If your approach to homesteading is along the lines of “Go big or go home,” you might want to consider upping your livestock game to incorporate bison.
Sure, they may be the largest mammal in North America, but they’re surprisingly low-maintenance, especially when compared with cattle.
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Of course, any animal comes with its unique set of pros and cons, and the bison is no different. Getting started with bison won’t be cheap, but it might prove easier than raising donkeys, for instance, or even emus.
You Say Bison I Say Buffalo – Is There a Difference?
Before we go any further, however, let’s quickly clear up the bison/buffalo debate.
The terms bison and buffalo are used interchangeably throughout the US, but they are, in fact, two very different animals. While both the bison and the buffalo belong to the Bovidae family, that’s where the similarities end.
Historians believe that the term “buffalo” grew from the French word for beef, ‘boeuf’” and early European explorers used the term so extensively that it stuck.
Even bison breeders continue to refer to their animals as buffalo so, you can decide whether you’d rather have bison or buffalo – no one else seems to care.
How to Start a Bison Farm
Bison are large animals, but they require a surprisingly minimal amount of handling and, therefore, less infrastructure than, say, cattle.
You won’t need sheds or shelters for your bison – just plenty of room, grazing, water, and robust fences.
Before you start hunting around for bison to purchase, you need to take a long hard look at your available acreage and infrastructure.
Depending on the quality of your grazing, you can expect to raise about the same number of bison on your acreage as you can cattle – around 2 to 3 acres per cow and calf (Eastern USA). Refer to our article “How Many Cows per Acre in Your State“.
Don’t forget that bison, in the wild, move around a lot to graze. They will always be happier with more space to roam than cooped up on a small acreage.
On a smaller property, you can get around this problem by using pasture rotation which will help the bison get the freedom to roam and a wider range of nutrition.
How Many Bison Make a Happy Herd?
Sometimes big things have small beginnings, but that’s not the case when it comes to raising bison.
Thanks to their incorrigibly strong herding instinct, experts recommend keeping no less than 12 bison at any one time.
Without enough buffalo friends around them, bison will leap fences and tear down infrastructure in an attempt to bond with your cows, horses, or even sheep!
To accommodate a herd of 12 bison, you’ll need, at minimum, six acres to provide for two three-acre pastures and one rotation, or, if you allow for 5 acres per pair, more like 30 acres.
A herd should consist of at least one bull and 10 to 15 cows. In Pennsylvania, herd sizes range from small operations with fewer than 25 bison to large operations with more than 200 bison.
However, most Pennsylvania herds average only 16 animals. Only a few U.S. herds have more than 1,000 animals.PennState Agriculture Extension
How to Fence In a Herd of Buffalo
A herd of 1,000 lb buffalo is liable to dwarf your existing infrastructure, making your fences look like something out of a child’s farm playset.
Not only is the bison’s size an issue when it comes to fencing, but these large mammals are also surprisingly athletic and will leap over a six-foot fence as soon as look at it.
Did You Know?
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Fences around the pasture should consist of eight high-tensile wires, three of which carry a high voltage of electricity, or equivalent fencing. A corral-chute system with no sharp turns or corners and with sides 7 to 8 feet high is recommended.PennState
Making sure you satisfy your herd’s needs is the best way of keeping them contained and there’s no fence in the world that can stop a hungry or lonely bison.
It’s therefore advisable that, before introducing buffalo to your homestead, you check your pastures have enough grazing and water to keep the herd content – it’ll save you a lot of trouble later down the line.
Bison eat around 3% of their body weight per day but are surprisingly energy efficient so, the quality of that feed isn’t as much of an issue as it would be with cattle.
During the winter months, however, you may need to supplement their diet with a little hay or grain.
According to some, “you can give them any old hay, and they still gain weight,” whereas others say they are particularly partial to alfalfa hay.
In the commercial bison industry, most bison in North America are finished on grain like corn or barley, so if you can produce 100% grass-fed bison, you’ll access a potentially profitable niche market.
However, experts recommend finishing bison on corn because the meat ends up tasting more similar to beef – something many customers may prefer.
Bison require 1 pound of roughage per 100 pounds of body weight for digestion and 2 pounds of dry matter per 100 pounds of live weight for energy. Clean, fresh water should be available at all times. A herd of 32 animals may require up to 500 gallons of water per day during the summer months.
For added weight gain and to improve meat texture and flavor, you should begin feeding grain 90 to 120 days prior to slaughter. The meat of bison finished on corn has a taste similar to beef, which many consumers prefer.PennState
If you do need to add grain to your bisons’ diet to boost their weight, whole oats are a good option, although a standard stock pellet can also work, provided it is free of antibiotics, growth hormones, and animal byproducts.
How to Track Down Buffalo on a Budget
Finally, you’re ready to start shopping around for reputable bison breeders, but where to start?
The National Bison Association has a trading board filled with adverts for calves, heifers, and everything in between.
The cheapest item on the buffalo menu is a bull calf which costs around $900 to $1,500.
Of course, what you really need to grow your herd is young females, known as heifers, which carry a price tag of around $2,500 upwards depending on their breeding.
Female calves approximately six months old are a little cheaper but, even then, you’re looking at an initial investment of around $1,300 to $1,500 per animal which, if you include one well-bred bull calf, is going to set you back between $16,5000 and $20,000.
Even after all that, you’ll still have to wait 18 months to 2 years before they’re ready to breed.
If you’re willing to throw in a few extra dollars – say $6,000 to $10,000 – you could pick up an entire starter herd, including mature adults and pregnant cows, and give your breeding program a head start.
Be warned, however, experts say first-time buffalo farmers should stick to the youngsters who have better temperaments and are easier to manage than mature adults.
Why the Hands-Off Approach Is Best for Buffalo
Cows tolerate human interaction, some horses even seek it out, but buffalo are best left to their own devices.
While your stereotypical bunny hugger may find that difficult, for many, it’s a welcome relief.
Large animals are rarely easy to handle and buffalo, in their semi-wild state, are prone to panic and stress. As a result, you need to approach them slowly and calmly, utilizing low-stress handling techniques.
Despite their size, bison are surprisingly agile and can leap about 6 feet in the air from a standstill.
Bison can also reach speeds of around 35-40 mph which is why knowledgeable bison breeders “stay outside the herd and stay back as far as we can from the animals because of how quickly they move (source).”
Ok, so the bison isn’t as cuddly as it looks, but that self-sufficiency is one of the advantages of raising bison.
Unlike cattle or horses, bison can easily survive the cold winters without shelter, using their saggy coats to keep them warm.
A generally hardy animal, bison are easier to care for than cows and don’t require assistance when calving. For many bison owners, this low-level maintenance is a significant part of their appeal.
According to Ivan Smith of Big Bend Bison Ranches in Canada, “I can quite easily manage 400 bison cows and still take four months’ holiday in the year and work a full-time job.” Read more from Ivan about his bison here.
Having said that, others claim “Bison farming is more than a full-time job,” so I guess it depends on your perspective!
One thing you do need to keep on top of is parasites but that can be done easily and relatively inexpensively using feed-based dewormers designed for cattle.
To keep your herd in tip-top condition, you’ll also need to instigate a similar vaccination program as you would for cattle.
Bison are particularly prone to mycoplasma infections and a disease known as brucellosis which can cause abortion. You can prevent both of these with regular vaccinations.
One final thing you should consider is selenium, like Champion’s Choice Trace Mineral Block.
The soils in the eastern United States have very little selenium, and since bison get most of their nutrition from forage, it is important to supplement selenium.PennState
Bison Meat Is Becoming Increasingly Popular
Getting a herd of bison isn’t something you should do on a whim. These large animals need plenty of space, grazing, fresh water, secure fences, and careful handling.
On the plus side, bison don’t trample your ground as much cattle, and they cause less erosion. They’re also more efficient grazers, making however much pasture you give them go that little bit further.
Bison meat is becoming increasingly popular amongst health food enthusiasts and gourmet chefs who are drawn to its nutrient-dense yet low-fat meat.
It’s also been welcomed as “a healthy, humane, sustainable alternative to conventionally raised beef.”
Because bison meat has a low fat content (less than 3 percent) and a cholesterol content that is lower than that of beef, organizations such as the American Heart Association and Weight Watchers recommend bison meat as a healthy alternative.
Many consumers prefer bison meat because it is produced without the use of hormones or antibiotics.
As a result of society’s increased nutritional awareness, the demand for bison meat has grown faster than the supply. Bison meat sells at a considerable price premium to beef.PennState Dep of Agricultural Sciences
As with any other livestock, raising bison on your homestead can be both challenging and rewarding in equal parts, but it’s certainly a lot less labor-intensive than dairy farming, for example.
You will have to make a sizable initial investment, but the profitability and sustainability of these 1,000-lb beasts should make it worthwhile.
Featured image – “Long Hollow Bison Farm, Hadley MA” by Rusty Clark ~ 100K Photos – is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/