An estimated 20 to 30 million bison once roamed in North American from the Appalachians to the Rockies, and from the Gulf Coast to Alaska. Habitat loss and unregulated hunting reduced the population to under 2,000 animals by 1889. Today, approximately 500,000 bison live across North America, mostly on farms and ranches. Fewer than 30,000 wild bison live in conservation herds in national and state parks and reserves.
Today’s bison ancestors appeared on the planet 5-10 million years ago (homo sapiens have only been dated back to 200,000 years) after splitting with the bovine lineage that eventually became the beef cow. Bison lived amongst mammoths, sabretooth tigers and giant sloths. Today’s bison are much smaller than their larger ancestors and their main natural predators are wolves and mountain lions. Bison live in large numbers so as to provide safety and create a more random harvesting by predators. They circle up when predators are present and push the calves into the center of the group. They are extremely aggressive animals using their horns, heavy heads, kicking action of their hooves and their thick skin to fight off attacks. We have found coyote skeletons with half of the skull sheared off, presumably by bison attacking them to protect the herd, and have never lost a bison of any age to a coyote attack.
Bison are wild animals and will remain that way for a very long time. It takes 8,000-10,000 years to domesticate an animal, and not all animal species will allow themselves to be domesticated, such as the zebra. It is only because of modern technology that we are able to keep them fenced in using special wildlife fencing that is much taller than cattle fencing and quite expensive. The corral is more than twice as fortified as one that would be used for cattle and we have built it so that the animals cannot do damage to the workers or each other. As mentioned, they are very aggressive and can be very dangerous, and they never become tame or friendly. Bison can run 40 miles per hour, use their horns as weapons and can jump 5 feet from a standing position. Thomas Jefferson once tried to keep a bison at Monticello using 18th century fencing technology and it lasted about 3 hours before the animal busted out and was gone.
There are three types of modern bison worldwide. One lives in Northern Europe, is quite rare, smaller in stature and called a wisent. The woods bison lives mostly in Canada and has a very small population worldwide. The most common bison is the plains bison and exists in both the US and Canada naturally. All bison at Virginia Bison Co. are plains bison. Bison are capable of breeding with beef cattle, and while this is not practiced anymore, it was a common way to build a small bison herd back before the 1970’s when bison were much more rare. One bison bull could be bred to beef cows and produce 50% bison-cattle hybrid (called cattelo or beefalo), then that 50% hybrid could be bred to another bison to get a 75%, and after a few more breedings like this the farmer ended up with mostly bison genetics. Cross breeding bison and cattle only produces a difficult animal to handle without providing any of the low-fat and low cholesterol meat that you get from bison. This practice of cross breeding for the past 100 years has resulted in a small percentage of cattle genetics that many bison carry today.
Bison are grazing animals that feed on native prairie grasses mostly. They have a strong herd instinct and tend to graze and travel in large groups. Their mob-like behavior creates a heavy hoof action and substantial manure spreading which is very good for the rejuvenation of prairie and pasture grasses and an integral part of the ecology of open grassland soils. They have a very thick winter coat that sheds away to a slick seal-like undercoat during the summer months. They manage their hair growth, shedding and conditioning by creating wallows, which are large dust baths that they will roll around in. Wallows usually then remain free of vegetation since they are used often and by each animal. All bison are born orange and turn brown just about the time that they are old enough to survive without nursing milk from their mother. All males are called bulls and all females are called cows, and there is no difference between a bison and an American buffalo. The first explorers called them buffalo, not really knowing exactly what they were with the word le boeuf meaning cow, ox or beef in French helped to further confuse the naming. The only true buffalo that exist in the world are African Cape Buffalo and Water Buffalo, and water buffalo number in the hundreds of millions worldwide and are recently being introduced into human and pet foods in the US as “buffalo” further complicating things. Bison are now the U.S. National Mammal as of 2016.
Bison have humps in order to anchor their unusually large heads. The large head is used as a snow plow to move snow drifts away from grass that they can smell 3-4 feet down under the snow. Their hair coat can be so thick as to create a snow and ice insulation on their backs that does not melt. They have very large guts (called rumen) that are capable of holding a 3 day quantity of food while it slowly digests and crates massive amounts of heat (like a compost pile) that keeps the animal warm during the coldest northern winters in the upper reaches of Canada and Alaska. Bison do not need or use any shelter.
Feed and Digestion
All ruminant animals harvest and consume large quantities of forage in order to feed a wide variety of microbial “bugs” in their gut consisting of fungi, bacteria, protozoa and a variety of other microorganisms. The bugs then breakdown and digest forages in the first, second and third stomachs. The ruminant then digests this large assortment of bugs in the fourth chamber of their stomach. They ultimately digest this massive quantity of microorganisms and survive off these animal and plant proteins, meaning that ruminant animals are not actually vegetarians. In fact, there are no mammals that are actually vegetarians, despite the fact that they harvest plant materials as a source of food for these “bugs” (again, like a compost pile). The “bugs” that feed off the plant material that the bison harvests to feed them are passed from adult to calf through saliva, whether it be licking on each other, or feeding in the same spot with saliva that drips out of the adult and is then consumed by the calf grazing side-by-side to its mother. This is one reason why it takes about 6 months for a calf to develop its own rumen capable of sustaining a whole biological grass-consuming-factor in its stomach, and requires the animal proteins found in the milk in the meantime.
Virginia Bison Co. bison are produced using an intensive pasture rotational system that is run from March through December. The New Zealand style of rotational grazing has been applied to our bison operation with much success, albeit through trial and error. All ruminant animals desire and consume grains because grains are grassland seeds. The great plains native prairie grasses produce up to 500 lbs. of seed (grain) per acre per year naturally. These seeds are highly nutritious and an important part of the bison breeding cycle to ensure the body condition necessary to conceive and carry a calf through the winter months. This ‘seed’ is the maturity of the grass and the bison eat the seed in balance with the leafy grass in a natural setting. Due to the fact that the rotational grazing system keeps the grass in a constantly vegetative state, the pastures at Virginia Bison Co. do not produce this seed / leaf combination naturally. Please see the grain-on-grass page for more information on how and why grains are used at Virginia Bison Co.
Bison are seasonal producers (unlike cattle and sheep which can breed any month of the year) and go into a breeding season, called rutting, in mid-summer that usually ends around August. Any cows that do not get pregnant but are in good body condition can remain fertile into the early fall, so that sometimes we get calves born the following fall instead of spring like normal. Spring is natures regular cycle for calves to be born as that is when the grass is plentiful for cows to produce milk. Bison are much like deer and elk in their natural breeding and feeding cycles. Bison produce a small quantity of milk that is very thick, rich and sticky compared with cattle milk. It is impossible to milk bison due to the danger and stress on the cow and the quantity of milk produced makes this uneconomical to even consider. Buffalo mozzarella is made from water buffalo, but not bison.
Due to the seasonality of bison breeding, the meats are all harvested in the fall and sold through the year frozen. There are feedlots around the country attempting to provide year-round fresh bison meat, but they are achieving this by harvesting some animals early, some animals late, taking advantage of the longer growth cycle of female bison in the feedlot, and playing feedlot grain mixture tricks. None of this is very cost effective and those high costs are being passed along to the consumer. Virginia Bison Co. has opted to maintain a natural seasonal flow in production and to have all meats flash frozen at the time of harvesting to be sold the following months frozen.