Stepping on a scale doesn’t have to be stressful — for your bison, at least.
“Just like in people, when bison step on a scale, sometimes they have quite a harsh stress response,” said Josh Perryman, a University of Alberta student who spoke at the Wildrose Bison Convention earlier this month.
Bison are notoriously flighty animals, and reducing stress when handling them is the main goal of a project by Perryman and fellow students Elyse Semchuck and Nicky Lansink. The trio is working with the Bison Producers of Alberta to study a remote bison-weighing system and develop a guidebook based on their findings.
“Bison haven’t been domesticated for very long, so there are setbacks when handling the animals,” said Semchuck. “The stress adaptation in the bison can be a problem when they’re in enclosed spaces, so the current system of squeeze chutes can cause problems, like bruising and depreciation of the animal.”
And that has a direct impact on the bottom line, she said.
“We know that, per animal and per stressful event, it can lose up to 10 pounds over a week. That means more days on farm to gain that weight back.”
But bison producers still need a way to weigh their animals.
“Not being able to weigh your animals can be problematic because bison require feed appropriate for their stage and rate of growth,” said Semchuck. “You’re going to maximize profits by sending the animals away at the optimal finishing weight.”
And remote weighing systems using automatic scales could be the answer.
“Automatic scales have been used in other species because they’re less labour intensive and less time consuming,” she said. “There’s less stress on the animals from less handling and restraint, and a low-stress, low-hands-on environment can eliminate trim losses or give you a Grade A carcass.”
Working with bison producer Ivan Smith, the students have installed two Tru-Test Alleyway platform scales at Big Bend Bison Ranch near Penhold.
“We have a platform in front of a mineral trough and a walk-over platform between where the feed is and where the water’s located,” said Perryman, adding that the bison are monitored with trail cameras and RFID readers near the platforms.
So far, the trio has found that the bison will stand still on a platform in front of a mineral trough with “about 70 per cent success.”
“The idea was that the bison would walk onto the platform and stand on the scale,” said Perryman. “The bison would need to stand on the scale to get the minerals.”
Of course, the animals have to want minerals.
“If the bison have a nutritionally complete diet, they might not want minerals, and then they might not stand on the scale,” he said.
The walk-over platform, on the other hand, lies between the bison’s feed and water, making it more likely that they will step onto the scale.
“In the walk-over scenario, there will be more traffic going between the areas just because the drive for water would be strong,” said Perryman. “It’s also open so the bison aren’t going into an enclosed area, standing on a scale, and then having to back out.”
The system was installed March 10, and so far, the preliminary results are promising. With three days of data at the time they presented their findings, the students had 379 total readings from the walk-over platform.
“The bison moved freely over the scale and appeared to be comfortable with it,” said Perryman.
Cost and benefits
But there’s a cost to installing a system like this, said Lansink, who presented some cost estimates at the meeting.
“The main cost of something like this is the cost of the installation of the scale, the scale itself, the RFID reading software, and the maintenance of the system,” she said, adding cost benefits include decreased labour, feed costs, and stress-related losses.
“By implementing this scale, you’d see an increase in your income by being better able to achieve an optimal weight. You’d also have an increase in meat quality, as there will be less stress and less bruising on the carcass.”
The installation and maintenance of one system would cost around $12,000 in the first year, while the total cost benefits would be around $6,200 for a herd of 100 bison. But once installed, the only cost will be for maintenance and ongoing weight monitoring, roughly $1,200 a year, depending on how often the bison are being weighed.
“If you’ve got two cycles of bison going through, you should be able to pay off your scale with just the value of the benefits,” said Lansink.
And the increase in meat quality using a low-stress weighing system is “extremely important,” she said.
“In order to maximize our profits, it’s important that we get that A-grade carcass,” Lansink said. “Stressed animals are more prone to becoming dark-cutters, and a dark-cutter will not receive an A or B grade.”
By using a remote weighing system, rather than putting bison through a squeeze chute, producers can improve meat quality while reducing handling-related stress.
“You’re just that much more likely to get that Grade A carcass and minimize your trim loss by not putting your animal through the squeeze,” said Semchuck.
“You’re going to weigh your bison without them even knowing.”