By Tim Kalinowski
The bison industry has come a long ways in Alberta since this heritage animals’ renaissance as a viable prairie meat species over the past three decades. It survived Mad Cow disease, generally poor prices and the industry’s transition into a more modern style of animal husbandry and agricultural production, but at no point has it been easy, say Peter and Judy Haase of Buffalo Horn Ranch.
“There were only a few people in bison at the time (in 1994 when we started),” remembers Peter. “We joined the Alberta Bison Association and got to know a number of people there. But there was just this huge learning curve at the beginning. We were all kind of inventing the bison industry at the time.”
“There were a few people which had been in it longer,” explains Judy, “but there were a lot of people who were new. So we were sharing ideas and experiences, but most of learning came for us from having the animals and doing.”
One of the things they learned quickly, says Judy, is bison are not anything like beef cattle when it comes to handling.
“When we handle them, we do it in a quiet, slow manner,” she says. “If it takes us a long time, that’s just it. We have developed a system where it is important to be calm and quiet with them, and the animals respond in much the same way.”
According to the Haases, if you handle them calmly, and feed them properly, bison are extremely low maintenance.
“From an agricultural basis, they are a lot less labour than all other cattle species are,” Peter states. “Basically, you have feed and water, and they can pretty much take care of themselves. There is very few calving issues or time we have to intervene. They are very healthy, and very rarely get sick.”
“They key is preventative maintenance,” he adds. “If they are well-fed and have good salt and mineral and take care of their parasites, which is probably their biggest health issue, they are a very low labour animal.”
One of the good things about bison also, from an industry point-of-view, is there is a huge market for the animals and their meat, says Peter— a far cry from where it was when Mad Cow disease decimated the Canadian cattle industry as a whole in the early 2000s.
“For a lot of years we sustained the ranch by setting up a meat company,” Peter remembers. “We marketed about a thousand head of animals. When you are selling four animals a month, and putting a lot of meat through the butcher to sell, you learn very quickly what is a good animal, how to feed it, and how to get high price for that animal.
“That was definitely a very important part of our learning.”
Judy also went back to teaching to bring in extra income off the farm. Meanwhile Buffalo Horn Ranch slowly built up a brand and prominence in the Calgary local food and slow food markets.
Prices started to turn around about 10 years ago, and now Canadian bison supply can’t even keep up with domestic market demand, let alone the export market headed down into the States
“Nowadays we don’t have much meat to sell, and the customers are still looking for it,” confirms Judy. “So we have to say ‘Gee, we can’t supply you, and we are not sure who can.’ The U.S. buyers will pay a little bit more and so our Canadian animals end up going to the States instead of being sold in Canada.”
“If you can get $50 or $100 more per calf times 20 or 50 calves, that’s a significant part of your income,” adds Peter.
While demand for bison meat is now off the charts, and prices high, Peter says you have to keep it all in perspective.
“In 2017 approximately 70,000 bison were slaughtered in the world,” he states. “And the United States will slaughter that many beef cattle every morning by noon.
“There is a growing demand for bison, but it is a niche product.
“They are not a mass-produce kind of animal either. There are feeding operations for bison, but to say we are going to start building feedlots for 100,000 and be able to slaughter 1,000 per day, like Cargill or something, that’s just not going to happen.”
Nor would most of the dedicated bison producers she knows want it that way, says Judy.
“Our philosophy is bison should not be raised in feedlots. You might as well raise cattle if you are going to raise them like cattle, I’d say.”
Still, there is room for the bison industry to grow in other ways and find new niches, says Peter. He notes the example of the increasing interest in bison from Canadian plains First Nations and U.S. tribes.
“A few years ago, a lot of the First Nations and tribes in U.S. signed the Buffalo Treaty, and they are trying to restore bison on their own lands,” explains Peter. “Not only for commercial purposes, but for religious and cultural purposes.
“This animal was sacred to them. No European could ever understand that, but bison were integral to their culture, religion and life in a way where they were interdependent on them.”
Judy says one of the great pleasures for her being in the industry has been helping local First Nations re-establish their own herds by providing breeding animals, and seeing national parks like Banff taking an interest in stocking new herds as well.
“We have had a lot of interesting experiences through raising these bison, and met a lot of interesting people,” she says. “We are actually a little involved in helping with the re-introduction of bison into Banff National Park through a little bit of consultation and helping with the park’s horses getting accustomed to bison.
“They actually purchased a few of our heifers to do that; so that has been an interesting experience working with a lot of the people with the parks.
“And we have been to lots of different conferences and met lots of different people through that.”
Judy says she and Peter can’t imagine being in any other industry today— finding it profitable, interesting and deeply rewarding from a heritage perspective.
“We hope this industry increases because the meat is so wonderful, and the animals are really meant to be here on this land,” she says.
“They have no problem in this climate and they aren’t hard on the land. They actually help to replenish the soil in a lot of ways with their constant hoof movements, and so on.
“They are just such a majestic animal.”