Bison production (Animal Science Update)
(Editor’s note: Michael Westendorf is with Rutgers University’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.)
Bison are the largest land animal in North America. At their peak bison roamed over nearly half of North America.
Plains Indians hunted these animals and had many uses for raw, dried, and cooked bison meat. In addition, hides were used for clothing and shelter, muscle sinews for sewing and binding, bones for tools, and dried dung for fuel.
Bison herds diminished because they were hunted to make way for railroads and because of the demand for their hides and tongues. After the slaughter, the remaining carcasses were left on the plains to rot. In the mid 1800s there were an estimated 60 million bison in North America, but by 1883 bison were close to extinction.
By 1900, it was reported that there were less than 100 of these animals in the wild.
A bison’s eyes are adapted for 360-degree vision and farsightedness.
They rely on smell and hearing at close ranges. The average life span of wild bison is 12 to15 years but have been known to live up to 40 years.
Present-day natural predators include wolves, and severe winter weather can also limit bison activity.
When starting a herd, purchase calves as a foundation before buying mature animals.
Young animals may adapt more quickly to new environments than older animals.
When purchasing traits to look for are large, lengthy, well-developed hindquarters, and good conformation exhibited by flat backs that slope toward the tail. It is desirable to have a large body frame with adequate width and depth over length.
Bulls stand six feet tall and ten feet long, with the average animal weighing 2000 pounds.
Bulls can breed beginning at 2 years and reach full maturity at 5 years.
Cows are smaller, standing 5 feet tall and weighing 700-900 pounds.
Breeding takes place from mid-July through the end of August, and the calving season is late April through mid-May.
Suggested natural breeding ratios are one mature bull to 10 cows.
The reproductive life for both sexes is 12-17 years.
Gestation is 9 months, and a cow usually calves for the first time at 3 years of age.
Cows give birth to a single, 30-to-70-pound, rust-colored calf. Calves are often grazing within a week.
The recommended age to wean bison is 8-9 months, but they can be started on creep feed at 7-8 months of age.
Dehorning is recommended if one is handling bison.
The optimum time to do this is at 6 weeks of age and should be done before fly season or after a killing frost.
Castration is not a routine practice because bulls are sold for meat before breeding age is reached and before meat flavor is affected.
A bison is a ruminant, and its diet may consist mainly of grasses and other forages.
Bison are usually raised on pasture, seldom in feedlots. They normally move while grazing and have been noted to cover a quarter-mile to 3-mile area.
Recommended protein level is 11-13 percent, and mineral requirements are similar to cattle.
During periods of harsh weather, bison are able to locate grass under a layer of snow and can eat the snow to meet their water requirement. If necessary, bison can go several days without water.
Bison management techniques have evolved from those practiced by cattle producers. Bison are not domestic animals and require special care when handling.
They are more excitable in close quarters, so fences around handling areas need to be taller and stronger than those around pastures.
When handling bison, use a chute with a squeeze gate. It is suggested not to disturb pregnant cows in the spring due to possible injury, abortion, or premature birth.
Cows may be very protective if their calves are threatened. It is recommended not to work with bulls during breeding season for safety concerns.
Bison prefer the natural shelter of shrubs and rough terrain to those of artificial construction. Confinement areas for bison should include large, open, green pastures with fresh water available. Fences should be constructed of heavy duty, woven wire supported by wooden posts, 6 feet in height. Barbed wire is not recommended.
A minimum of 1 acre of land per adult animal is recommended. When introducing new animals into a herd, isolate them first for 2-4 weeks to monitor the animals’ health and then slowly introduce them into the herd.
Bison are raised primarily for meat (hides, skulls, and wool are also produced). Animals are usually slaughtered at 1 to 4 years of age and yield a dressing weight that averages 50-percent of live weight. Bison meat is most marketable if slaughtered between the ages of 2 to 3 years.
Meat is approximately 50-percent higher in iron than beef, and the cuts are identical. The meat is similar in color (dark red) but with less marbling than meat from cows. The table below compares a 3.5 ounce serving of various cuts of cooked, lean meat to bison meat. This information was taken from the USDA.
Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that can infect bison as well as other domestic livestock, wildlife, and humans. Clinical signs include abortion of the first calf post-infection, reduced reproductive efficiency and milk production, and lameness.
This disease can be detected through blood tests designed for cattle. The concern is transmission from Brucellosis infected wild bison herds, primarily in the western United States, too nearby domesticated bison or cattle herds. Bison should be wormed once per year for internal and external parasites.
Natural parasite control includes wallowing in mud and rubbing against natural objects, such as trees or boulders.
Pasture rotation is also recommended for parasite control. Scours is rare among bison herds and does not usually occur under pasture or range conditions.
Malignant Catarrhal Fever is a viral disease characterized by a high, prolonged fever and inflammation of the respiratory tract. This disease occurs sporadically and results in low morbidity, but high mortality rates.
Quarantine of infected areas and animals should be enforced to prevent further spread. Bison naturally avoid some toxic plants. Other poisonous plants include cherry leaves and pine needles.
It is recommended that you check your area for poisonous plants that may also affect cattle.
Other common health challenges that affect bison include physical injury, pink eye, flies, and respiratory diseases.
Consult with your veterinarian for assistance.
• Eastern Bison Association (https://www.ebabison.org/)
• National Bison Association (https://bisoncentral.com/)
(Information in this article was taken from Bison Husbandry. Rutgers Cooperative Extension Factsheet Series. https://njaes.rutgers.edu/pubs/publication.php?pid=FS945)