The image of bison roaming across an endless prairie is a strong symbol of our American landscape before the settlement by pioneers in the 1800’s. No doubt, these American icons evolved through the centuries to live in harmony with the natural ecosystem of North America.
Why, then, are bison in commercial herds sometimes kept in corrals?
Many bison producers utilize corrals and finishing facilities as a part of their management strategy to control the attributes of the finished meat, to humanely treat their herds, and to protect grasslands and the health of the animals.
A healthy herd and a financially viable business requires ranchers to efficiently manage their bison within the limitations of their land base. Ranchers today work to replicate the ability of bison to demonstrate their natural tendencies as much as possible. But ranches have boundaries, and any time an animal is kept within a fenced environment, producers must provide certain interventions to protect the health and welfare of the herd. Mineral supplementation and deworming practices are just two examples of human interventions that are regularly conducted on bison in all types of production protocols, including most public herds.
Keeping bison in a corral finishing system is widely considered as a practice tied to grain finishing animals. But there are many reasons that bison are also contained in corral systems.
Until recently, the commercial meat market focused almost exclusively on grain-finished products. This is the environment in which bison producers and marketers struggled to introduce their products to the American public through the years.
Quality and consistency was a major impediment to establishing a commercial market for bison in the early years. As one marketer recalls, “When I started 26 years ago, most of the bison was being marketed by the exotic game purveyors. There was little quality control. Age, body condition and the presence of fat/fat color did not matter – it was buffalo.”
Producers began developing practices and protocols that would address the problems of inconsistency in quality and supply, and would produce meat appealing to a wider segment of the public. Even so, those practices were developed with a strong recognition to the basic realities of bison biology and social behavior.
First of all, confinement in corrals for finishing is conducted under a much shorter time period than similar finishing regimens for beef. All bison—regardless of finishing protocols—spend the majority of their lives on pasture. A survey conducted by the National Bison Association found that bison finishing operations typically keep bulls in finishing facilities for 180 days or less, and female animals for 120 days or less. Bison have not been bred to contain internal fat marbling that is common in choice and prime beef. Consequently, there is little financial incentive for producers to keep animals in finishing facilities any longer than necessary.
Because any meat carries the flavor of the feed the animal consumed prior to harvest, finishing on a ration containing a mixture of grain and forage produces a product that has consistent flavor from season-to-season, and region-to-region. Additionally, the finishing ration produces meat with a white fat cover, which is desired among many consumers.
Not all finishing systems utilize a grain-based ration. Bison can be finished on a diet of grass hay and forage, but may still be kept in corrals for a period of time to facilitate handling prior to slaughter.
Bison in finishing facilities consume a diet that is much less “hot” than a typical cattle ration, with a lower percentage of energy (fat) and a higher level of roughage. The bison’s diet must consist of components that are both conducive to conversion and amenable to the digestive tract of the bison and their evolutionary reality. Producers thus often mimic the nutritional regimen of the most selectable flora, but supply additional energy for balance. Diet components that are synthetic, or that artificially promote growth are prohibited by the bison industry and the NBA’s Code of Ethics. Further, bison are frequently finished with feed provided in a “free choice” arrangement. This allows the animals to self-select how much grain and forage they consume to meet their nutritional requirements.
Finishing protocols are one reason for keeping bison in pens, but there are other reasons as well.
Bison producers today supply a year-round market. That means that they need to select animals on a regular basis for processing. Bison right off pasture tend to be harder to handle and more flighty. Bison in a small pasture or corral settle with the daily presence of humans and eventually handle a bit easier. The result is less bruising, easier loading/sorting. This is even more important today with the concerns about animal welfare. So supplementing grain and forage to have them “on the gain”, and to become used to human interaction, provides less stress on the animal and more safety for the handlers.
All producers know that stress is a major factor that inhibits growth and compromises the health of their animals. Accordingly, bison finishers have adopted protocols that allow for adequate space so that bison can establish their pecking order without creating stress on the animals. As a rule, bison producers allow more room for animal than cattle producers in finishing facilities in order to alleviate stress on the herds.
Bison producers do not regularly sort animals among pens during the finishing phase. Again, every time you change the mix of animals, they have to establish a new pecking order, which increases stress and decreases performance.
Additionally, producers regularly use corrals as a means to house animals that are injured and ill, and to help those animals regain full health in a low-stress environment.
The current drought illustrates the extreme difficulty bison producers’ face in maintaining a healthy balance of animals on their pastures and rangelands. Overgrazing is always a consideration, even in years of “normal” moisture throughout most of the North American ecosystem. When dry weather, or an extended drought, settles in, ranchers must be proactive to adjust their stocking rates to protect their pastures. An overgrazed pasture may require years of recovery time, particularly in the semi-arid regions of the country,
Without corrals as an option, bison producers would simply have to de-stock during dry periods by sending their animals to slaughter. Drought conditions obviously impact all livestock sectors, however bison producers face additional challenges because of the nature of the business. Replacement animals are not as readily available as they are with domestic livestock.
Farmers in the United States have historically brought their livestock into corrals in the winter, and prior to slaughter. In fact, finishing in corrals (regardless of the feed composition) can actually help small producers be economically viable.
For example, if a land base has a carrying capacity of one animal “unit” (cow and calf) per 30 acres, it will require more than 60 acres to bring an animal from birth to slaughter at 27 months of age in a purely pasture-based model. However, by moving some of those animals into a finishing facility prior to slaughter, a rancher eases the grazing impact on their pasture land, and keeps the growing grass for use by the mother cows and their new calves, where nutrition is most vital.
Also some small producers who farm and raise their own feed can utilize the lower quality grain they produce by feeding it to their own livestock vs. taking a lower price at the elevator. Farmers and ranchers need options in order to stay viable and sustainable.
Bison have evolved though the centuries to efficiently harvest nutrients from the grasses and forage native to the North American ecosystem. Bison ranchers today work to accommodate those natural behaviors as much as possible. And, in fact, the National Bison Association Code of Ethics is aimed at assuring that “buffalo will always be buffalo.”
A few large producers have thousands of animals spread across vast landscapes. But the average producer in the United States maintains a herd of fewer than 35 animals. Large or small, bison producers across the country strive to consistently supply the market with nutrient dense, quality meat from humanely and naturally raised animals. Regardless of finishing protocols, low-fat, high protein bison meat is proven to have strong nutritional benefits.
This partnership between ranchers and their customers is the key factor that will provide an incentive for continued restoration of the bison species on the privately owned lands of North America.