The single most important factor to reduce, minimize or eliminate in bison management systems is stress. Various dictionaries describe stress as “mental, emotional or physical strain, pressure, or tension”. Stress is more complicated than the definition implies and is caused by any number of factors or combinations of factors. I consider excessive stress to be a debilitating influence on bison.

Examples of factors which cause stress are physical (predators), environmental (excessive heat), chemical (pesticide residues), and biological (disease). Regardless of the cause, a bison’s body reacts to counteract stress both consciously and unconsciously. An example of an obvious conscious reaction to a physical stressor such as a predator, is flighty or aggressive behavior.

An example of a less obvious and unconscious reaction to stress is the occurrence of diarrhea. A prey animals’ ability to empty their bowels improves their chances of fleeing from predators. When stressed, the bison’s metabolism automatically sets a physiological chain of events in action, resulting in rapid evacuation of the bowel contents. Five gallons of loose stool weighs over 50 lbs. This can represent 10% of the body weight of a five hundred pound animal. By eliminating this weight the animal can run faster, and for a significantly longer duration. This is an example of a beneficial or adaptive stress reaction.

The bison’s reaction to stress can be detrimental or non-adaptive, especially when the cause of the stress is not removed. Under continued stress, cumulative episodes of diarrhea actually contribute to electrolyte imbalance and dehydration through the loss of body salts and water from the bowel. Prey animals that become dehydrated and suffer a build up of acid in muscles lose their ability to run quickly and in extreme cases have difficulty in maintaining their balance. At this stage the predator is very likely to succeed in securing its next meal.

So how does this discussion actually relate to preparing bison for auction sale venues?

Bison that are not familiarized with the many stressors they will face when taken to an auction sale venue do not fare well compared to bison that have had what I term “preparatory training”.

The advantage for those bison that have had “preparatory training” is even more significant at show and sale venues, versus sale venues. This is simply because bison that are brought in to show and sale venues are often:

  • hauled longer distances
  • mixed in pens with other bison they have never had exposure to
  • detained in the show and sale venues for longer periods of time
  • exposed to high levels of disruptive human traffic, often for prolonged periods
  • scrutinized by judges, which often means human traffic in their pens or movement of the animals in and out of pens to facilitate viewing

Animals that do not cope successfully with stress at auction sale venues:

  • cause physical injury to themselves or pen mates. Broken horns, fractured nasal sinuses, fractured skulls, jaws, ribs, limbs or serious foot injuries are some examples
  • lose weight very rapidly
  • become much more susceptible to disease

Often the total effect of stress is not completely seen in the severely stressed animal until it has been transported away from the sale venue to its new home. Bison are extremely resilient, but in these cases, complete recovery often requires weeks or months rather than days.

Most experienced buyers are aware of the implications of shows sales and make a conscious effort to avoid purchasing these animals, or will only do so at discounts that are directly related to the degree of stress they assess the animal is reflecting. Obviously, animals that are exhibiting the effects of high stress levels are also not favoured by judges.

Most auction marts work very hard to minimize stress to the animals that are brought to their facilities. However, if you have not exposed your animals to “preparatory training” prior to hauling them to a sale venue, the effects of stress are almost always going to reduce the physical well being and/or value of your animals as perceived by the judges and potential buyers.

What are the most effective ways to provide “preparatory training” to your bison?

  • Segregate the animals that are being prepared for sale venues into small groups.
  • Take the time to change pen mates in those smaller pen groups a few times. Use common sense in doing this. Do not mix ages and sexes. Do not force animals that are not coping well with the change to remain in a stressful situation without relief.
  • Spend as much time as is reasonably possible on foot in the pens and alleyways with these bison so they recognize that human traffic up close and at ground level is not a threat.
  • Hand feed your sale animals so they associate the human presence directly with being rewarded.
  • Do not take those individual animals that continuously demonstrate aggressive or pronounced flighty behaviour to public sale venues. Target those individuals that fail to adjust to direct human exposure directly towards the meat industry.
  • If you are hauling animals for longer than 12 hours at a time, especially in hot weather, provide drinking water supplemented with electrolytes.
  • Withdraw grain from their diets 48 hours prior to transport and feed good quality, well-cured grass hay.

Judges often view sale animals for prolonged periods of time, simply because of the effort required to study 70 to 120 individual animals carefully and thoughtfully. Until you have been in this situation you underestimate the cumulative effect stress judging can have on an individual animal in a 2 to 4 hour time interval. I have seen beautiful bison unloaded from trucks that spend the rest of their time at the venue continually running in their pens. They often fall and skid across the floor surface or try to jump over pens or smash through barriers, simply because they are terrified. These individuals’ behavior has a very negative ripple effect on pen-mates. In some cases, within 6 hours of being unloaded, bison that are not coping well can lose up to 10% of their body weight and often have one or more physical injuries.

On the other side of the coin are animals that cope very well in new surroundings. Not surprisingly, these animals consistently come from producers who have a reputation for doing well at show and sale venues, or from new producers that have obviously done their homework. These producers have made a conscious effort to prepare their animals for the rigors of the public arena and are always rewarded with higher value for their consignments and happy customers who will not hesitate to purchase animals from them again.

The bison industry is maturing. The inevitable result is that competition at public venues is getting stronger every year. New producers wishing to succeed, or established producers who intend to keep up, should not ignore the need to come prepared. Good luck this upcoming sale season.