Madden, Alta. — Gary Sweetnam doesn’t beat around the bush when asked about why he got into raising bison. For him, it’s been a profitable venture.
“There has been good money in it,” said Sweetnam, who owns Glengary Bison with his wife, Cynthia Austin, near Madden.
The couple raise about 40 head on prairie grasses only. The females are routinely sold as breeding stock to other farmers looking to get into the business. The males are produced for pet food, and for meat sold directly to consumers and restaurants.
“I haven’t killed one female,” he said, noting their meat is fattier. “Lots of people don’t want fat for various reasons. Personally, I want to live until I’m 120, so I don’t want a lot of fat in my diet.”
For the animals that are processed, however, he uses every part of it.
For instance, the ribs are used as dog bones, the skulls have been sold to artists, and the organs are used to make pet food. The higher-quality cuts are used to make products such as sausages, burgers, steaks, roasts, and short ribs.
“It’s been very good for us,” he said.
Sweetnam, originally from Scotland, moved to Alberta in 1968. He had experience raising Black Angus in Scotland, but soon began helping a producer in Bergen, Alta. with his bison operation.
He managed to find suitable land to start his own herd in 1997. He ventured across Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Montana and Wyoming to learn about different breeds.
He looked for bison that had high meat potential, as well as favourable temperament.
“I want to see a long back, a big ass and I don’t want fighters,” he said. “I’ve had 98 people for tours and not one of those animals were aggressive, so they’re used to people.”
He said good sales and relatively low operating costs have allowed him to be profitable. Austin also runs a horse training program on the side.
“This bison industry sort of subsidizes her hobby,” Sweetnam joked.
He said demand for bison is growing as consumers become more health conscious.
He finds there is a market for bison meat where the animals are not treated in the same manner as beef.
“I have nothing against beef, but some people, including me, don’t want growth hormones or steroids,” he said. “Raising bison takes a lot longer but your quality is better as far as I’m concerned.”