By Connor Lynch
PERTH — Though the shaggy, massive-shouldered bison — commonly called buffalo — has long been a symbol of the Canadian Prairies, the wild and nomadic animals haven’t been a popular choice as livestock here in Ontario. Only 1 in 1,000 farms in Ontario are bison farms.
Some Ontario producers have found a sustainable niche raising the snorting, stomping beasts for health-conscious consumers.
In fact, the bison population in Ontario has soared and sunk. In 1996, there were 2,344 bison on 46 farms in Ontario. That grew year over year to 2006, when there were 4,106 bison on 71 farms in Ontario. By 2011, that number had fallen back down to 2,320 animals on 60 farms. Last year, that had dropped to 49 farms and 1,843 bison. American and Canadian bison associations announced a joint effort to try and boost the North American bison population to one million animals this July. But the plan is mum on details, and could take two decades to achieve, if at all.
Prices have been more optimistic. The hot hanging weight price of bison per pound in Ontario has gone from $1.75 in 2005 to a peak of $4.00 in 2011, though it dropped to $3.85 in 2012.
National market reports from June of this year put the price of bison at $6.30 to $6.50 per pound.
Ontario Bison Association president Richard Allan, who farms 30 bison on his farm at the town of Perth, told Farmers Forum that the collapse of bison in Ontario was likely because producers were selling off breeding animals as prices strengthened. “The price for finished heifers was just as good as for finished bulls,” he said. Since then, demand for bison has only strengthened. “Bison is one of the healthier red meats. So for the last few years as people have been researching, bison has been really fitting into people’s interests in healthy alternatives.” Consumers have been showing an increasing interest in bison meat as they’ve discovered its lower fat and higher protein content, Allan said.
The meat is popular among chefs, who like it for its flavour, slightly sweeter than beef, and fine marbling. Despite the wild profile of the animals, the meat doesn’t have a gamey flavour.
Right now there aren’t enough bison in Ontario to meet demand, said Allan. Most farmers in the province only farm the animals part time; full-time bison farmers are as few and far between as the animals themselves.
For an enterprising producer, the difficulty is either making a market selling to other farmers, or making the time going to farmers’ markets and selling to restaurants. Unlike beef animals, which can simply go to the sale barn, producers need to do the legwork themselves to find a market for their bison.
Despite the heft and intimidating profile of the animals, they’re easier to keep than beef cattle, said Allan. For one, bison are much more tolerant of lower-quality feed than beef, and a bison will eat about a third-less hay than a beef cow. Bison are also very healthy, and apart from a deworming, they don’t need much in veterinary attention. The only livestock they don’t play nice with are sheep. Sheep carry a disease that doesn’t harm sheep, but will wreak havoc on a bison herd. “You just can’t have them on the same farm or drinking from the same water source.”
Allan has about 60 acres that he grazes his animals on. His bison have never come close to overgrazing any of those 60 acres, he said. They also don’t need buildings; the animals are native to this part of the world and are fully capable of coping with Canadian cold.
It can be difficult to find abattoirs that take bison, and most of them are provincially licensed, so the meat has to stay within the province.
Shipping isn’t much of a concern. The animals tend to stay calm and quiet on the truck. “I’ve had truckers tell me they don’t even know they’re back there once they’re loaded.” Corrals for bison need to almost totally block their line of sight, said Allan, or else they try to go through it. But once they’re on a trailer they calm right down, he said.
Most bison meat gets sold at the farmgate, though grocery stores and restaurants are also happy to take bison meat once they know it’s in the area, Allan said.
The animals also have little to no issues with predators. “Coyotes don’t have anything to do with (bison). Same with bears, especially if you have bulls.”
That wildness can also work against a farmer. Bison aren’t vicious or hostile, said Allan. “They’re not aggressive as long as you’re not confining them. (But) they’ll never domesticate like beef cattle. They know me, but I would never go in the field with them unless I was in a tractor or near a fence.”
Bison farmer Archie MacDonald at Summerstown, east of Cornwall, said that his 50-bison herd started as a hobby in 1980 when he was a dairy farmer. By 1999, he’d gotten out of the dairy business and into bison, expanding at one point to 100 animals.
He sold much of his own meat at the farmgate, as well as making the rounds at nearby farmers’ markets, for about eight years. That has its advantages for producers, although MacDonald has quit that game as he’s gotten older. Now, 79-year-old MacDonald sends calves to a couple of farms at Sault St. Marie. His new market brings in the same revenue as his old, and is much less work.
Meanwhile, people still come by the farm looking for bison meat.