Ranchers who understand the behavior of the bison they care for will be able to handle their bison more efficiently, with less stress and lower risk to both handler and bison.
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 bison handling system. For new bison ranchers, this is important to understand. Bison have survived in the wild by being hyper aware of, and reacting quickly to, changes in their environment. For bison that are used to being free, the handling process can be filled with stressful threats.
Our goal as bison ranchers is to minimize these threats? If your bison feel threatened their stress levels will rise. If these stress levels rise too much, your bison can become very difficult, and very dangerous, to handle. Additionally, stressed livestock are:
- more likely to injure themselves
- more likely to injure those handling them
- more likely to damage your equipment
- more susceptible to illness
- more likely to reduce food intake
All of these outcomes will negatively effect your bottom line. If you want to improve your bottom line, there is tremendous value in removing stress from your bison operation.
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.
Introduce your Bison to your bison handling facility and bison corrals
Bison are very aware of their surroundings. A new handling system will look, sound, and smell novel. To bison, anything novel or unfamiliar is a threat until proven otherwise. To remove the threat of a new handling system, the system needs to be introduced carefully to the bison herd. You can benefit from bison’s curiosity by setting your equipment up so that your bison can safely explore the equipment at their own speed.
Do not force your bison into your system as this may only stress the bison and they will remember that stress for a very long time. All you have to do is make sure your bison can safely access the equipment. Make sure to tie all your gates open. Then, before you give them access to your system, take a walk through the equipment to ensure, from the animal’s perspective, any threats have been removed or minimized.
Threats can be many things; smells, sounds, movements, even shadows. Some of the often-cited 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). Remove as many of these potential threats as possible.
Build positive memories
Once your bison have become comfortable with the equipment on their own, some ranchers have found further success pre-conditioning the bison to the handling process. While this step introduces more initial work for the bison handlers it will minimize stress and maximize handling efficiency into the future.
This step involves introducing the herd to the handling process in a gradual manor. For example, the handler 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 squeeze chute as a reward for successfully traveling through the handling system.
The next time your bison travel through the handling system the handler may hold the stock, in small groups, for brief periods. Do not isolate your bison. 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 you own a hydraulic bison squeeze chute, you may want to let your bison walk through your system, at their own pace, while your hydraulic pump is running. Your goal is to minimize the number of potentially threatening elements your bison will face when they are actually handled. If your bison training has been done well, your bison will flow through your system without fear or coaxing.
NOTE: bison do not like to be isolated from their herd mates. While you must isolate the bison in the bison squeeze chute you should avoid isolating your bison in any other part of your handling process. Additionally, when you hold an animal in your bison squeeze chute you should attempt to process and release that animal as efficiently as possible. For this reason, be sure to have your vet station set and ready before you bring animals into your system.
Bison handling compared to cattle handling
(This section focuses on the bison behaviors that are different from cattle. We recommend that you also read Hi-Hog's, "Introduction to Cattle 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 even death. Stress, injury, and death will 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.
- Bison become highly stressed when they are isolated from their herd. To alleviate this threat bison are best moved, and held, in small groups. In the illustration below we show bison worked through an alley in small groups. If a bison is isolated it is quickly processed, of allowed to join (or be joined by) other bison.
- Bison don’t like being over-crowded or unable to turn around. Bison are best moved in an alley that is wide enough for them to turn around. If you place a bison into a single file alley, that doesn't have a roof, they will often attempt to climb out of the alley.
- When given an open stretch of working 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. If you are working with a narrow or solid sided curved alley with a cross gate, be aware that your bison may come upon this gate at speed and may not have an opportunity to avoid crashing into the gate. If your alley is narrow and S-shaped, be aware that your bison may bounce off the sides and bruise themselves as they run down the alley. For these reasons, We design our bison working alleys with lots of solid sided rolling doors. This allows the handler to divide the working alley into narrow pens. The gates can then be operated in such a way as to slowly move the pen forward towards the squeeze chute.
- Cattle see an open rail gate across an alley as a deterrent worth respecting. Bison however, may simply attempt to run through an open rail gate (or panel). If threatened, bison wouldn’t have much difficulty plowing through a two-inch diameter tree, so why would they consider an open rail gate to be different? If your bison are in a threatening environment, try to make your gates and panels solid.
- Bison tend to have a much larger flight zone compared to cattle.
- When working your bison from the outside of your alley, remember that you may be deep inside your bison's flight zone. Be careful to only apply light pressure to your bison's flight zone. Be patient, and let your bison move away from you. You will need to watch your bison carefully to know when you have entered their flight zone. And remember that the flight zone of one animal may be smaller or larger than the previous animal. Do not enter their flight zone if your bison cannot move to escape your pressure. Also remember that the flight zone can change quickly if new threats, such as yelling and quick movements are added to the situation. When working the flight zone, always start with the minimum amount of noise and motion. Learn more about the Flight Zone.
- Cattle are often worked from an elevated catwalk. Bison see handlers standing over them as a major threat. This should be avoided (If you do work your bison from a catwalk make sure your bison have a choice to move themselves to a non threatening location).
As long as you give your bison some control, your bison are more likely to remain calm. If however you apply too much pressure, your bison can quickly switch from thinking about how to minimize their stress to thinking about how to survive. Bison who are concerned for there survival can be very dangerous and unpredictable.
Bison handlers need to be highly aware of how each individual bison reacts to the handlers presence. Handlers should also be aware that when they stress one animal. it usually results in the stress levels of their herd mates also going up. The lesson is, if you try and rush one animal, you are likely to have a very long day. And because bison have good memories, they will likely be uncooperative the next time you handle them too.
As a bison handler, you should be aware of what your bison can see when they are in your handling system. If you find your bison are stalling or hesitating in your system it is quite possible that they see, hear or smell something that is potentially threatening to 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.
If you want a better experience next time you handle your bison, pay attention to your bison. If they hesitate, figure out why, and make adjustments.
Bison do not behave the same as cattle. These behavioral differences 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.
Know the signs of bison 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 stress indicators such as:
- frequent blinking
- lifting the tail
- grouping together, huddling.
As the stress levels increase you may see:
- frothing at the mouth
- labored breathing or panting
- your bison 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. If you have an animal that is showing signs of stress, try to understand what the origin of the stress is and remove it. If you cannot remove the stress agent, try to calmly move your bison to a low, or no stress environment.
Here are some bison behavior and bison handling links:
- Bison Producers of Alberta – Bison Centre
- The Calming of American Bison During Routine Handling
- British Columbia Bison Association – Introduction to Bison Handling
Beware of changes to their environment
Any time you attempt to move bison from one handling environment to another environment, 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 your squeeze. Select a link below to learn how each of the components contribute to the handling process:
For inspiration, Hi-Hog also offers a range of sample bison handling systems and bison corrals. If you have any questions, or you would like Hi-Hog’s design assistance to modify one of these plans, simply contact our sales office during business hours and one of our design staff will assist you with your design. This is a FREE service.
If you’re calling from within mainland North America you can reach us toll free at 1-800-661-7002 (Monday to Friday 8:00 am to 4:30 pm MST).