Bison producers share their years of experience

CAMROSE, Alta. — Bison producers got a chance March 12 to ask three of their peers about their operations during a question and answer session at the Bison Producers of Alberta’s annual meeting.

Judy Van Haren of Lacombe, Alta., who farms with her husband, Erwin, and son, Roger, has raised bison for 25 years. She said her talent is record keeping.

“I like keeping track of things. That helps to make decisions.”

Justin Dorey of Irish Creek Bison in Vermilion, Alta., recently took over the family bison operation. They finish all their bison, and Dorey said watching gains each day is key to their success.

Murray Sankey of Veteran, Alta., has been in the bison business for 23 years. The family started with 12 head in 1997 and are now up to 500.

Dorey: Weaning varies. The first group is weaned in December, but the calves in the main herds aren’t weaned until February or March. If the calves are weaned too soon, the cows get too fat while grazing corn. No animals are weaned if they are less than 400 pounds.

Van Haren: The family runs three different herds. The first is weaned Remembrance Day weekend and the other two in January and the end of February.

Sankey: The family weans the first day of January, which “seems like the right time for animals to be weaned.” Small calves are kept at home in the corral and turned out to pasture in the middle of April. “Every time we wean we still make a list of things to change.”

Dorey: His brother bought the ranch from his parents, but two years later moved to Idaho. Dorey bought the bison from his brother.

“Buying a ranch twice in three years is crazy. There are better ways to do it.”

He recommended looking at different operations and finding the best fit. “I wanted to buy in. Some don’t; they want a salary. For whatever ranch, there is an answer.”

Van Haren: She said there are lots of succession planning seminars, which she recommended attending.

Their son, Roger, expressed an interest 10 years ago in buying animals but not in buying into the corporation. He now owns 40 to 45 percent of the animals.

Van Haren said the farm runs as if it was one big entity, but it ‘s not. Because of the record keeping, family members know what animals belong to who in each herd and what it costs per animal.

Sankey: The family incorporated the farm in 1972, and when Sankey’s father died, it was a seamless transition. His father turned his shares to Sankey’s son, who is disabled and in the oil business. With new technology he may be able to have a more active role.

“We don’t really have a transition; it is sort of evolving.”

Dorey: The family has a couple of designated herds with higher-quality calves. A herd with 28 high-quality cows is weaned in December with the bull calves weighing 625 lb. and the heifers 570 lb.

“That is what we can do with good genetics.”

The farm has an emphasis on grass and grazing.

“Our bulls went from dry hay to baleage and increased one pound a day or more of gain.”

They try to finish at 18 months with good weights using grass. The cows are moved twice a week to ensure good grazing and gains.

Van Haren: She likes Excel spreadsheets.

“I can sort and filter these by their dangle tag or RFID tag or weight.”

Dorey: The family uses Google sheets, which pair well with the farm software. The records include weight gain over many years.

Sankey: Double tagging is the farm’s main tool.

“I am a very visual guy,” Sankey said.

Every cow has two tags, and while they do experience some tag loss, it has worked for them. There is a little maintenance.

Sankey: They didn’t feed minerals for 15 years because of the high-quality grass.

“We live in short grass country. The grass is very nutritious.”

However, when a cow lost condition, Sankey realized that it had a copper deficiency, and he now uses a special mineral mix with salt.

He doesn’t vaccinate.

“I wasn’t getting into bison for more work. In 23 years I have never used a syringe or needle yet.”

He does use medication for animals in the corral.

Dorey: They have their own specially blended mineral mix for summer and winter. A medication protocol is followed at weaning.

Van Haren: They give free choice mineral, a winter range mineral and summer breeding mineral. The animals are also treated at weaning.

Van Haren: They used to sell meat at a farmers market, but she dropped the meat business nine years ago when prices increased and regulations tightened.

“We phased right out of the direct marketing stuff.”

One of Alberta’s two federally inspected slaughter plants is at Lacombe, Alta., which is only a 15 minute drive away.

Dorey: They don’t sell much through direct marketing.

“We have freezers full of meat we sell.”

Their finished animals are booked months in advance at a packing plant.

“If you’re going to finish animals, let the end users know you have animals a long time in advance.”

Sankey: The family got into direct marketing following the marketing upheaval caused by BSE.

They bought freezers and sold meat through Sankey’s sister’s health food store. However, he said it became too expensive after factoring in slaughter and the cost of animals.

“I don’t think I’d want to do it again. I can see why people are looking at it now. We lost interest.”

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