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Bison meeting showcases industry during Black Hills Stock Show

Written by Saige

Rapid City, S.D. – “The bison industry still deals with many misconceptions,” began Jim Matheson, assistant director of the National Bison Association, located in Westminster, Colo. “Opinions continue to abound that bison are wild and dangerous, their meat is gamey, they get out all the time, and they need fencing rivaling that around Fort Knox.”

Matheson addressed an audience at a “Bison Advantage” workshop, co-hosted by the Dakota Territory Buffalo Association (DTBA), headquartered in Rapid City, S.D. Held on Feb. 2 in conjunction with the Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo, the session was geared toward new and aspiring producers but had something for everyone. 

Bison Advantage

“What is the Bison Advantage?” Matheson asked. “It is a marketing campaign to producers to explain this is a viable livestock endeavor they can take advantage of.”

Although a relatively young and very small industry, Matheson noted there is an excellent market for bison meat. Matheson also highlighted bison meat as a sustainable source of high-quality protein that is also low in fat. 

Demand for bison exceeds availability, and consumers are willing to pay a premium for the product, even for hamburger and items such as jerky or other snack foods.

Raising bison

The current bison count is about 200,000 head in the United States, including private, tribal and park herds. Only 200 head are processed per day cross the nation, and carcasses on the rail have sold for between four and five dollars a pound for six years. 

In 2017, retail meat sales were $350 million for bison.

South Dakota is the number one bison-producing state, but there are bison in every state in the country except for Rhode Island. The average herd consists of 60 head. 

Matheson explained bison adapt well to their environment and live long, productive lives. 

“Cows on occasion live past the age of 30 and still produce a calf every year,” he said. “Bulls have been known to reach 15 years of age and still get the job done.”

“Bison are low maintenance, but they’re not no maintenance,” Matheson said.

Females calve on their own, but unlike cattle, they don’t breed for the first time until they are two years old. 

Artificial insemination (AI) is not performed on bison, not only due to excessive stress on the animal, but also because the technology is not available to make AI viable.

“There is no branding or castration and no dehorning, for the most part, although Canadian producers have been known to dehorn animals occasionally. Horns on bison can be a problem if animals are bunched too closely together and are unable to move away from each other, he said. 

Fencing

“Bison don’t like to be cornered,” Matheson said. “The best places for gates are toward the middle of the fence line.” 

Fencing is always a concern for producers just starting with a bison herd, Matheson continued.

According to Matheson, cattle fencing is pretty easily converted to fencing for bison. 

Everything from barbed wire to woven wire to a strand or two of hot wire incorporated into a fence will work, he said. 

A good visual deterrent is to have the top strand of wire higher than the animal’s line of sight, he noted.

“What is more important,” Matheson pointed out, “is daily management. Keep the animals happy.”

Daily management

Daily management of bison includes maintaining clean water and good, abundant grass through a rotational grazing program. 

Stocking rates for bison are similar to those of cattle, Matheson noted. 

“In breeding stock, we desire athleticism, length and a straight topline from hump to rump,” he said. “Sound legs are necessary, especially for bulls, and there should be appropriate characterization of masculinity and femininity.” 

Additionally, bison are largely resistant to many native diseases, and those diseases that impact bison are often transmitted by other species. 

Malignant catarrhal fever is a herpes virus carried by sheep that is deadly to bison. Brucellosis found in elk is sometimes an issue for bison, particularly those around Yellowstone National Park. 

Mycoplasma bovis is a pneumonia-like disease that can be hard to detect, as well.

“While not many bison-specific vaccines exist, producers can utilize available cattle vaccines for preventative care,” Matheson noted.

Renewed spirit

Bison are enjoying renewed popularity with the help of organizations like the National Bison Association and DTBA, said Matheson. 

“In 2016, the bison was named the first ever national mammal of the United States through collaborative efforts of the National Bison Association, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Intertribal Buffalo Council and the Obama Administration,” he added. “The Bison Advantage can benefit anyone who may be interested in becoming involved with this wonderful animal.”

Melissa Burke is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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