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Beginning With Bison

A Saskatchewan family enjoys bison on the hoof and on the plate

By Amy Jo Ehman

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It could be that the only bison I see this evening will be on my plate.
Daniel Blais has served a fragrant sirloin tip roast hot from the BBQ with mushrooms and horseradish. His daughters, Keltye, 9, and Jacynthe, 7, have sung grace in French. Through the kitchen window is a glowing view from the top of the Eagle Hills Escarpment, a vista stretching 20 green and rolling kilometres over the valley of the Battle River to the town of Battleford, Sask.

The Blais’ small herd of bison is nowhere to be seen. They are out there somewhere, hidden in the dips and coulees of their wooded pasture.

“We only have a half section of land, but by the time you go up and down all those hills, we’ve got quite a bit more pasture than that,” says Daniel. “If the bison are in the trees you won’t ever find them.”

Five years ago, Daniel and Tami Blais sold their house in town and moved to this country home. She was a city kid who always wanted to live on a farm. He was a farm kid who went to college in Edmonton and came home to teach. Both wanted their children to grow up in the country.

They bought a quarter section of land, and when the adjoining quarter came up for sale, they bought that, too. They now rent half the farm–the cultivated land–to a neighbour.

“It was a lifestyle choice for us and for our children,” says Daniel. “We wanted our girls to have an opportunity to grow up on a farm with the fresh air and all the critters.”

Animals on the Blais farm include ducks, chickens, rabbits, kittens, several golden retrievers and a herd of 8-15 bison. They raise bison for their own dinner table because the meat is high in protein, low in fat and all natural.

Daniel hands out seconds on the bison. “Tender, please,” says Jacynthe with a grin missing two front teeth. He laughs: “Anyone who comes to our house is not going to eat poultry!”

Patient for Profits

Daniel bought his first bison before he bought this farm. He kept them at his parents’ farm, a few kilometres away. At that time in the late 1990s, raising bison was lucrative as many farmers were just starting their herds. Breeding stock fetched a high price.

Today, the price of bison has fallen significantly, in part because there was a glut on the market, in part because it was blocked from US sales by the BSE crisis in cattle (see side bar).

But that didn’t deter Daniel and Tami whose only desire is that, over time, the bison pay for themselves and the extra expenses of country living such as gasoline and vehicle wear and tear.

“Have we got our money out of our bison so far? I would have to say no,” says Daniel. “Eventually we will. But we decided we’re in it for the long haul.”

“We’re also saving on our food bill,” says Tami.

Moving the bison to their own farm required a large outlay for proper fencing. They installed six strands of high-tensile steel wire on 8-foot posts plus an electric fencer for a cost of about $4,000.

Other costs are minimal; no barn is required and they buy hay only in dry years when the pastures do not produce enough. The time requirement is also small. Contact is made with the herd to tag the calves, to slaughter for meat and to transport for sale. Bison do not generally require intervention at calving as do cattle.

“They are very self-sufficient,” says Tami. “We usually go out there just because we want to see them.”

Ear tagging is required for any animal that will be sold to the general public, whether as stock or for meat. The Blaises transport their calves to his parents’ farm for tagging, where there is a hydraulic squeeze to hold the animals still. The Saskatchewan Bison Association rents a portable handling facility to farmers too small to purchase their own.

While the Blaises make a small revenue selling meat to friends and by selling surplus calves at auction, neither Daniel, a teacher, nor Tami, who works seasonally for Parks Canada, plan to quit their day jobs soon.

I glance again over the rolling pastures, and this time I see the distinct dark forms of bison grazing on a field of green.

“Dessert can wait,” says Tami. We jump in the truck and head down a rugged prairie trail with the farm dog, Mr. Jones, leading the way. The bison look up in curiosity when we stop nearby and jump out to take pictures. A beautiful rainbow emerges over the pasture; these bison truly are the treasure on this small Saskatchewan farm.

The Ups & Downs of Bison

Not long ago, there was a glut of bison on the market as more and more farmers were raising bison but the general public was not yet eating it. That’s changing rapidly.

“When you look at the aging baby boomers and the shift to more natural and organic foods, bison is a perfect fit,” says Mark Silzer, chairman of the Canadian Bison Association. “Now the scare is on the other side, that we’re not going to be able to supply the demand that’s coming on board for this product.”

Silzer and other family members run a 250-head bison farm near Humboldt, Sask., with plans to expand to 400 head. He says bison farming on that scale is more expensive than raising cattle, but also more profitable.

But, he says the cost of extra-strong fencing and restraining equipment could be prohibitive for small farmers, unless they market directly into a large urban area or have an extra selling point.

“We have farmers in Ontario and Quebec who live near populated areas who have built a pretty good little market around a small herd. They not only sell the meat at a premium, but they also market the hide, might have it in conjunction with a Bed and Breakfast, or have a tourist angle that brings people from the city to see the bison.”

According to Silzer, a good heifer costs about $600. A breeding bull could cost much more, up to $3,000. Bison breed in their second year and give birth in the third, making it feasible to start small and build the herd gradually.

“If you’re a smaller producer looking to start from scratch, with limited knowledge of the bison, you might want to start with calves. That way they get accustomed to you and you can grow with them,” he says.

During the BSE crisis bison were banned along with cattle from the lucrative American market. Even though, according to Silzer, there has never been a case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in North American bison because they are primarily raised on grass, not on supplemental feed that may contain animal protein.

Recently, however, the border has opened to bison under 30 months of age and Silzer says the price for livestock has improved. “I do think those prices are going to go up, so if someone was looking to get in, this is a good time,” he says.