Raising Bison

Starting Your Bison Operation

So you’re ready to start raising bison, you’ve come to the right place! The NBA has all you need to start raising these magnificent animals. A great place to start is with a membership to the National Bison Association.

Joining the NBA is the most economic approach to learning how to raise and market bison. Active and Life members will receive the 2nd Edition of the Bison Producers’ Handbook, our single best selling product, free of charge, a $40 value. Members will also receive the NBA’s renowned trade journal, Bison World, as well as our weekly electronic news service, the “Weekly Update”, which contains the most up to date industry news available today. As a member of the National Bison Association, we can also connect potential producers with a bison mentor in their region. These industry veterans are always ready and welcome newcomers into the community of bison producers.

Also, the National Bison Association offers our archived webinars and recorded conference presentations featuring top industry experts educating members on an array of pertinent bison management and marketing topics. Members also have access to our recent regional bison management webinar series, which feature regional expert presenters discussing management variances in bison production in the North, South, East and West.

Bison Per Acre & Fencing

There is no simple answer to the question of bison stocking rates. The types of forage, soil quality, water, environment and other factors directly affect the number of animals you can maintain on a given acreage. Your local county extension agent, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, university’s agricultural extension office, and local beef or dairy producers can all help you determine the carrying capacity of your acreage as it will be comparable to grazing cattle.  You may find that you can run more bison per acre, however, it is best to start out with a safe number and adjust as you go. Remember, an adult animal eats more than a young animal and a lactating cow eats more than a non-lactating cow.

Fencing on bison ranches and farms varies greatly. Some folks use a good taut cattle fence while some build fortresses. The preference is somewhere in-between. What works for one person may not work for you. Ultimately, it boils down to management and keeping bison well fed, watered in a good social mix thereby not giving them an excuse to leave the fenced area. Exterior fences should be of prime importance. Interior or cross fencing is also important, but some producers can get by with a lesser quality. Many producers recommend an exterior fence of six feet. If a bison can get his nose over the fence and wants to be out, it has the ability to do so as grown bulls can make a standing six foot jump, if so inclined. Electric fence is common as well and bison will typically learn to respect a hot wire. Also keep in mind that calves can crawl under fences if too high, however wildlife should be able to pass through without getting caught. Further, the top line of your fence should be at or above a bison’s line of vision, as that will act as a deterrent as well.

Handling & Carcass Info

Bison are not domesticated animals and require different handling than cattle and other livestock. Many bison producers agree with the saying “You can get a bison to go anywhere it wants to go.”. Bison are much more nervous and excitable in close quarters, which are indicators of stress. As such work bison slower, calmer and more quietly than you would other livestock. Handling facilities will need to be stronger and taller than pasture fences. Your facility for capturing, sorting, treating, testing, loading out, or confining your bison should be strong, long lasting, cost efficient, bison-specific  and, most importantly, safe for you and your animals. One of the best ways to determine facility needs  is to talk and visit with other producers and attend bison association conferences and workshops.

Consistency is very important to the food service industry. Marketers want to be assured that producers provide consistent size, age, and quality of steaks and other cuts of bison meat. Here are some general guidelines for bison slaughter weights:

For a Bison Butcher Bull (18-30 Months)

  • Average Live Weight: 950 lbs – 1,250 lbs
  • Ideal Live Weight: 1,130 lbs
  • Average Carcass Weight: 550lbs – 725 lbs
  • Ideal Carcass Weight: 650 lbs
  • Average Yield: 57% of live weight
  • Average Yield of meat – 450 lbs/carcass

Types of Bison Operations

There are many segments of the bison industry, which are very similar to that of other livestock sectors. Some run cow-calf operations and sell their weaned calves each fall. Other producers specialize in breeding stock. Some producers raise bison from birth through processing, “gate to plate”,  and then market the meat themselves. There are hundreds of plants around the country approved for USDA inspection of bison. Other producers utilize qualified state-inspected plants to process their animals. Further, there are marketers and brokers who buy finished animals and then market the meat themselves. Bison auctions have a season that runs from November to March and are located across the country to buy and sell live bison. The NBA’s Event Calendar lists many bison auctions during the year.