On the Farm: The Shankowskys were looking for options during the tough times of the 1990s — they opted for bison
PELLY, Sask. — It’s Grey Cup 1997 and the Saskatchewan Roughriders are playing against the Toronto Argonauts.
The game is billed as Big Country versus Big City, and Gwyn Shankowsky immediately saw the potential.
She, husband Garry and sons Derek and Chris had just bought their first 10 bison and were looking for a name for the new venture.
Big Country Bison was born.
The Shankowsky farm is in the gently rolling big country of east-central Saskatchewan between Kamsack and Pelly. It was originally a small grain farm with some beef cattle, said Garry. His parents had taken it over in 1948 and he returned his family there in 1988.
In the 1990s, he was looking for options. Weather problems, low-quality grain, frost, dry conditions, wet conditions — it was always something dragging the farm down, he said.
“I thought bison can walk around these puddles and through this snow,” he said.
Relatives at Melville, Sask., already had bison, and the industry was really taking off.
But then BSE hit, devastating the bison industry as much or more than cattle.
Many got out, but Big Country stuck with it.
“I’m not a quitter,” Garry said.
The herd now totals about 600 head, including 245 cows.
It wasn’t easy, however.
“We all worked off the farm for a long, long time,” said Derek.
He got an agriculture degree and then worked in the oil field, Garry is an electrician, Gwyn is retired now from teaching and Chris is also a journeyman electrician.
Derek said the farm became too much work with each of them there only part-time, and nine years ago he decided to return full time. He, Shana and their children, Alexis and Slade, live south of the farm in Kamsack.
Chris, Tricia and their children, Hunter and Brody, live north of the farm at Pelly, and Chris takes electrical contract work.
Garry also still has his electrical business.
In addition to the bison, the family has about 160 predominantly Angus-Simmental beef cows. Derek said they are slowly phasing out the cattle because the bison are easier to keep.
“They calve easier and they look after themselves,” he said.
The entire operation, including some cash crop production, acreage seeded for feed and pasture, is about 3,500 acres on both owned and rented land.
They graze corn and bale graze through the winter to lighten the workload, moving the bison every few days.
Watering systems include two solar systems and dugouts.
Big Country Bison has expanded by keeping their better heifers as replacements and selling only a few bulls a year. The Shankowskys have purchased top genetics, too, to make sure they are producing quality bison.
“We’ve made select purchases at Agribition to bring up the quality of our own animals,” said Derek.
They began showing some of their best bulls a few years ago and attend the national show and sale at Canadian Western Agribition, the Wild Rose show and sale in Alberta and Brandon’s Great Spirit sale.
This past Agribition was the first time they took some heifers to town and they did well, winning reserve grand champion female and helping the farm to the Premier Breeder banner.
Bison going for slaughter are backgrounded until about 18 months of age and then picked up by the finisher for another month or two of feeding. Most of them go to Colorado.
Derek said they have considered finishing some of their own, but they are short of corral space and have been happy with the prices paid by the finisher.
The family is continually improving its infrastructure and fencing more land with the intention of expanding the bison herd. They currently run the animals in five cow herds.
New opportunities to sell meat into Europe are one reason, and Gwyn said more people are seeing the health benefits of lean bison meat.
The calves and yearlings are vaccinated for blackleg and treated for internal parasites but otherwise left on their own.
It’s too soon for the third generation of potential bison producers to make decisions about entering the business. Right now, the three families own everything collectively.
“The farm’s a long ways away from supporting everyone,” said Chris.
And like the advice they got from Gwyn — get an education first — they want their kids to do the same.
Garry said markets have been strong and steady for a while now as the young industry has matured to a meat business. With so few bison compared to beef, and demand growing, he sees a big future for Big Country.