“We’ve really enjoyed the buffalo,”… “It’s had its ups and downs like any other, but it’s solid.”
BISON RANCHER, SMOKY RIVER, PEACE COUNTRY
The official name is bison, but don’t tell that to Ross Adam. At the Adam Ranch, spanning 8,000 acres on the banks of the Smoky River in the Peace country, he calls them by the traditional name – buffalo.
Adam pioneered bison ranching here after buying six heifers in 1980. Three years later, the herd had grown to 200. Today it’s about 3,000. Part of the herd came from his job rounding up 900 wild bison on Crown land near Fort St. John between 1990 and 1995. Adam ended up with 100 head, and the government appropriated the rest, he says.
“We’ve really enjoyed the buffalo,” says Adam. “It’s had its ups and downs like any other, but it’s solid.”
The industry has lost a number of producers over the years, though Adam says some shouldn’t have been in it in the first place. “They were just in it for the money. When the money was gone, they were too.”
Adam Ranch built its foundation in the breeding market and has bought back animals it sold when smaller operators liquidated.
“When the market was down, they were giving cows away for $100,” Adam says.
But good times have returned to the bison industry. “Right now
prices are the highest we’ve seen in eight years,” says ranch manager Brian Olfert. Bison prices are higher than beef today.
“At one time, cows were selling for $10,000,” says Adam. “We had 2,000 cows then and we decided to keep them rather than give it all to income tax.”
Now, cows are bringing in about $1,000. That’s OK with Adam.
“It’s not stupid high, with decent management you can make a living.”
Far from market
Northwestern Alberta bison producers face long distances to market, slaughter facilities are located in central and southern Alberta. “Shipping live animals adds to production costs,” says Olfert. Feed is cheaper in the U. S. so animals that used to stay in Canada until they were ready for slaughter are shipped to the U.S. to be fed.
As with cattle, bison producers face problems taking them to the U.S. because of BSE concerns, though Olfert says they shouldn’t be. “There’s never been a case of BSE in buffalo that I’m aware of,” he says. Adam says each producer has a different take on the business. “Producers are very diverse. Some market locally, some as far away as Vancouver, and others sell to a feedlot.”
Adam said optimism is high in the industry. “At the last bison producer meeting, we had more attendance than we’ve seen in years.”
Still, producers aren’t looking for explosive growth. “We don’t want the prices to go as high as they were in the breeding market,” says Olfert. “It’s a stable market now, and producers are earning money.”
Adam Ranch has 37 breeding bulls (one per about 20 cows) and breeding starts in July, with calving season April, May and June.
“We like to wean early and we see better cow health when we do,” said Olfert. Calves gain better on grass, he says. Calves are weaned in the fall, and that’s when ranch hands complete the RFID tag process.
To avoid overgrazing, the animals are rotated through a series of pastures. Olfert says the ranch has made good gains with grass management, though there’s still room for improvement.
“We’ve been growing grazing corn with good success on about 200 acres. It’s a great way to make feed, and lots of it, our goal is not to have to feed them at all over the winter.”
An oat/pea mix for swath grazing is grown on another 200 acres, and straight oats on another quarter section.
At one time, Adam Ranch used to run big-game hunting trips and even had its own packaged meat brand. Today, the ranch sticks to its core business, though there is the gravel supply business called, you guessed it, Buffalo Gravel. The ranch employs four full-time workers. Part-timers are added in the summer, and Adam’s wife Karen does bookkeeping and administration tasks.
Bison, er, buffalo, are the latest in a diverse career for Adam. He was once part owner of the famous Gang Ranch in B.C., and he also owned nine muskox that were featured in the 1986 movie, “Clan of the Cave Bear,” starring Darryl Hannah.
Adam ran a logging business for years, and then there was the 100,000-acre beef/bison ranch in Wyoming he owned for five years. There’s also his runs in the famed Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska, and his involvement in the Grande Prairie Polo Club, the biggest east of Toronto.
Adam doesn’t seem about to walk away from his passion any time soon, and with current industry conditions, the future looks bright. “Our industry has corrected itself,” said Adam. “The producers who are left are healthy, they’re people who know what they’re doing.”