Bison once roamed America’s Wild West, and today they are coming back thanks to bison farming.
If you too want to raise bison in the United States, here’s what you need to know.
1. What is bison farming?
Raising bison is similar (but not identical) to raising beef cattle.
Bison are large, strong, and excitable animals.
They require both special fencing and handling facilities if you want to farm them.
However, bison don’t require shelter even in northern climates, which can make them a bit easier to manage in that way.
As they’re undomesticated, they don’t care much for being handled.
They don’t like to be crowded, and thus they become tense and inclined to panic.
Both horses and cattle do much better when handled.
To handle bison well, you must be slow and calm to keep them calm.
Most farmers will recommend interfering with their daily life as little as possible.
Bison are also grazing machines.
They transform grass into quality, nutritious meat with a unique flavor.
Because bison don’t build fat stores the way cattle do, bison meat contains little marbling.
This results in very lean meat with fewer calories and high protein content.
Some people love the taste of bison meat because it tends to be sweeter than beef.
It’s also less greasy and “gamey” with a great texture.
2. How do you begin bison farming?
If you’re interested in starting a bison farm, here’s how you should begin.
Find your plot of land
To begin bison farming, you must have a substantial piece of land.
The land you can afford will be a defining factor in how many bison you can raise.
The more space you have, the better off your bison will be.
Large acreage will allow your bison to graze on the pasture.
If necessary, you can always supplement their diet with grain.
Space is also necessary to reduce diseases, fighting, and parasite issues.
The rule of thumb in terms of land is 1-2 bison need roughly 5 acres and a full herd requires 100 acres.
Buy your bison
Buying bison is a long-term investment.
To make it a bit easier on your wallet, consider investing in bison calves.
Calves are easier to manage and easier to move.
They also have better temperaments.
If you have no experience in bison farming, then it can be a good idea to start small (literally) and work your way up to a full-grown bison (or bison herd).
We recommend looking at the National Bison Association for a specialized breeder or trading organization.
If you have 5 acres of land now, it may be tempting to just start with 1 or 2 bison.
However, it’s often better to have multiple because they are such social animals.
If you can buy a larger plot of land, that’s normally the better way to go.
Build your fences
Install a fence before you ever bring bison onto your property.
Not many animals will target bison — wolves and grizzly bears are the exceptions.
However, they will wander away, and a normal wood fence won’t pen them in.
A combination of woven wire, barbed wire, and electric wire fencing is a great way to go.
Just make sure it’s over 6 feet!
House your bison
Bison don’t require any housing, which is often an appealing part about them, they’re able to face the wind in a winter storm and eat snow without issue.
So, don’t worry about installing a barn as you would for horses.
They are tolerant of all weather conditions.
In fact, we recommend against trying to force your bison to stay in a barn.
Bison often require a lot of space to roam, and if you crowd them or pen them in, then you’ll likely run into problems.
Feed your bison
Bison forage for around 9 to 11 hours per day eating grasses, leafy plants, and weeds.
While they can do okay on alfalfa hay, they prefer plain grass when they’re out on pasture.
If you’re looking for a cost-effective solution, then you’ll probably want to feed your bison hay or limited amounts of feed during wintertime when your grass dies.
Bison also need water.
However, don’t fret if you don’t see them drinking it.
They are so self-sufficient that they’re good about finding their own sources of water (like eating snow) to make sure they’re staying hydrated.
Still, as a bison producer, you can do your part to make sure it’s always provided.
Consider these factors
Bison are susceptible to parasites, and it’s likely to be an issue for you as a bison farmer.
We recommend using a SafeGuard lick block to help reduce parasites.
That said, you can also deworm them with an oral drench or a pour-on regularly as well.
Making sure your bison have enough space is one of the best ways to combat parasites.
Additionally, a good pasture rotation can help break the parasite cycle.
When you need to handle your bison, we recommend using a crash gate that swings forward around the headgate.
This is an essential item that helps to prevent injury and provide necessary vet care.
Finally, you’ll likely need to do slaughter on-site.
It is possible to transport your bison to a slaughterhouse, but chutes and livestock trailers can be stressful for them.
It often results in them pushing against each other or the farmer, which can cause injuries.
Market your products
One of the biggest challenges in bison farming is finding a way to market and sell your products.
We recommend talking to local restaurants, farm cooperatives, and grocery stores.
Keep in mind that the bison market in the U.S. is small.
This means you can fetch relatively high prices for your bison meat (more per pound than beef!).
If possible, try selling to restaurants in your area.
They’re a great target because they’re able to sell the meat for top dollar on their menus.
3. In what states is bison farming most popular?
South Dakota is by far the most popular bison farming state.
Nebraska comes in second followed by Montana, Colorado, and Oklahoma.
4. What are some tips for raising bison?
If you’re interested in raising bison, here are some tips you should use:
Prepare for high initial costs
Bison farming isn’t cheap!
Expect high initial costs related to the land, animals, and fencing.
The amount of land you have will directly impact how many bison you can support.
For example, if you have 5 acres of land, then you can only support 1-2 fully grown bison.
If you want a full herd, then you should look at purchasing up to 100 acres or more.
Have enough land
Bison need plenty of land to thrive.
They need space and grass to feed on without overgrazing.
Consider this when you’re thinking about bison farming.
In addition to space, you should factor in biomass, snow depth, rainfall, wind speeds, elevation, grass type, and all other potential factors to give bison enough room to thrive.
A bison farm is a long-term investment venture.
We recommend getting started with some bison calves, which are easier to manage than full-grown adults.
They also have better temperaments, which will be helpful as you get acclimated as a new farmer.
Install a quality fence
Large animals like bison need a quality fence to stay on their land.
A bison is not going to feel intimidated by a simple wood fence.
They can bust through it in no time at all if they feel startled.
We recommend a combination of electric fencing, barbed wire, and woven fencing that stands at least 6 feet tall.
Make sure you install a gate on every side of your perimeter just in case an animal gets loose.
Understand what bison farming entails
Bison farming is a full-time job that will have you working around the clock.
There are fewer challenges in this livestock farming than there would be for a dairy herd of cattle, but you need to invest your time.
As a result, most of your day is going to be spent outdoors working on your farm or marketing the products of your farm to the local community.
Provide plenty of good food and water
Bison will forage for grass all year long.
Occasionally, you may need to supplement with a grain and hay mix.
Additionally, clean water should always be available.
Remember that bison are wild animals
People often want to treat bison like cows because they graze like cows.
However, you should treat bison like cattle bulls.
Typically, they’re only aggressive if they’re provoked (i.e., their calves are being threatened), but they’re still wild animals, and you should treat them with caution.
Give them companionship
Bison are social creatures and thrive in naturally formed social groups.
The only downside to this is that if one animal in the herd experiences a health issue then they all might.
Leave them alone
Bison are best left alone.
They are happiest when they don’t interact with humans.
So, you shouldn’t handle them when you don’t have to.
You shouldn’t transport them when you don’t have to.
And you shouldn’t disturb them in their social groups when you don’t have to.
This will keep them in the best shape possible.
Be careful with marketing
Marketing bison meat can be tricky.
We recommend working with a local farm marketing cooperative.
This allows you to collaborate with other farmers to get all your products placed on store shelves in front of customers who want to purchase them.
You can also consider creating farm shares where people can invest in bison meat and then deliver meat at the end of the season.
5. Is a bison farm profitable?
Yes! Over time, bison farming can be a profitable venture.
However, it does require a significant financial investment initially.
Here’s what you’ll need and what you can expect to spend.
- Yearling (up to $5,500)
- Cow from good breeding stock ($10,000 or more)
- Equipment (tractors, trucks, ATVs, feeds, waterers, etc.)
- Sturdy fence
- Vet bills
It will cost you about $800 per year to maintain one fully-grown adult bison.
While there is money to be made, you’ll need to crunch the numbers on how to break even before you get started.
6. Are bison hard to raise?
Bison ranching and cattle farming are not the same.
This is a common misconception because they are both raised for their meat and graze in the field.
The bison is more self-sufficient and can live much longer (up to two decades).
They also command a higher carcass price.
However, the demands of raising bison can be high, so you shouldn’t go into it blind.
They present some infrastructure, space, and handling challenges.
7. What does it mean that bison are self-reliant?
Bison (for the most part) prefer to be self-reliant.
As long as they have adequate grazing land, plenty of water, and enough members of their herd to be social, they won’t need to be handled too often.
If you’re able to fulfill all of their needs, you can keep them happy fairly easily.
All you really need to do is make sure they stay inside the fence.
During the winter, you may see your bison attempting to graze for grass under the snow.
This is when they will need to have hay to supplement their diet.
You don’t have to worry about leaving them out in the cold though.
Their thick coats and general efficiency make them naturally hardy regardless of the weather.
8. What do we use bison for?
Bison were commonly used by Native Americans for all sorts of utility.
They used their meat for food, hides for clothing and shelter, and horns and bones for tools.
Even their tails were used as ornaments, whips, and fly swats.
Today, we mainly farm bison for their meat.
9. How is the bison different from the buffalo?
The bison and buffalo are easily confused.
They’re both large, horned, oxlike animals of the Bovidae family.
There are two types of bison: the American bison and the European bison.
There are also two forms of buffalo: the water buffalo and the Cape buffalo.
The best way to distinguish the two is the three H’s: home, hump, and horns.
Home: Buffalos do not roam in the American West - only bison do.
Thus, if someone says buffalo, they’re likely talking about American bison.
Bison are native to North America, Water buffalos are found in South Asia and Cape buffalo are found in Africa.
Hump: Bison have one hump at the shoulders while buffalos do not.
The hump allows the bison’s head to function as a plow, which sweeps away drifts of snow in the winter.
Horns: Buffalos tend to have large horns (up to 6 feet).
The horns of the bison are shorter and sharper.
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.