Updated: Dec 21, 2022
In 2018 when our dream to raise bison was born, we thought it wouldn't be all that different than raising beef cattle. My husband comes from a long line of farmers who have raised feeder cattle as well as cow/calf pairs. Out of the five of us that own Sunset Hills Bison Ranch, I'm the only one that hasn't raised livestock prior to these bison.
We quickly realized we had a lot to learn (still learning)!
Although there are some similarities between the way you raise beef cattle and bison, there are so many differences. Obviously there are very notable physical differences that make handling bison a bit more challenging. Take their ginormous heads for example. Both males and females have horns. Their heads are the strongest parts of their bodies and are controlled by the huge hump on their backs. This hump is made of muscle and is designed to move their heads in a sweeping motion. In nature (like Yellowstone National Park closest to nature I can think of) bison use their heads to forge for food by sweeping snow and ice out of their way while looking for forage below.
Bison are extremely athletic. They can run up to 35 miles per hour and can out last a horse! Horses can run fast for a short amount of time. Bison can run fast for a long time! An adult male can jump over a 6 foot fence from standing still! YIKES! We recently had a pregnant mom jump our 5'5" fence to go get her calf back when we attempted to remove the calf for weaning!
By nature, bison are very herd bound. They need a herd to survive. There are some people that have had just one bison but ideally they need about 7 animals to feel like they have a herd. Without a herd, they may try to get out of their enclosure to find a herd. We have been told by some other bison producers is getting one bison into a trailer to go to the meat locker could stress the animal the meat could be worthless. It is a best practice to take two bison or more.
On November 28, 2022 we conducted our first bison round up at our ranch! We had the best crew compiled of bison experts and beef cattle experts. Running these bison down the alley with 4 different cut offs, then into a tub and then into a two part alley then into a chute is all the proof you need that bison and beef cattle are not the same. The chute needs a crash gate because they will not stop in the chute until they crash into something. Without the crash gate, you will not catch them. My favorite part of that day was asking the cattle guy what he thinks and his reply was "I think I'll definitely stick to working cattle!"
Bison can be mean. They have yet to be domesticated in a way that beef cattle have (I know I know! Beef cattle can be mean too!)
They are a very hands off animal and will not allow assistance with calving. They get water as a herd. They eat as a herd. They move as a herd. They protect each other. They hide all their illness and injuries so it is usually too late when you find one is sick. They have 8X the amount of hair follicles than beef cattle. They can put off labor up to 72 hours once in active labor. They can just shut it down. Usually if they are spooked or if a storm is rolling in. They retain body heat and are made for -30 degrees. They don't want or need a barn. They are not susceptible to interbreeding and they cycle only once a year so separating the bulls from the herd is not needed.... SO MANY DIFFERENCES! A weaker digestive system at birth. A smaller esophagus. Lamb sized milk teats.
Seriously I could go on and on for another few pages but I will save some of my knowledge for another time! Or better yet, come out to the ranch so I can personally tell you more!