Home on the Range

By Donnis Baggett

There's something mystical and awe-inspiring about bison. These majestic animals are living icons of American history and they are fun and profitable to raise. But do you have the right stuff for bison ranching?

Do you think you've got what it takes to be a bison rancher? If you're interested in this amazing animal and have some grazing land, you probably do.

As a rule, bison are no more difficult to raise than cattle. They're different, of course, since they haven't been raised as domestic animals for thousands of years as cattle have. But that is what makes them special.

Bison need grass, water, good fences, herd companionship, durable handling facilities and a smart preventative health program. With minimal care, they can thrive in environments ranging from hot, humid coastal pastures to arid rangeland.

Bison generally require less hands-on management than most cattle herds. After all, they have survived without man - and sometimes in spite of man - for eons. Bison are amazingly tough and adaptive and are very good at fending for themselves in harsh weather. They calve without assistance, and the calves hit the ground growing.

The cost of getting into bison ranching is roughly the same as establishing a quality commercial cattle herd. Many members of the Texas Bison Association sell breeding stock, and there is nothing we enjoy more than helping a new bison producer get started.

One of the smartest things a new producer can do is to join both the Texas Bison Association and the National Bison Association. Both organizations go out of their way to help new producers get their bison operations up and running. Whether you have two bison or 2,000 - or even if you are just thinking about getting into bison ranching - the networking value alone is worth the investment. You will learn a lot from talking to fellow producers.

Now, let's answer some frequently asked questions about bison ranching.

How many bison will my ranch support?

This is obviously a very important question, and there is no simple answer. The stocking rate for bison depends directly upon the amount of grass your place produces.

In parts of East Texas with high average rainfall, some producers may run one cow-calf bison pair for every three to five acres of fertilized pasture. Farther west, there is less rain and less grass, so the stocking rate is much lower.

As a general rule, most bison producers stock at about the same rate as their cattle-raising neighbors do. It's smart to ask your county agent or a bison industry consultant for help with this important decision.

Obviously, adult bison eat more than calves or yearlings, and a cow nursing a calf has a heartier appetite than a 'dry' cow does. So stocking rate is partially dependent on the mix of ages and stages in your herd.

One rule of thumb: Don't overstock. You will have to buy much more supplemental feed, and the economics are not on your side when you do that.

Do I need a high fence to raise bison?

The type of fencing is up to you. Some bison producers feel it is a good idea to have high fences, but many of us have raised buffalo for years on former cattle pastures surrounded by a good five-strand barbed-wire fence.

If your bison have plenty of grass, water and the companionship of their herd -- and if they are not spooked by people chasing them - they will rarely challenge a fence. If you decide to 'play cowboy,' however, they can run through a fence to get away. But then so can a herd of cows or horses.

If you treat bison with the respect they deserve and provide for their dietary, companionship and sexual needs, they will stay home as well as a beef animal - especially once they have established family ties with one another. Bison are very collegial herd animals, and they do much better when with their own.

What about working pens?

A good set of working pens and handling equipment is essential on a bison ranch. Bison are generally very calm in the pasture, but they do not like confinement. They get nervous when penned, and thus are more likely to challenge a fence. So do not scrimp on your corral system.

A bison handling system should be taller and stronger than most cattle systems. There are many aspects to consider when making this investment, so it is a good idea to visit a successful and progressive bison ranch - or several of them - to get ideas before you hang pipe.

Needless to say, the safety of bison handlers and the animals themselves should be at the forefront of every decision you make about handling facilities.

Are bison difficult to work?

Since bison generally are more nervous in confinement than cattle, they need to be handled a little differently.
They should be worked as quietly and calmly as possible, and they should not be rushed. There is an old saying that “you can make a bison go anywhere he wants to go.” The trick is to get him to WANT to go where you need him to. That is accomplished through good corral design and by smart use of pressure and release by the people working the animals. It is not accomplished through the use of implements such as cattle prods.

It is important to let bison settle a bit when they get excited, and to work only a few at a time into your crowding facilities. Another old saying holds true here: “Slow down and you'll get done sooner.”

The first few times you work your animals, it is wise to get some help from someone who has worked bison before - and who follows the low-stress philosophy just outlined. Members of the Texas Bison Association often help each other during roundups - especially when a member is a newcomer to our industry. Also, bison consultants can be hired to help you design your working facilities and even to help you work your herd if need be.

What about herd health care?

Bison are generally vaccinated for the same diseases as cattle. They are somewhat more susceptible to intestinal parasites (worms) than cattle, so a regular and aggressive deworming program is important. Consult with your large-animal veterinarian to devise a solid herd-health program.

How would I market my bison?

Many bison producers sell stock to other ranchers, and some have 'gate-to-plate' businesses selling healthy, tasty bison meat to individual consumers and restaurants.

There are also companies that buy bison for their wholesale meat businesses. The bison associations and other producers are good sources of information on selling to these companies.

Finally, the Texas Bison Association holds an annual auction at the Texas Bison Expo in the historic Fort Worth Stockyards. Some producers elect to simply load their animals on the trailer and “take'em to Fort Worth.”

Sounds interesting, but would you do it again?

You bet! Bison ranching is extremely gratifying for people who enjoy nature and the great outdoors - and for those of us who feel a need to leave the world a better place than we found it. And the 'cool factor' of preserving the heritage of this magnificent animal is off the charts.

If you are interested in joining our ranks, contact a member of the Texas Bison Association for more information on how to get started. We love to help!

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