneuvered to any pasture, through your facilities and allow you to incorporate your management program.

Natural Resources

This area of the bison management cycle is too often neglected. We think of ourselves in the industry as "bison producers" when actually we are "grass ranchers."

The grass program is an important component in the nutritional management scheme. Bison are survivors first and producers second. If part of the management is production then some dietary help is required. The amount of dietary help depends on your geographic area. Pasture size depends on the ratio of open land to bush, whether tame pasture or native grass. These factors all determine your carrying capacity. Many of these types of questions will be answered by contacting your range area management specialist.

Whether you use a rotational, complementary, continuous grazing program or a combination, the objective is the same - to feed the bison in the summer for the winter. If you want a stress-free environment, and that is what bison require for productivity and genetic expression, then this objective must be met.

Water is an important natural resource and in fact is a major nutrient wheel. Too often when developing the nutrition program water is not considered a nutrient and so it is overlooked. Water quality is important, no matter the source, and in some areas may be the weak link in the nutrition chain. The subject does raise some eyebrows, but if you are located in a snow belt in the winter, animals can use snow in place of water. However, for optimum development and efficient feed use, all growing animals require water in the liquid state. This is especially important to feedlot gain.


Too often in the past, bison were promoted on the concept that it takes very little feed to keep a bison living. Yes, bison are survivors but surviving doesn't translate into production. Bison tend to be sensitive to nutritional deficiencies. A weak link in the chain can make the difference between a 50% calf crop and a 90% calf crop, or a profit or loss feedlot.

Generations of severe natural selection developed bison with a digestive system that is very effective in utilizing forages of lesser quality that could be used with other bovidae. It is believed that digestive efficiency is due to a slower passage rate, and therefore greater digestion of the feedstuffs, as well as a more efficient nitrogen recycling system. Researchers believe that a bacterium in the bison digestive system, called Clostridium longisporum, aids cellulose fiber digestion 15% better that other organisms.

Research also suggests that bison are capable of maintaining a larger population of rumen microbes. A larger rumen microbial population in bison requires additional energy and nitrogen, which likely was supplied by the higher available energy obtained from prolonged dry matter digestion and from an efficient system for recycling endogenous nitrogen (Cocimans and Leny 1967, Houpt 1970, Kenedy and Milligan 1980, Egan et al 1986). Considering that bison saliva is 30% higher in nitrogen than that of cattle, and that bison serum averages 38% higher in urea than that of cattle, one would think urine levels of bison urea would be higher. This does not appear to be the case. Again, this suggests efficient bison kidney urea conservation and therefore higher levels of urea nitrogen available for rumen microbial growth.

Producer observations verify that bison are capable of digesting a greater proportion of low-protein, high-fiber rations than cattle. This limited amount of research information is not sufficient for producers to evaluate effectively physiological responses of bison to changes in grass quality and quantity. Additional grazing and feeding trials are required for producers to understand better the nutritional requirements of bison on grass and in the feedlot.

Grass and Feedlot Requirements

The bison industry is composed of two segments. One is breeding herd and replacements, where you are a grass rancher. The other segment is the feedlot. The feedlot requires intensive management and ration design that gives you growth, condition and finish.

The winter feeding program varies from one area to the next. It may consist of swath grazing, winter foraging, hay and products of other agriculture production. Protein level will range from 10% to 11%. Bison are poor users of protein levels higher than this, and it is expensive. Bison, if fed in the summer for the winter, can loose 10% to 12% of body weight between November and April. This is ideal because they will go into summer gaining weight. Be careful because any more loss of weight can be detrimental to calf survival and rebreeding. The trick to feeding bison is being aware of the fee value of your forage base and balancing your ration with adequate energy and minerals. A program of this type assures performance and is less expensive than taking shortcuts and decreasing performance.

A general rule of thumb is to condition score your cows during the fall deworming and weaning. Cows in a 3 to 3.5 condition score (based on a 1 to 5 system) can decline to a 2 to 2.5 going to pasture. Calf heifers should enter the winter at least at a 3.5 and go back to pasture at 2.5. This should assure that the heifer rebreeds, provided there is adequate pasture, fertile bulls and a good mineral program.

The key to good cow performance is developing replacement heifers. There are many opinions on this subject but the answer is in the bottom line of your cash flow. The inventory must produce and if the figures are not in the black, then the banker will be visiting. Nutritionally, the first twelve months of a heifer's life can seriously affect her start as a breeder. Mother cow looks after the first five or six months. The remaining period is your responsibility. At this age these replacement heifers cannot consume enough hay to maintain adequate growth. They require a supplement of 3 to 5 pounds (pending hay nutrition content) consisting of about 13% protein and a T.D.N. of more than 72%. Keep in mind that this is not a finishing ration but a growing ration. Always provide adequate mineral supplementation.

At one year of age the decision to continue feeding supplements depends on the quality of pasture and quality of roughage to be fed the following winter. The mineral and slat program must continue.

Some producers feel that mineral supplements are not necessary. Again, this depends on the geographical area. But in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, areas of Alberta and many of the grazing areas in the U.S., copper, zinc, magnesium, selenium and vitamins E and A are important minerals and vitamins. If insufficient amounts are available, then fertility and performance in the feedlot decline. Bison are very sensitive to deficiencies or borderline deficiencies in these elements.

The nutrition chain is very complex. Just increasing protein and energy does not assure gain. Mineral needs have to be met before the energy and protein kick in and you obtain your growth curve.

Minerals specifically for bison are usually custom-made for individual producers. Unfortunately, most companies will only custom-make 2 tons at a time. This means either you combine your needs with other bison producers or you use another source. If you use another source, use a mineral for high-producing dairy cows. This mineral is available from most companies.

The finishing or feedlot phase of the bison industry is where a producer's nutrition program, genetic program, health program and management abilities are combined together to produce a quality consumer product. This phase of the industry provides the test of your past and helps give you direction for your present genetic program. If you are selling breeding stock (bulls or females), this is where you as a producer can formulate your future genetic program, as well as prove to the buyer the genetic abilities of the selected stock.

The actual feeding program in the bison lot depends on the availability of various feed services. The trick is to have a balanced ration to provide sufficient nutrients for the young bulls to reach slaughter at 20 to 24 months for optimum consumer acceptance.

Whatever you do, do not skimp on feed. Keep the feed through full and maintain at least 19% roughage in the diet. Supply a good source of fresh water to finalize your feedlot ration. Water can be and often is the reason animals do not gain.


Some bison you just want to leave with the seller. Considering the number bison once represented, and when they became almost extinct, bison have passed through a remarkable bottleneck. Considering how the population has increased, I think the herd average has maintained optimum (for the size of the herd) genetic variation. This situation would have likely been reversed if the bison population had been forced to remain at a smaller number, generation after generation.

Private herds provide ideal situations for breeding. They usually start with a few foundation animals in a closed group and at low numbers.

In-breeding is continually emphasized. I'm not so sure the same concern is not also warranted for continual out crossing. Continued random-type mating seems to produce rather random, inconsistent types of offspring. What is usually required is a better understanding of the factors due to heredity and those due to environment.

The bison industry is a meat industry. The carcass quality is of extreme importance. Inherited factors that influence carcass quality in bison are of substantial economic value. Fleshing ability, carcass leanness and tenderness are affected by feedlot handling, transportation, slaughtering methods and nutrition. The genetic expression of heritable characteristics can be expressed only if the relating environmental conditions are in balance.

The carcass evaluation of any herd is key to genetic selection for both the replacement females as well as their sires.

The major principles of selection for most bison herds are:

  1. Fertility
  2. Fleshing ability
  3. Carcass quality
  4. Longevity

The feedlot industry will be interested only in fleshing ability (gain) and carcass quality. The cow-calf producer is interested in all criteria, especially if he is involved in conception-to-consumer program. If the individual is strictly in a cow-calf program, then fertility and longevity are tops, with fleshing ability and carcass quality next.

Longevity is one of the areas of genetic importance least referred to. The problem appears to be that we just assume longevity in bison. A word of caution: man usually screws up something and this will be one of the first important heritable factors we will lose in bison if we are not careful.

The bull contributes half of the genetic potential of each annual crop. In short, he or she is 50% of the herd. The bull selection program of any herd, especially the smaller private herds, is important.

Remember, "it's a rich man who can afford a poor bull."

Replacement breeding bulls, whether selected from your own herd or another breeder's herd, should be selected on a number of factors.

  1. Fertility - viable semen test by 18 months and at least 22 months
  2. Weaning weights - should be at least in the top 10% of the sire group; the dam's actual weaning weight should be the average of all calves and be higher than the average weight of herd
  3. Fleshing ability - yearling weight, average daily gain, and where possible, weight per day of age
  4. Carcass data sire progeny
  5. Maternal performance - performance of sire's daughters in the herd and performance of dam's daughter's in the herd

Records are important. Without records it is very difficult to make good economic decisions. Without a scale it is difficult to have records. Reputable breeders of quality breeding stock will have records and a scale that is used.


A proper health program requires an identification system. This also goes hand in hand with good records.

The key to any good health program is preventive medicine. In bison this means good nutrition, 7 or 8-way clostridium vaccination, a deworming program and a stress-free environment.

Compared to other species, a bison health program is very cheap. The selection process that will likely take place in the bison industry as a whole will result in the gradual decline of the strong immunity of the present bison. Man will gradually interfere with the natural selection process of the weak dying and the strong living.

The best health program for any producer is designed in consultation with your local veterinarian. But a word of caution is required at this point. Because of the good immune system of bison, I don't believe we have to go needle-happy, vaccinating for everything possible. In due time, and sooner than later, we will have to vaccinate for many of the same problems that plague the beef industry. With good common sense though, I firmly believe that we have some breathing space before many of the beef vaccinations will become part of the bison program.

Common Sense

The final ingredient for good bison management is common sense. Bison will continue to be one of North America's first if not only (to date) environmental success stories.

Producer common sense will continue to reflect the central role of ideas in development of technology and innovation as the principle source of our future wealth in bison.