Alta. bison farm chooses to work with nature

Handling is kept to a minimum but family must provide sufficient feed and minerals and assure a steady water supply

LACOMBE, Alta. — Visiting Frontier Farm makes it understandable why the Van Haren family — Erwin and Judy, and their son, Roger, and his wife, Katelyn — raise bison.

“They take care of themselves,” says Roger.

Adds Judy with a bit of a smile: “We handle them with binoculars and a hockey stick with a flag on it.”

Bison have adapted over tens of thousands of years to the Canadian climate, vegetation and environment. In winter, their thick woolly coats protect them from sub-zero temperatures.

“Although there’s very little we have to do we still need to ensure they’re healthy,” says Erwin.

This includes supplying sufficient feed and minerals, and assuring a steady water supply. Fences in good repair are a must.

The family runs three separate breeding herds totalling about 800 animals, including 350 cows, on 2,000 acres of owned and rented land, mostly pasture.

“It’s a good use of land that’s maybe not the best for cropping,” says Judy of the rolling, hilly grasslands where their bison roam.

They seed about 200 acres of crops annually: oats, rye grass, and corn for feed, as well as the occasional cash crop. With 2018 being dry, some hay and grain was purchased.

Erwin does the day-to-day winter feeding. Roger keeps watch on the two away herds: one a few minutes west and the other a half hour or so north.

He works off-farm as a surface land man for a local oil company.

Katelyn, an accountant, is expecting their third child in June. She moved west from Barrie, Ont., about six years ago.

“It’s been a learning curve, but it’s a nice lifestyle. It’s kind of like Little House On The Prairie,” she says.

Katelyn and Judy do the record-keeping and books. Judy retired from Agriculture Financial Services Corp. last year, where she worked in the insurance division.

It’s through winter that the bison require handling, at weaning time.

The Van Harens co-ordinate that depending on the availability of help, including their other three adult children. One daughter is an optometrist in Peace River, Alta., the other an accountant in Airdrie, Alta. Their other son attends University in Montreal.

At home, the bison are processed in a strong, efficient corral system that Erwin designed. Built into an existing three-sided pole shed and made of heavy drill stem pipe, it allows safe and easy sorting and quick movement of the animals to increasingly smaller pens toward the heavy squeeze for ear tagging, deworming and vaccinations. Select areas are lined with strong, quiet, black rubber belting recycled from Saskatchewan potash mines. The belting helps to reduce the stress of confinement.

Judy Van Haren shows the heavy duty squeeze that the family uses to process their bison. The animals are quickly moved through a system of pens and runways for eartagging, deworming and vaccinating. | Maria Johnson photo

The other two herd locations had existing handling systems. One was designed for elk and the other for bison.

Calving season begins in mid-April.

“It’s my favourite time of year,” says Judy. “We go out each morning with the binoculars. It’s like finding a present in the field.”

The Van Harens finish their animals, which are normally ready for slaughter at two years old for the bulls and about 2 1/2 for the heifers.

Judy says that the popularity of the naturally lean, nutrient dense meat is steadily increasing.

“Most people (today) have eaten bison and recognize it as a healthy meat,” she says.

The Van Harens primarily sell to Canadian Rangeland Bison, a Lacombe company that markets bison meat worldwide.

They sell some females as breeding stock.

“We keep the best animals to build our own herd,” says Judy.

The initial plan was to expand to 100 cows but numbers are significantly above that and Roger encourages continued expansion, he says.

He’s past-chair of Bison Producers of Alberta, a position he held for three years until March 2018. The family are also members of the Canadian Bison Association.

Roger’s parents appreciate his youth and enthusiasm.

“He encourages us with new technology and new ways of doing things,” says Judy.

Through Roger’s involvement with the BPA he’s become a bit of a celebrity to pet food store owners overseas. He’s the face of locally sourced bison ingredients in Orijen dog food, a Champion Pet Foods product.

“Roger’s picture is on posters and dog food bags around the world,” says Judy.

In 2020, the Van Harens plan to mark a quarter century of bison ranching. It was 1995 when Erwin and Judy left a family-run diary business, the farm Erwin grew up on, and contemplated their future. “In the mid ’90s there was a world of opportunities”, says Judy.

They bought a half section from a former beef operation just a few kilometres from the dairy. It’s close to where Judy was raised on a mixed farm.

“Erwin and I have known each other since childhood,” she says.

Roger was seven years old when the family made the change.

“I started in the chicken business,” he says. “With laying hens and then broilers. Later I bottle-fed bison calves.”

He and Katelyn and their children live on their own quarter section just up the road.

The Van Harens appreciate that they can farm yet have ample time for off-farm interests due to the non-urgent demands of bison ranching.

“When you’re a dairy farmer, you have to handle a cow twice a day, every day,” says Judy. “With the bison it’s about once a year.”

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