BISON BEHAVIOR AND MANAGEMENT was a presentation given for Buffalo Producers at the first Missouri Bison Assn. Conference. It is a practical look at what is required of people who are interested in becoming Buffalo owners. If it raises questions as well as answers them for you, then the Missouri Bison Assn is the place to get answers!
Understanding Bison Behavior and Characteristics for Effective Herd Management
Raising Buffalo is 90% planning and 10% work. That’s not to say that there is not work involved, but compared to the management of other animals, it is minimal. In order to plan effectively, you must know your animals and the current status of the herd.
Buffalo watching is not a spectator sport – it’s your job.
Learn to observe: study the herd, the condition of individual animals, effect of the seasons, the pasture and fence. Use your eyes and your mind to know every detail of your animals and their environment. Assess any improvements or changes that need to be made. Plan ahead for the coming seasons. Your goal should be to avoid problems rather than fix them. These skills will add to your effectiveness as a farmer, and add to your interest and satisfaction with the job.
Understanding the Nature of Buffalo
Buffalo are wild animals. There is not a tame or domesticated hair on their head. You can gain their trust and friendship, but you have not really changed their basic nature – they will always be wild. This free and independent nature is a strong part of the appeal buffalo have to us. There is only one way to make a buffalo do anything, and that is to make him want to do it. Forget everything you know about cattle. These animals have a nature all their own, and that is what you will try to come to know and understand. It is that independent nature that will affect the ways which you manage your herd.
Everything in life is a trade-off
As you come to win the acceptance of your animals, they will lose their fear of you. That will eliminate many problems of control, but will create other problems in their place. Their new proximity to you will create new dangers as well. Always stay safe. Farming is a dangerous occupation at best, especially with equipment and animals. If you are hurt by your buffalo, the animal will get the blame for your mistake, and you will be labeled a fool for having them on your farm in the first place.
Being in the middle of a buffalo herd is no place for a person
You may think they like and accept you. Look close at how they interact with each other. They like each other, but they still act very violently with their buddies. They butt and gouge at each other, and you will notice that the receiver of that action takes the threat/danger very seriously. They avoid being trapped by any animal more dominant than they, and stay our of their space. If they make a mistake, they are promptly and harshly reminded of their place. If you want to be a part of the herd, you will also be in their pecking order – and they will find out that you should be on the bottom rung. The bull will test you first, and there may not be enough left for any of the others to play with. But if you don’t want affectionate buffalo jumping on your butt, then stay on the other side of the fence. Otherwise, you will learn all about tough love. Your reaction times are not good enough to avoid the actions of a buffalo.
Bison are athletic animals:
- Fast – they have incredible reaction times and outrun horses
- Turn on a dime – very dexterous
- Good jumpers – and good kickers (need I say more?)
- Good swimmers
- Strong – about four times stronger than cows
- Wild – they use their athletic abilities and stay in condition
Bison are perfectly adapted to their environment
HAIR: They have 8 times as many hair follicles than cattle. This gives them an exceptional advantage over cattle in extreme cold environments of Northern latitudes. Yet they have the amazing ability to shed those hairs in the summer to adapt to heat. There are commercial uses for that hair which have the potential for expanded producer profits.
METABOLISM: In order to adapt to the change of seasons, the metabolism of bison slows in winter. This decreases their feed intake at a time when grass is unavailable and supplements expensive. This represents a benefit to the producer, unless he happens to be feeding bulls for slaughter. That producer will be frustrated by the lack of growth of his animals in winter. Relax. Nature says this is the best adaptation. Accept and enjoy it.
LONG LIFE SPAN: Bison grow slowly. They are small when born, usually 35 to 50 lbs. This helps prevent calving problems. They mature slowly, usually calving for the first time at three years of age. This means extra time and expense when starting a herd. But they live and reproduce for 20 to 30 years. This long breeding life means fewer replacement heifers, and overall, a productive and economical animal to raise.
RUTTING SEASON: Like deer, bison have a rutting season, only in late summer rather than fall. The gestation period is nine months, so babes are born in April through June when grass in at its optimum growth and nutrition for the nursing mothers and the calves who are learning to graze.
GRAZING ANIMALS: Bison evolved on GRASS not GRAIN. As a result, they have a more efficient digestive system than cattle on forage. When fed a higher quality diet, cows do as well as bison. But on marginal forage, bison convert protein better. Because of their higher economic value, producers tend to not take advantage of this quality, and give them the best feed possible. As prices for bison fall, many producers may come to have a greater appreciation of the digestive system of bison.
BISON BEHAVIOR: Buffalo have an extremely strong herd instinct. Buffalo have strong sense of personal self and self preservation Bison relate to each other through a strict pecking order. Any discussion of behavior is colored by the perceptions of the observer. It not as “cut and dried” a science as physical characteristics. So as I present this part of the session, please understand that this is my own observations, and that other people may not agree with all of my assertions.
HERD INSTINCTS: Buffalo tend to stay very close together, whether for protection or for social contact. They react to danger as a group, first to flee and then to return out of curiosity to see what “spooked” them. They react first, then ask questions later. They come to the aid of any member of the herd that is in distress. Yet, ironically, they will attack an injured member of the herd and can cause serious damage or even death to that animal. They have close “family” ties with other herd members, but will not hesitate to inflict punishment on those who violate their “space”.
SELF PRESERVATION: Bison will protect themselves first, whether by fleeing or fighting. Defending other herd members seems to be an extended sense of self preservation. If grain or range cubes is presented, the animals will compete for as much as they can possibly get for themselves. They will push aside any animal less dominant than themselves with no attempt to share with other members of the herd. The weaker members of the herd will not fight the stronger ones to get food, even though they want the grain just as strongly as the others. Middle animals will eat as fast as they can, to get as much as they can, before the stronger ones push them away. They then run to another space where they see someone less dominant than themselves to push away. Calves enjoy the same position in the herd as their mother, as she will defend their rights.
PECKING ORDER: Social order within the herd is very strict. It is their way of balancing the good of the herd with the will of the individual. It is a definite hierarchy, with the strongest animals at the top, and the weakest at the bottom. Although the strong will defend the weak, the strong also get the best of everything available. It definitely is not share and share alike. This insures that the strongest will not only survive, but will be in the best condition to breed. When determining the value of any animal within the herd, I let the animals themselves tell me who is the superior animal.
The strongest bull will be the most dominant animal in the herd. But the dominant cow will be the leader of the herd. The bull’s job is protection and breeding. He is too busy doing those things to be bothered with the everyday decisions of the herd. So the female takes over to have the most fluence on the activities of the herd. The most dominant, however, is not always the natural leader in all instances. The herd will follow specific individuals whose judgment they like, rather than always following the strongest female. Likewise, the cows will choose the bull with whom they will breed. If she does not like to dominant bull, she will not permit him to breed her.
It is necessary for the bull to seriously court every female he wishes to breed, every time he wished to breed her. Often the bull is busy courting a cow, and another cow will come into season. A younger bull will do the courting of the new cow while the big guy is busy. But after the dominant bull has taken the original cow, he will come courting the now ripe female and soon take her affections from the young bull. Frequent conflicts will occur within the herd as members attempt to move up their position in the hierarchy of the herd. They know the value of every step up that they can accomplish.
PERSONALITY: Each animal has its own personality. Much of this is inherited from its parents, much is learned from its mother and other members of the herd, and its own experiences color its behavior. They also have “good days” and “bad days” just like you and I. The personality of individuals in turn make up the “herd personalities”. Any maladjusted animals should be culled from the herd or they will in turn affect well being of the rest of the animals, and could be a danger to the producer and the public. Because of my close relationship to my herd, I tend to become attached to those with the most pleasant behavior and keep their offspring. But if you are weaning the babe of your “best friend cow”, she is not going to be your buddy and behave as she normally would. Remember, always be careful!
PERSONALITY CHARACTERISTICS OF BISON: The nature of bison is that they are friendly and curious. They have little to fear from the world, and are defensive of their territory from natural predators. Their self assurance increases with age and their position with in the herd. Their extremely quick reaction times compensate for the generally placid nature of the animals. They are playful, and at times even seem to have a sense of humor. Trust is not easily given, and you will have to earn their friendship. They do not hold grudges, and will soon forgive you for the insult you do when working them. Whether it is from an innate sense of stubbornness or independence, buffalo will only do what they want to do, and cannot be “made” to do things. Save your self frustration and grief, and try to figure out how to make the animals “want” to do what you want them to. ( a hint is that this is easiest accomplished using food.)
MANAGEMENT DECISIONS: There are management decisions in raising bison which will have to be made by each producer. Management philosophies and practices differ widely within the industry. Time may not be adequate for presentations of these important factors. They will be touched on here for reference. Management practices range across a broad field: One producer may dehorn all his buffalo, feed grain, wean babes, rotational graze, use only young bulls, and remove bulls from the herd in the fall. Another producer may run his herd in family groups using older bulls which are always with the herd, naturally wean babes, not dehorn, and grass feed only. Each producer should look at these management practices and decide for himself which works for his own farm and philosophy.
TO DEHORN OR NOT TO DEHORN: Producers who de-horn their animals tell me that it is the best decision they could have made. I have yet to talk to one who has told me that he regrets de-horning his herd. Among the reasons for dehorning is safety for the animal and the handler. Another is for preventing damage to hides as the buffalo fight flies. Producers who do not dehorn wish to preserve the animal in its natural state. They are willing to take the risk of injury to self and animal to “let buffalo be buffalos”. Those who do dehorn will usually not dehorn animals that they plan to sell. It reduces the number of potential buyers for that animal, and they do not show as well at auctions resulting in lower prices. The number of producers who do not dehorn are in the majority, but a lot of that may be due to lack of any decision. My head may tell me to dehorn, but at this point, my heart would not let me.
WEANING: Do you take the babes away from their mothers, or wait for the mother to accomplish that job herself? There is little doubt that the buffalo mom could do a perfectly fine job without any help from us. Will it help her to breed back if you remove the calf? No, she breeds back in roughly three months, long before anyone would wean the calf. But the producer must make economic decisions—does he need to sell those babes at a fall or early spring auction? Does he have room for additional animals in his pastures? A long range plan for the offspring needs to be developed (and be flexible as conditions change).
CREEP FEEDING: Supplementing grain in creep feeders for calves is an important consideration. Is it a necessity? NO. Is it a good practice? Maybe. So, yes or no? I have decided “yes, in moderation”. Too much is a waste of money, and could be detrimental to the health of the babes. A little could help the babes reach their genetic potential, and do so at a faster pace than otherwise possible. It could take some of the pressure off the mothers as they go into the breeding season, helping them to be in peak condition. At our farm, the creep pen is a valuable tool for weaning the babes. In our industry, a lot of emphasis is put on having large calves at weaning and at the fall auctions. This can only be accomplished by three things: a) early calving b) genetics and c) creep feeding. The only way you can truly attribute large size to genetics is to visit the herd that the calves came from. Creep feeding can be a mask for quality. The feeding can be beneficial when the babes are stressed by weaning, helping to keep them healthy and happy. It is a valuable tool. How you chose to use it is up to you.
ROTATIONAL GRAZING: To use the land available to its fullest potential will without doubt require a plan of rotational grazing. It will provide an estimated 40% increase in the amount of grass available. But what will be buffalo think of all that control? After all they are independent, and roam throughout their territory at will. Trust me, if they object too strongly, they will let you know by rearranging the fences. The field they are being moved to should be better than the one they are leaving, and they will be eager for the new territory. So they will move readily when needed, and stay where they are put as long as the grazing is good. More management and fencing are needed on the part of the producer, and the labor must be available when needed. What sold me on the “idea” of rotational grazing was the better quality and quantity of grass available for the animals. If they could vote, they would probably vote to rotate. It could also provide a stockpile of grass well into the winter for better economics and nutrition. And Animals may be allowed to have full run of the pastures as the winter progresses. It is definitely a plan worth considering for both better economics of the farm and for the well being of the animals.
GRAIN FEEDING: Probably the most controversial management practice in the bison industry today is whether or not to feed grain to bison. Following World War 2, cattle producers began feeding excess grain to beef herds. As ranchers began raising bison, many of them followed the same practices being used to raise beef. But the animals are totally different. And even beef did not evolve eating grain—they are grazing animals. Now, producers have to decide for themselves whether or not it makes good sense for them to grain feed their own animals. Our cow herd has not received any grain supplements for three years. They graze on a grass and clover (and weeds!) pasture, and their condition is so good that they simply do not need any supplemental feeds, only mineral and hay as required.
To feed them grain would be the same as overwatering a houseplant: it would detrimental to their well-being and to our pocketbook. Feeding bulls before slaughter will speed the process of growing to slaughter size. This will be offset by the additional cost of the grain. It will affect the fat deposits in the animal, both in the amount and type of fat. Even with grain feeding, bison will have a more healthy, nutritious meat that is lower in fat.
The nutrition of a grass fed animal is definitely superior. Is the tenderness or taste better in grain fed animals? Everyone has their own opinion on the subject. Unfortunately, it is one of the things we will have to decide for ourselves. Grain feeding is closely associated with feed lots, and therefore with antibiotics and growth hormones – and with quality of life issues for the animals. At all costs, my opinion is that feedlot situations are best avoided. But I refuse to tell others how to run their farms, in hopes that they will let me operate mine as I see best. We can best influence other producers with our example and success, and keep conflicts from injuring our industry.