Bison are handled as little as possible. They spend their lives on grass, much as they always have, with very little time in the feedlot. They are not subjected to questionable drugs, chemicals or hormones. The members of the NBA feel so strongly about this that they have a resolution opposing the use of these substances in the production of Bison for meat.
Research by Dr. M. Marchello at North Dakota State University has shown that the meat from Bison is a highly nutrient dense food because of the proportion of protein, fat, mineral, and fatty acids to its caloric value. Comparisons to other meat sources have also shown that Bison has a greater concentration of iron as well as some of the essential fatty acids necessary for human well being. Readers' Digest magazine has even listed bison as one of the five foods women should eat because of the high iron content.
Bison and the Environment
Prepared by Dave Carter
It was nearly a century ago that the British agriculturalist, Sir. Albert Howard, made the notable statement, “Nature never tries to farm without animals.”
Nowhere is that statement more evident than across the ecosystem of North America.
Native grasslands comprise more than 40 percent of North America’s natural landscape. The grasses covering these open landscapes serve as powerful carbon traps, with slender leaves removing CO2 from the atmosphere and returning it to the soil through an extensive system of roots.
These grasslands did not occur in a vacuum. In fact, North America’s grasslands evolved over tens of thousands of years of continuous grazing by large ruminants, most notably the American bison. This co-evolutionary process to grasses and grazers developed into a symbiotic relationship that is vital to the health of both.
Grasses across most of the semi-arid regions of North America produce roughly one-third more growth each year, than will naturally decompose. Without interaction from grazers or fire, this excess growth soon chokes the soil and prevents healthy plant growth. Bison moving across pastures not only remove that choking cover, the animals convert the cellulose in the plant into protein.
As the bison graze, their manure and urine supply important nutrients for the plant cover, and their hoofs stir the soil, helping to bury seeds and to create small pockets in the earth to capture precious moisture. Even many prairies potholes (small ponds) today began as buffalo wallows.
Other grasslands species rode along on the coattails of bison in establishing a strong place in the grassland ecosystem. Nearly 100 species of grasslands birds, for example, evolved in some part to adapt to the nature of the environment created by the hoof print of bison upon the land. One other factor had a major influence on this symbiotic relationship: Predators. The open prairies offered prey animals with little opportunity to hide from predators. To survey, bison evolved as herd animals, where large numbers afforded the best means of defense. Large, tightly-packed units of animals moved quickly across the land. Grasslands, thus evolved to thrive under conditions of short periods of severe grazing, hoof action, and manuring, followed by periods of rest and recovery.
As prey animals, bison also learned that the less time spent near watering holes meant less chance of getting eaten by predators. Because predators hang around watering holes in search of prey, prey animals spend as little time as possible near those water sources. This means that the damaging impacts of hooves along riparian areas is greatly lessened by bison grazing.
Because bison are undomesticated, they continue to interact with the environment as nature intended. Today’s bison still graze in herds, moving across the land, and only briefly stopping by the watering holes. Domesticated species, meanwhile, have long lost much of that natural behavior, and will commonly stand and graze in one spot, or lounge around stream beds and ponds on hot days.
In recent years, land managers of other livestock species have adapted practices—such as rotational grazing—to try an imitate the natural interaction of bison with the soil. Those practices are beneficial, but will never completely replicate the natural patterns of bison.
One of the most common words of advice given to new bison producers is, “You can make a bison go anywhere it wants to go.”
Because bison are undomesticated, they must be handled very carefully to prevent injuries to both animals and handlers. In fact, the more stress applied to bison, the more dangerous the situation is. Through the years, bison producers have learned to adopt low-stress, humane handling techniques to keep animals calm and stress-free.
Bison are naturally-adapted to the environmental conditions of North America, so producers handle their animals less often than do producers of domesticated species like cattle and sheep.
In addition, growth hormones are never utilized in bison, and antibiotics are used only to treat sick animals. That means that bison are never “run through the chutes” to administer growth stimulants. Humane handling practices utilized throughout the bison business are adapted to utilize the behavioral patterns of bison.
It begins with the pasture and corral conditions used by producers. In pasture conditions, producers know that ample food and water, and a right balance of male and female animals, will keep the herd at “home.”
During times when animals are handled, bison producers have learned that “slow and quiet” is a prerequisite for successful management. Bison still have their prey animal instincts, and thus will generally predictably react to unfamiliar species (including humans) that move within their zone of comfort.
Bison producers learn how to gently apply and release pressure to bison by moving within the animals’ natural flight zones. By utilizing these natural techniques, ranchers help the animals move through facilities more calmly.
Similarly, bison finishing operations are designed to allow animals to exercise their natural social behavior, including the establishment of a natural “pecking order.”
Providing ample space assures that stress is minimized, which results in better quality meat. In fact, the standard recommendation of 400 square feet per animal for bison in finishing facilities is roughly double the space allotted for cattle in a similar arrangement.
The same principles apply to the harvesting of bison in commercial facilities. Animals that are calm prior to harvest will produce higher quality meat, thereby creating an incentive to treat bison humanely at the processing facility. Most commercial processing facilities today have handling facilities specifically designed to keep the animals calm and quiet.
Today’s bison producers recognize that they are the stewards of this magnificent animal. The baseline of that stewardship is respect for the animal, and a commitment to humane