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Bison Boom

These stoic animals require less handling than cattle.

It’s no longer a rarity to find the animals that once roamed America’s Wild West – bison -– grazing on farms, stocked in grocery stores, and featured on restaurant menus. 

The U.S. Census of Agriculture now includes bison (American buffalo) in its reports because of the industry’s growing popularity. South Dakota tops the list of states with over 33,000 bison. 

More ranchers and farmers are becoming interested in raising these stoic animals, says Jonathan Harding of Golden Bison Company, whose trade name is High Plains Bison, in Denver, Colorado.

Unlike cattle, bison rarely need to be handled. “There’s less intervention, and that appeals to some farmers,” says Harding. “You’ve got a herd, you put them in the pasture, and they pretty much take care of themselves, which is what they did for a millennium.”

The USDA forbids the use of growth hormones or growth-promoting antibiotics in bison, so the animals are typically only handled once a year for required vaccinations, for checkups, and to wean calves. 

The biggest problem in bison today is the lack of consistency in meat, says Harding. Bison are usually ready for market at 24 to 28 months old. Smaller farms raising bison don’t always send their animals to market at the ideal time, leaving room for a diverse range of meat quality.

Tips for Raising Bison

Here are five tips for raising bison from Jonathan Harding of Golden Bison Company in Denver, Colorado.

  • Have enough land. Harding suggests considering biomass, snow depth, rainfall, wind speeds, elevation, grass type, and all other potential factors in giving bison enough room to thrive. They need roaming space and plenty of grass to feed on without overgrazing.
  • Provide plenty of good food and water. Harding says he occasionally supplements his animals with a grain and hay mix during the winter, but his animals will forage for grass all winter. Clean water should always be available.
  • Remember that bison are wild animals. “Bison may look like cows and graze like cows, but they should be treated as if they are cattle bulls,” says Harding. Usually, bison are only provoked if they feel their calves are being threatened.
  • Give them companionship. Bison are social animals and thrive in naturally formed social groups. The downside, says Harding, is that if one animal has a health issue, the rest might be impacted.
  • Leave them alone. “The least amount you handle them, the least amount you transport them, and the least amount you disturb them in their social groups, the happier they are,” Harding says.

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