Sustainable Agriculture

An important goal for Canada’s bison producers

The reintroduction of bison to the Canadian plains by farmers, ranchers and conservation agencies has been a positive development for the environment. Following the near total destruction of Canada’s buffalo herds in the late 19th century, millions of hectares of the native grassland habitat of the prairies was sacrificed to grain growing. The prairie sod, with its rich mosaic of animals and plants, was drastically altered to support the production of a handful of agricultural crops – primarily wheat.

Today, bison ranching plays an important role in the preservation of the last remnants of native grassland habitat on the prairies by providing an economically viable alternative to cultivation. Besides preserving the islands of natural grassland that have survived agricultural settlement, bison ranching encourages the return of farmed land to grassland. Over the past three decades, hundreds of Canadian grain and oil seed farmers have entered the bison industry and for most, the decision to raise bison involves taking large tracts of land out of mono-crop cultivation and seeding a permanent cover of grass. Each year a bison cow and her calf require an average of four to sixteen hectares of grazing land depending on the weather and range conditions in any particular neighborhood. With a population approaching 200,000 breeding bison cows in Canada, the nation’s bison industry can take credit for the return of an amazingly vast expanse of formerly farmed land to pasture land.

The practice of converting formerly cultivated crop land to pasture land produces important environmental and economic benefits. Permanent grass cover prevents soil erosion and eliminates the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides. Pasture management does not require expensive cultivation and harvesting equipment such as air seeders and combines. A farm that shifts from grain and oil seed production to raising bison substantially reduces its consumption of non-renewable fossil fuels which are required to run farm machinery and are the source for the nitrogen fertilizer needed to grow crops on today’s nutrient depleted farm lands.

Clearly the shift from cultivation to pastoral pursuits like raising bison substantially reduces farm operating and equipment costs. And because a growing population of consumers appreciates the nutritional advantages of bison meat, raising bison offers producers the opportunity to generate respectable financial returns. Bison ranching makes sense from an economic as well as environmental perspective.