One of the most interesting animals in North America is bison.
A ruminant that used to wander our Prairies in the millions has been reduced to around 500,000 head, many in pens on farms. Rugged and remarkable, these ‘knowledge keepers’ have much to teach us about nature itself.
Bison love space and they travel as a close-knit clan. Their natural ability to graze as a mob had great impact on the tender areas of the prairie. In fact, when I recently visited Alberta’s special areas, the first thing that came to my mind was how the ground could use a million head of bison for rejuvenation. The impact of manure and their less selective graze would be helpful.
Hard to pen and anxious when enclosed, bison have a natural tendency to seek open areas. They are active grazers that are driven by the sunlight hours. While beef cattle placed on feed will gain more in the winter on a high-energy diet, bison do the opposite and gain more in the summer on a high-protein and -fibre diet. They metabolize differently and it is tough to jump-start them during dull days or past 18 months of age when they plateau. They can, in fact, reduce their metabolic rate by 12 per cent in winter and on a wet and cold spring day, reduce it up to 35 per cent.
It can be argued that putting bison calves on feed for winter can be counterproductive. This is especially so because of commingling where we mix cattle or bison in high-density pens that are from different and diverse cow families as well as a variety of farms, diets, environments, markets, and exposure.
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The re-establishment of social structure in commingled, high-density pens is extraordinarily stressful. For bison, which need extra space in order to function, putting them in a feeding pen is tricky. They are too close to each other, the days are getting shorter, and they are getting ready to go into maintenance mode but they are forced to move with the gang back and forth to a structured bunk.
Why are bison treated like beef? Why give them high-energy grain diets when they respond best to protein? Why the additional stress? I don’t know, but it is worth talking about and I imagine, at some point, it was the only model to work from.
Consider this: if consumers are looking for grass-fed, all-natural, humanly handled meat — then that shaggy fellow just might be the whole package. He could be supplemented in field with extra protein (which he would take in) or energy (which bison often choose to ignore) but he loves grazing.
What about the carcass? The difference in the cut-out on bison lends us to think of the possibilities for the species. As the most area is in the front and middle, compared to beef where we focus on the middle and the hip, this creature lends itself to kosher butchering, which traditionally looks to the front end only for cuts. In fact, at SIAL, Canada’s food and technology show, many of the buyers from the eastern seaboard were specifically looking for kosher product as the east is where the US$60-million industry is based.
At the show it was interesting to me as to what drew buyers and sellers from 60 countries to the vendors. There were massive lineups for Turkish coffee and pistachio baklava, and people were three deep at Lac Brome Duck. And then there was this tiny booth with a very busy chef and a long single line waiting for Canadian bison. Was the product rare, pure, novel, terrific, easy to prepare or just tasty? All of the above I suppose but I sense the one thing we cannot overlook is the experience for buyers in being a part of a Canadian history and nature story.
What is your emotion when you think of bison?
When I think of bison, I hear thunder and smell the prairie and see the blue sky. I feel the wind that blows their downy hair and I am acutely aware that I am in someone else’s space. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to the experience economy in which we are in — where folks want to feel part of something. (Beef did this in the West with the imagery of Rockies.)
An anchoring, this may be what consumers crave — a way to feel that one is a part of something greater than themselves through their food.
Our structure centres on food as the point of socialization and it is through this humble offering we show our respect for others in our home or as our guest. There is a great demand for bison meat at this time. The opportunity is to continue to find ways to work with the species that respects their nature and their stress points while meeting the extraordinary market demand.