Buffalo Gold Rush – The Bison Advantage | TheFencePost.com

Buffalo Gold Rush – The Bison Advantage

Melissa Burke
Rapid City, S.D.

Melissa BurkeYearling bulls being sorted for handling. Note the overhead cables which pull the panel forward behind them to keep them moving.

Ninety people – including some from as far away as Florida, Texas, and Arizona – were in attendance at the “Buffalo Gold Rush – The Bison Advantage” workshop held Sept. 18-19 at the Terry Bison Ranch near Cheyenne, Wyo. It was an opportunity for existing producers to learn about different methods of bison husbandry as well as incentive for newcomers to enter the industry.

Following a welcoming address by Boyd Meyer (who owns approximately 3,100 head of bison at the Terry Ranch), a presentation was given by Bud Patterson of Patterson Nutrition Company in Sterling, Colo. He has worked with both cattle and bison as well as with both range and feedlot animals. He discussed several co-products used in feeding rations. Some of these were corn co-products such as corn gluten feed and distillers grains. Corn gluten feed is a by-product of wet corn milling, which is the process of producing high fructose corn syrup. Distillers grains are a by-product of dry corn milling, which is the process of producing ethanol.

Corn co-products provide both protein and energy to feedlot rations. Both of these feeds contain high amounts of sulfur and phosphorus, however, so it is necessary to test the water for sulfates when utilizing them, as high sulfates are mineral antagonists. That is to say that they can affect levels of copper, zinc, manganese, selenium, and iron. Animals may stop drinking water and become dehydrated.

Another co-product is wet brewers grain, composed of mainly barley with a small amount of rice. Still another is the high fiber soybean hull. In general, co-products lower production costs while enhancing performance. Many of these products are of limited use elsewhere, and it is fortunate that the beef and bison industries are able to capitalize on what would otherwise be a burden to grain and food processors.

The next topic concerned veterinary care of bison. Dr. Gerald Parsons, DVM, of the Stratford Animal Clinic in Stratford, Okla., discussed internal and external parasites. He said that the further north you go, the fewer problems there will be with internal parasites. He also stated that a healthy animal can tolerate a few parasites. When an animal is in trouble, though, the first thing that happens is that the hair becomes duller; it doesn’t have the shine that it should have. Then the animal noticeably loses weight and may even begin to have loose stools.

Dr. Parsons explained a few factors that can have adverse effects on parasite numbers. First are good moisture levels. Then make sure the population of animals is balanced. If need be, break up manure where bison have congregated, or even obtain more acreage if possible. Provide good nutrition and rotation grazing. Avoid stressing animals, such as by not breaking up family groups.

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Dr. Parsons also listed several ways to treat parasite infestations if they do occur. Worm the animals with ivermectin products, but be aware that feeding the product is not very effective because the weaker and more timid animals often won’t get to eat anyway. Pour-on wormers can be used but may not reach the skin due to bisons’ thick hair. Other options include injectable and drench wormers. As for repelling flies, a small amount of diesel mixed with the external treatment will help.

Larry Higgins of Heart Rock Bison in Genoa, Colo., next described his operation as a small producer. Higgins got started through word of mouth. He now sells quarters, halves, and wholes, in addition to burger and most cuts. More recently he began marketing bison jerky. He sells some live animals as well and does some showing. He estimates that he has 60 to 70 percent repeat customers.

At present he has a small cow-calf operation consisting of 25 cows and a herd bull, plus a few yearlings. He also finishes out 30-35 head per year.

His facilities are fairly simple but unique in that his working corrals are made of junk cars lying end to end and upright on one side. “It’s not pretty, but it’s effective,” he chuckles. He employs a four wire fence with three T-posts between each wood post.

Higgins sorts his bison only once a year for weighing, ear tagging, and separating the calves by sex. Otherwise he doesn’t handle them.

He says that he sells 30 carcasses per year, including what he uses for jerky. He enjoys the business and feels that there is a niche for most anyone who wants to try it.

Following his presentation was a lunch break in which workshop attendees were treated to very tasty buffalo cheeseburgers. Not having eaten much buffalo, I was impressed by how lean and flavorful mine was.

The next producer to speak was Sandy Limpert of the Slim Buttes Buffalo Ranch near Buffalo, S.D. He and his wife Jacki, son Brodie and daughter-in-law Samantha run 600 mother cows and finish over 1,000 head of feeder buffalo per year in their feedlot.

They’ve been in the bison business since 1989, and Limpert founded the Dakota Territory Buffalo Association. He has extensive knowledge about handling bison and passed this on to the audience. He recommends purchasing young animals to start with and then learning from them. He stated that bison can be taught to lead by putting out range cake from a pickup. He noted that they tend to want to go in a northwesterly direction, and unlike cattle they prefer to move into the wind. Try to eliminate stress on calves when weaning, and spread a lot of hay both on the ground as well as in feeders for them.

Limpert also advises covering working facilities so that animals can’t see the sky. He says this seems to confuse them and makes handling a bit easier. Cattle guards need to be at least 14 feet wide, and build double gates if possible. When bison go through openings they generally try to crowd through all at once.

He listed several advantages to producing bison. One is the productive lifespan of cows. Also there are minimal weather related losses, and in fact, animals can winter in pastures without shelter. During calving there is no labor input. Genetics can be easily improved, and there is increased weaning weight percentages.

The few disadvantages are in increased conversion costs in fencing and facilities, and the fact that bison are not like cattle. You have to learn to work with them and make them think that what they’re doing is their idea.

Boyd Meyer of Cold Creek Buffalo Co. in Windsor, Colo., spoke next of bison genetics. He has established two herds of buffalo; one is for show and one is commercial. Besides mother cows, Meyer also has a finishing operation in which he keeps detailed records on the rate of gain of his calves from both grass and grain and from weanlings to yearlings. He looks for the most efficient and fastest growing animals. The average weight of his yearling bulls coming off grass is 900 pounds. They are placed on feed for 100 days. At that time they are reweighed and sorted based on a 10 inch ribeye and a gain of 2.75 pounds per day. Animals not making the cut are slaughtered.

Meyer also measures his cows’ sizes relative to the weaning weight of their calves. He says a medium sized cow weighing around 1,200 pounds should wean a calf about 45 to 50 percent of her weight.

The final presentation for the day was a panel discussion featuring Bob Dineen of Rocky Mountain Natural Meats in Henderson, Colo., and Bruce Anderson of Western Buffalo Co. in Rapid City, S.D. Rocky Mountain Natural Meats is the nation’s largest bison processor and distributor, marketing over 20,000 bison per year. Western Buffalo Co. slaughters and markets 120-200 head per week.

Both men agree that the demand for bison is increasing, and new producers are needed to help meet that demand. There exists so much knowledge base today to help new producers get into the business.

Anderson says that in addition, there is a lot of potential in by-products such as hides, but this is still an immature market. He mentioned pet food as another possibility.

Anderson also stated that approximately 25 percent of consumers are more concerned about what they eat, and may choose bison over other types of meat protein.

A dinner meal of bison prime rib followed the presentations. An auction of donated items was held after dinner, with the proceeds to be used in funding future events. There was also a live band later in the evening.

The next morning, tour buses took attendees out to the pasture to view the show herd. It was necessary to bring a load of cake to lure the animals away from the water tank. Afterward it was back to the ranch headquarters to watch yearling bulls just off grass being weighed and dewormed. This was an excellent opportunity to see the facilities and learn how efficiently the animals are worked.

Bison producers are passionate about what they do, and their enthusiasm is contagious. A man from the audience remarked after one presentation that he had no land and little capital, but was interested in the business and wondered how he could get started. I’ll just bet that his questions were answered before the end of the workshop.

A number of sponsors helped make the event possible. These included Boyd and Allison Meyer of Cold Creek Buffalo Company, Larry and Jacki Higgins of Heart Rock Bison, Envirotank, Ron and Janice Thiel of Iron Mountain Bison Ranch, Michael and Kathleen Gear of Red Canyon Buffalo Ranch, Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, Durham Ranch/Sierra Meats, and Western Buffalo Company. Sponsor associations included Rocky Mountain Buffalo Association, Dakota Territory Buffalo Association, Western Bison Association, and the National Bison Association.

Ninety people – including some from as far away as Florida, Texas, and Arizona – were in attendance at the “Buffalo Gold Rush – The Bison Advantage” workshop held Sept. 18-19 at the Terry Bison Ranch near Cheyenne, Wyo. It was an opportunity for existing producers to learn about different methods of bison husbandry as well as incentive for newcomers to enter the industry.

Following a welcoming address by Boyd Meyer (who owns approximately 3,100 head of bison at the Terry Ranch), a presentation was given by Bud Patterson of Patterson Nutrition Company in Sterling, Colo. He has worked with both cattle and bison as well as with both range and feedlot animals. He discussed several co-products used in feeding rations. Some of these were corn co-products such as corn gluten feed and distillers grains. Corn gluten feed is a by-product of wet corn milling, which is the process of producing high fructose corn syrup. Distillers grains are a by-product of dry corn milling, which is the process of producing ethanol.

Corn co-products provide both protein and energy to feedlot rations. Both of these feeds contain high amounts of sulfur and phosphorus, however, so it is necessary to test the water for sulfates when utilizing them, as high sulfates are mineral antagonists. That is to say that they can affect levels of copper, zinc, manganese, selenium, and iron. Animals may stop drinking water and become dehydrated.

Another co-product is wet brewers grain, composed of mainly barley with a small amount of rice. Still another is the high fiber soybean hull. In general, co-products lower production costs while enhancing performance. Many of these products are of limited use elsewhere, and it is fortunate that the beef and bison industries are able to capitalize on what would otherwise be a burden to grain and food processors.

The next topic concerned veterinary care of bison. Dr. Gerald Parsons, DVM, of the Stratford Animal Clinic in Stratford, Okla., discussed internal and external parasites. He said that the further north you go, the fewer problems there will be with internal parasites. He also stated that a healthy animal can tolerate a few parasites. When an animal is in trouble, though, the first thing that happens is that the hair becomes duller; it doesn’t have the shine that it should have. Then the animal noticeably loses weight and may even begin to have loose stools.

Dr. Parsons explained a few factors that can have adverse effects on parasite numbers. First are good moisture levels. Then make sure the population of animals is balanced. If need be, break up manure where bison have congregated, or even obtain more acreage if possible. Provide good nutrition and rotation grazing. Avoid stressing animals, such as by not breaking up family groups.

Dr. Parsons also listed several ways to treat parasite infestations if they do occur. Worm the animals with ivermectin products, but be aware that feeding the product is not very effective because the weaker and more timid animals often won’t get to eat anyway. Pour-on wormers can be used but may not reach the skin due to bisons’ thick hair. Other options include injectable and drench wormers. As for repelling flies, a small amount of diesel mixed with the external treatment will help.

Larry Higgins of Heart Rock Bison in Genoa, Colo., next described his operation as a small producer. Higgins got started through word of mouth. He now sells quarters, halves, and wholes, in addition to burger and most cuts. More recently he began marketing bison jerky. He sells some live animals as well and does some showing. He estimates that he has 60 to 70 percent repeat customers.

At present he has a small cow-calf operation consisting of 25 cows and a herd bull, plus a few yearlings. He also finishes out 30-35 head per year.

His facilities are fairly simple but unique in that his working corrals are made of junk cars lying end to end and upright on one side. “It’s not pretty, but it’s effective,” he chuckles. He employs a four wire fence with three T-posts between each wood post.

Higgins sorts his bison only once a year for weighing, ear tagging, and separating the calves by sex. Otherwise he doesn’t handle them.

He says that he sells 30 carcasses per year, including what he uses for jerky. He enjoys the business and feels that there is a niche for most anyone who wants to try it.

Following his presentation was a lunch break in which workshop attendees were treated to very tasty buffalo cheeseburgers. Not having eaten much buffalo, I was impressed by how lean and flavorful mine was.

The next producer to speak was Sandy Limpert of the Slim Buttes Buffalo Ranch near Buffalo, S.D. He and his wife Jacki, son Brodie and daughter-in-law Samantha run 600 mother cows and finish over 1,000 head of feeder buffalo per year in their feedlot.

They’ve been in the bison business since 1989, and Limpert founded the Dakota Territory Buffalo Association. He has extensive knowledge about handling bison and passed this on to the audience. He recommends purchasing young animals to start with and then learning from them. He stated that bison can be taught to lead by putting out range cake from a pickup. He noted that they tend to want to go in a northwesterly direction, and unlike cattle they prefer to move into the wind. Try to eliminate stress on calves when weaning, and spread a lot of hay both on the ground as well as in feeders for them.

Limpert also advises covering working facilities so that animals can’t see the sky. He says this seems to confuse them and makes handling a bit easier. Cattle guards need to be at least 14 feet wide, and build double gates if possible. When bison go through openings they generally try to crowd through all at once.

He listed several advantages to producing bison. One is the productive lifespan of cows. Also there are minimal weather related losses, and in fact, animals can winter in pastures without shelter. During calving there is no labor input. Genetics can be easily improved, and there is increased weaning weight percentages.

The few disadvantages are in increased conversion costs in fencing and facilities, and the fact that bison are not like cattle. You have to learn to work with them and make them think that what they’re doing is their idea.

Boyd Meyer of Cold Creek Buffalo Co. in Windsor, Colo., spoke next of bison genetics. He has established two herds of buffalo; one is for show and one is commercial. Besides mother cows, Meyer also has a finishing operation in which he keeps detailed records on the rate of gain of his calves from both grass and grain and from weanlings to yearlings. He looks for the most efficient and fastest growing animals. The average weight of his yearling bulls coming off grass is 900 pounds. They are placed on feed for 100 days. At that time they are reweighed and sorted based on a 10 inch ribeye and a gain of 2.75 pounds per day. Animals not making the cut are slaughtered.

Meyer also measures his cows’ sizes relative to the weaning weight of their calves. He says a medium sized cow weighing around 1,200 pounds should wean a calf about 45 to 50 percent of her weight.

The final presentation for the day was a panel discussion featuring Bob Dineen of Rocky Mountain Natural Meats in Henderson, Colo., and Bruce Anderson of Western Buffalo Co. in Rapid City, S.D. Rocky Mountain Natural Meats is the nation’s largest bison processor and distributor, marketing over 20,000 bison per year. Western Buffalo Co. slaughters and markets 120-200 head per week.

Both men agree that the demand for bison is increasing, and new producers are needed to help meet that demand. There exists so much knowledge base today to help new producers get into the business.

Anderson says that in addition, there is a lot of potential in by-products such as hides, but this is still an immature market. He mentioned pet food as another possibility.

Anderson also stated that approximately 25 percent of consumers are more concerned about what they eat, and may choose bison over other types of meat protein.

A dinner meal of bison prime rib followed the presentations. An auction of donated items was held after dinner, with the proceeds to be used in funding future events. There was also a live band later in the evening.

The next morning, tour buses took attendees out to the pasture to view the show herd. It was necessary to bring a load of cake to lure the animals away from the water tank. Afterward it was back to the ranch headquarters to watch yearling bulls just off grass being weighed and dewormed. This was an excellent opportunity to see the facilities and learn how efficiently the animals are worked.

Bison producers are passionate about what they do, and their enthusiasm is contagious. A man from the audience remarked after one presentation that he had no land and little capital, but was interested in the business and wondered how he could get started. I’ll just bet that his questions were answered before the end of the workshop.

A number of sponsors helped make the event possible. These included Boyd and Allison Meyer of Cold Creek Buffalo Company, Larry and Jacki Higgins of Heart Rock Bison, Envirotank, Ron and Janice Thiel of Iron Mountain Bison Ranch, Michael and Kathleen Gear of Red Canyon Buffalo Ranch, Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, Durham Ranch/Sierra Meats, and Western Buffalo Company. Sponsor associations included Rocky Mountain Buffalo Association, Dakota Territory Buffalo Association, Western Bison Association, and the National Bison Association.