Bison FAQ

Q: Do ranchers cross-breed bison with cattle?

A: Some news stories -erroneously state that buffalo ranchers mix their animals with cattle to produce meat for the marketplace. Nothing is further from the truth. The National Bison Association is dedicated to maintaining the integrity species. In fact, our Code of Ethics specifically prohibits members from deliberately crossbreeding bison with another species. However, the issue of cattle genetics in bison is extremely sensitive and complicated. The bison in private and public herds today are descendants of the buffalo that were gathered by a few individuals who helped save the species from extinction at the end of the 19th century. Some of those individuals experimented briefly with crossbreeding bison and cattle. The resulting offspring did not display any “hybrid vigor,” so those individuals quickly abandoned the practice. Many bison today still carry small traces of cattle genetics from that period in history. While many ranchers today are testing their herds to selectively remove those traces, they are also careful not to eliminate important bison genetics that survived the “bottleneck” of near-extinction in the late 1800’s.

Q: What is the difference between bison and buffalo?

A: Scientifically, the term “buffalo” is incorrect for the North American species; its proper Latin name is Bison bison. However, common usage has made the term “buffalo” an acceptable synonym for the American bison. (from The American Buffalo in Transition, by J. Albert Rorabacher.) Learn more about the NBA’s concerns in truth in labeling regarding the term “buffalo” here.

Q: Where did the word “buffalo” come from?

A: In the seventeenth century, French explorers in North America referred to the new species they encountered as “les boeufs”, meaning oxen or beeves. The English, arriving later, changed the pronunciation to “la buff”. The name grew distorted as “buffle”, “buffler”, “buffillo”, and, eventually, “buffalo”. (from The American Buffalo in Transition, by J. Albert Rorabacher.)=

Q: How much do bison weigh?

A: A mature bison bull will weigh approximately 2,000 pounds while a mature bison cow will weigh approximately 1,100 pounds.

Q: How fast can bison run?

A: Bison can run at speeds up to 40 MPH.

Q: What do bison eat?

A: Bison will do well in most types of pasture. They eat a wider range of items than cattle and will roam the entire pasture while eating. They winter well on native grasses and prairie hay. They can be supplemented during this time with “range cake” if desired.

Q: What would be the best type of grass to graze bison on?

A: Bison do well on a wide variety of grasses and most native grassed in the United States and Canada.

Q: How many bison could be grazed per acre?

A: This depends on local conditions such as growing season and annual rainfall. The National Bison Association recommends calling your local county extension agent, finding out how many beef cattle are recommended, and using that stocking rate to determine the number of bison. Close evaluation of grazing will determine if the stocking rate can be increased.

Q: What is the approximate birth weight of a bison calf?

A: They normally weigh between 40 to 50 pounds. They are usually up and walking or running with their mothers within a couple hours of being born.

Q: What is the gestation period for a female bison?

A: The gestation period for the American bison is 9 1/2 months. Under normal conditions, cows have their calves from mid-April through June. Cows generally have one calf per year, but twins may occur very rarely.

Q: How many calves will a bison have in her lifetime?

A: Female bison breed when they are two years old and have their first calves when they are three. Cows can live to be 20-25 years old having a calf each year under the right conditions.

Q: How long does it take a bison calf to become an adult?

A: Bison calves are normally weaned when they are around six months old. Females generally weigh around 350 lbs. at this time and males weigh around 425 lbs.

Q: What is the average life span of a bison?

A: 20-25 years for female animals. Bulls can live to about 20 years of age.

Q: Is a bison considered a ruminant, meaning do they chew a cud as a cow would?

A: Yes.

Q: Are bison gentle or aggressive?

A: Bison are not domestic animals and should be treated with caution and respect. Each animal has its own distinct personality.

Q: Can you tame bison?

A: Just as lions and tigers can be tamed by professional animal trainers, bison can also be trained. However, bison are not domestic animals.

Q: Do all bison have horns?

A: Yes.

Q: Is bison fur soft?

A: Bison have coarse guard hairs and a soft wool undercoat.

Q: Do bison have front teeth?

A: Yes.

Q: What is the nutritional value of bison?

A: Bison meat contains 2.42 grams of fat, 143 calories, and 82 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams of cooked lean meat. Comparatively, beef: 9.28 grams of fat, 211 calories, and 86 milligrams of cholesterol; pork: 9.66 grams of fat, 212 calories, 86 milligrams of cholesterol; chicken (skinless): 7.41 grams of fat, 190 calories, 89 milligrams of cholesterol.

Q: How many bison are there in North America?

A: There are approximately 400,000-head.

Q: What Regulations Govern the Inspection of Bison Sold into the Commercial Retail and Restaurant Marketplace?

A: Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, bison are classified as an exotic, or “non-amenable species,” and thus operate under some unique regulatory provisions.All bison marketed into the commercial marketplace must be processed in an FDA-approved facility. These facilities are required to comply with all FDA regulations, as well as with the FSIS regulations regarding sanitation.  Bison producers/processors may also request “voluntary inspection” services from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspections Service (FSIS) or from a an accredited state-inspection program which offers inspection “at least equal” to USDA. 
According to the USDA, 68,300 head of bison were processed under USDA inspection or in an accredited state-inspected facility in 2009. This accounts for 99 percent of the bison marketed for meat. Further, products processed under USDA inspection will carry a triangle seal of inspection, and all products processed under a qualified state inspection program will carry the official seal from that state inspection program.

Q: Does buffalo milk or buffalo cheese (mozarella) come from bison?

A: No. Any product labeled as buffalo milk, or buffalo cheese is produced from the milk of water buffalo. Water buffalo are a separate species, and are not related to bison, even though American bison are commonly known as buffalo. Bison are not milked commercially for a couple of reasons. First, the teats on female bison are very small. Also, bison are undomesticated animals, and the females do not adapt well to the type of handling necessary in a milking operation.

Q: How many bison live in Yellowstone National Park?

A: Yellowstone has the largest free roaming bison population in the world. The herd numbers at about 3,500-head.

Q: How many bison are there in the Bison Paddock in Golden Gate Park?

A: 11-head female.

Q: What is the spiritual relationship between the bison and the American Indian culture?

 A: It varies from tribe to tribe. However, many of the tribes relied on bison not just for meat, but for shelter, clothing, and a source of utensils, tools, etc. The bison naturally became a spiritual focus for many American Indian tribes. Often, the creation legends of the tribes included the bison. (from Buffalo Nation, by Valerius Geist.)

Q: What is the National Bison Association?

A: The National Bison Association (NBA) represents over 1,000 members who raise over 250,000 head of bison. The NBA has members in all 50 states and 10 countries. The NBA is a non-profit association which promotes the preservation, production, and marketing of bison. NBA activities and services serve to better inform and educate members and the general public about bison.