Getting into bison farming made easier thanks to mentors

Mentorship can be the difference between success and failure for young people who want to enter the ag industry

BIG SKY, Mont. — The topic comes up at most farm meetings: how can more young people be encouraged to enter the industry?

For two younger producers at the International Bison Conference, mentorship was key.

Southern Alberta bison producer Cody Spencer found his way into the business four years ago through Rick Mackenzie, a rancher with a herd near Foremost, Alta. After discovering a fascination with bison, Spencer got a job on Mackenzie’s ranch and gained some experience with the animals.

In early 2014, he started a bison meat marketing business and began buying animals.

“I can’t say enough about how Rick Mackenzie has helped me get started in the bison business,” said Spencer. In addition to on-the-job training and advice, “he sold me some heifer calves that turned into the main herd.”

Those animals were kept within Mackenzie’s larger herd. Spencer then augmented his holdings by buying another herd in 2015 from owners who wanted to get out of the business. Now he has about 30 breeding cows and about 55 animals in total.

“Now I’m just kind of in a stage of trying to expand my leased land holdings throughout southern Alberta, looking for more grass to put bison on, to expand my grass finishing operation.

“I’ve built up kind of a good loyal local bison meat following and that’s been really good as well.”

Without mentorship, Spencer said the going would have been tough. He recalls skepticism from Farm Credit Canada when he approached it for a loan.

“We have numbers to show where the market’s at and the sustainability. The market right now is rock solid and it’s projected to grow and even with that, they were very reluctant to give me a loan,” he said. Though FCC provided funding for some of his animals, for others, “I had to find funding elsewhere.”

Whether it’s bison, cattle or farming, however, Spencer said the challenges for young people wanting to enter the agricultural industry are similar.

Bison are slightly less daunting in some ways.

“There’s all the same challenges, land base being probably the biggest one. Luckily there’s not as many equipment hurdles (with bison.) It can be a very basic grazing operation. That’s how I’m able to build relationships with people who think raising bison is a good idea and looking to rent land from those people. That’s how I’m able to do it.”

Mentorship was also key for Sarah Gleason, who started her own bison herd in Colorado.

Mimi Hillenbrand, who operates the vast 777 Ranch near Hermosa, South Dakota, sold Gleason some animals that she could keep for a time in the 777 Ranch herd.

“(Hillenbrand) has allowed me to purchase animals in her herd, so during roundup I went up there … and I chose my animals in the herd and took her tag out and put my tag in, so I was able to purchase my first 15 mama cows.”

Gleason pays the ranch a grazing fee for the cows, from which she sells the bull calves for income and keeps the heifers for herd expansion.

“I was able to structure the finances and the operation so that I can pay off that initial herd that I started with her, over some years,” said Gleason, who will own the animals outright in four years.

She also required a loan to start her operation but was able to do that privately rather than through a bank.

Gleason is the director of marketing and communications for the Savory Institute, so she is knowledgeable about grazing and the beneficial effects of livestock on land quality. In that role, she meets many ranchers and has seen the challenges for new entrants.

“You get in this Catch-22 where you need animals and you need the animals to be able to pay for a mortgage on the land, but you can’t pay for both at the same time, so which do you do first?

“Really, the mentorship with Mimi, among showing me how to do holistic management with bison and manage the animals and learn how to do the business, it also allowed me to establish a herd without having land.”

While gradually paying for the animals, she can figure out whether to buy or lease land and then move her bison off the 777 Ranch.

Her personal experience has her wondering how the bison industry can help young producers buy bison or buy land or both. But she has no worries about her venture.

“This is going to sound kind of cheesy, but it’s what I felt I was meant to do,” she said.

“Of course the market is a great incentive. The animals are very cool. There’s a lot of romance that comes along with it, but there is a lot of work and a lot of different challenges that come with this species.”

Spencer also voiced a passion for bison. Though the handling and management of the wild animals may seem daunting, he said that aspect shouldn’t worry potential entrants.

“I think that it’s not as big of a hurdle as people think it is to get into bison and the outlook is a lot better than the beef industry, in my opinion, and so I would just encourage people who are on the fence to just explore it a little more.”

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