At home on the range

Working with bison

Designing for bison behaviour

Bison are native to North America. They’ve adapted over thousands of years to survive in our often inhospitable landscape. They’re extremely efficient at converting limited feed resources into lean meat and they have reproduction rates that any cattlemen would appreciate. They are at home on the range.

Bison are however not naturally at home in a handling system. For ranchers new to bison ranching this is important to understand. Bison have survived in the wild by being hyper aware of, and reacting to, changes in their environment. For bison that are used to being free, the handling process can be filled with threats.

How can we minimize these threats? There are three basic ways that you can lower the risk to your livestock. First is to introduce your bison to your facilities in a safe and positive manner. Second is to train your staff to adapt their handling methods to the individual bison. And lastly, ensure your equipment and facilities will allow safe and efficient animal movement. Click on the green arrow above right to continue reading…

Pre - Condition your bison

Working with bison

Let your bison explore the equipment at their own speed

Bison are very aware of their surroundings. A new handling system will look, sound, and smell novel. To bison anything novel is a threat until proven otherwise. To remove the threat of a new handling system it needs to be introduced carefully to the bison herd. You can benefit from bison’s curiosity by setting the equipment up so that your bison can safely explore the equipment at their own speed.

Do not force the bison into or through the system as this may only stress the bison. All you have to do is make sure they can safely access the equipment. Make sure to tie all the gates open. Then, before you give them access to the system, take a walk through the equipment first to ensure, from the animals perspective, any threats have been removed or minimized.

Threats can be many things; smells, sounds, movements, even shadows. Some of the often sited threats are loose chains (that rattle in the wind), garbage like a discarded plastic bag or cup, or somebody’s coat draped over a fence (that smells foreign or moves in the wind).

Working with bison

Building positive memories

Once your bison have become comfortable with the equipment some ranchers have found success pre-conditioning the bison to the handling process. This would involve introducing the herd to the handling process in a gradual manor. For example they may first bring their herd into a holding pen and then opening the gate to the handling system to let the herd learn that the way out is through the handling system and squeeze chute. Feed can be located beyond the chute as a reward for successfully traveling through the handling system.

The next time bison travel through the handling system the handler may hold the stock for brief periods in each section of the working alley. Each time the herd is brought through the system another step can be introduced and each time the animals leave the squeeze they can be rewarded with feed. If training is done well your bison will enter your system without fear and move through the system with little coaxing.

Working with bison

Bison behavior

Compared to most cattle, bison tend to be much more sensitive to novel situations and perceived threats. Their reactions can vary from explosive attempts to escape to tonic immobility and death. Stress, injury, and death dramatically affect the economic success of your operation. This is why handlers need to be aware of bison behavior, bison handling techniques and the various signs that your bison are stressed or frightened.

There are a few key differences between working with cattle and working with bison. Cattle for example are commonly moved in a single file alley in a head-to-tail configuration. Cattle are also often crowded into the handling system. Both of these handling techniques can have a negative impact on bison. Bison become highly stressed when they are isolated so bison are best moved in small groups. Bison also don’t like being crowded or unable to turn around or move freely. Bison that are stressed, overcrowded or forced into a single file alley may, if there is no roof on the alley, attempt to climb out of the alley.


0 to 30 mph in three strides

Working with bison

Additionally, when given an open stretch of alley, cattle will usually navigate the length of the alley at a walk or slow jog. Bison on the other hand are more likely to run the length of the alley at full speed until they collide with the gate at the end of the alley. This is why bison systems tend to have more gates in the alleys than are found in cattle handling systems.

And where cattle see an open rail gate across an alley as a deterrent worth respecting bison will often attempt to simply run through it. They wouldn’t have any difficulty plowing through a two inch tree in the woods so why would they consider an open rail gate to be much different?

These are important behavioral differences that should be considered when planning your bison corrals and bison handling system. Ignoring these differences may result in significant losses through injuries and potentially death.

The Flight Zone

Working with bison

Bison also tend to have a much larger flight zone compared to cattle which means that handlers working bison inside the handling system are usually deep inside their flight zone. This makes the handler a much greater perceived threat to the bison which means that the handler should be able to move the bison with less noise and less speed and less movement.

Be aware of what the bison can see when they are in the handling system. If you find animals stalling in the system it is quite possible that they see, hear or smell something that is potentially threatening them. Perhaps there is someone operating a gate further up the alley that they can see. All you may have to do to remove the threat is cover the opening so the bison can’t see the operator.

Careful observation is required any time you enter the flight zone. The animal will show you how much pressure you need to use. Always start with the minimum amount of noise and motion. For more information on the flight zone click here.


Working with bison

Knowing the signs of stress

Lastly, handlers should be aware of the signs that your bison are stressed. Careful observation will help you to interpret where you might have problems in your facilities or in your handling methods. These signs might include early indicators such as licking, frequent blinking, lifting the tail and grouping together. As the stress levels increase you may see frothing at the mouth, laboured breathing or panting, and vocalizing. They may also become either more active which could include running, attempting to escape or goring or they may become less active and sit down, lie down or become non responsive or immobile.

Bison that have elevated stress levels may incur injuries or even die. Recognizing the early signs will help you to take action before your animals are harmed.

Here are some bison behavior and bison handling links:


Working with bison

Introduce gradual transitions to their environment

Any time you attempt to move bison from one handling environment to another your bison will make a decision on whether or not it is safe to proceed. If you introduce too many changes to their environment at any time they will likely hesitate and potentially refuse to move forward. One of the key design considerations when moving livestock from the open pasture to the control of the squeeze chute is how to gradually introduce changes in the bison handling environment so as not to stop forward movement.

Hi-Hog’s alley components are designed to work together to slowly transition from the pasture to the squeeze. To learn how each of the component parts contributes to the handling process read their individual descriptions.