There are many segments of the bison industry, which are very similar to that of other livestock sectors. Some run cow-calf operations and sell their weaned calves each fall. Other producers specialize in breeding stock. Some producers raise bison from birth through processing, “gate to plate”, and then market the meat themselves. There are hundreds of plants around the country approved for USDA inspection of bison. Other producers utilize qualified state-inspected plants to process their animals. Further, there are marketers and brokers who buy finished animals and then market the meat themselves. Bison auctions have a season that runs from November to March and are located across the country to buy and sell live bison. The NBA’s Event Calendar lists many bison auctions during the year.


Yellowstone bison are unique in that they represent the last remaining truly wild, ecologically viable, genetically pure, wide-ranging population of plains bison in existence. As such, we believe that wild Yellowstone bison that have been certified as disease-free through an appropriate and science-driven quarantine process, are the most suitable source for restoring bison populations elsewhere in Montana and North America. GYC has long advocated against the slaughter of Yellowstone bison and we believe it is an unacceptable approach to wild bison management, whether for perceived disease risks or population control. Using Yellowstone bison to establish conservation herds may also provide a much needed “pressure release valve” that helps to manage population numbers at the same time it restores bison to their native ranges while preserving the rare and unique Yellowstone bison genome.

Using disease-free Yellowstone bison to establish other tribal and conservation herds will not only contribute to the conservation and restoration of the species but it will also…

1) Serve as an alternative to shipping bison to slaughter,

2) Support the culture and nutrition of Native Americans, and

3) Help preserve the unique Yellowstone bison genome.

The EA analyzes three alternatives to evaluate such a program at one or more new quarantine facilities, which could be located within Yellowstone National Park, on tribal lands, or elsewhere. The NPS preferred alternative includes conducting a quarantine program on the Fort Peck Reservation where there is already a facility built and they are ready to receive bison.

Regardless of the facility location, we support a quarantine program if it’s done right. Outlined below are our concerns and suggestions for the proposed Environmental Assessment (EA).

The quarantine and translocation program should be science-driven and appropriately managed with opportunity for public engagement.

The quarantine and translocation program should not guide Yellowstone bison management or come at the expense of continuing efforts to expand habitat for bison to use year-round outside the Park.

Quarantine and translocation should only be considered a tool when bison removals are deemed necessary and all fair-chase hunting opportunities have been exhausted. Additionally, it should be used only to protect genetic diversity and expand wild bison populations in appropriate areas. Regardless of the facility location or managing authority, there should be a clear commitment to transfer bison to public and tribal lands within the historic range of plains bison for conservation and cultural purposes. Priority should be given to sites committed to managing bison as “wildlife” on a large landscape and that keep wild bison in the public trust.

The quarantine area should be sufficiently large enough (something on the order of several thousand acres) to allow bison to freely move and maintain their wild character.

Bison should spend the minimum time required (as science dictates) in quarantine to ensure disease-free status.

There should be a clear process for what happens to bison once they have completed quarantine and appropriate restoration sites selected and management plans in place before bison enter quarantine.




The image of bison roaming across an endless prairie is a strong symbol of our American landscape before the settlement by pioneers in the 1800’s. No doubt, these American icons evolved through the centuries to live in harmony with the natural ecosystem of North America.


Many bison producers utilize corrals and finishing facilities as a part of their management strategy to control the attributes of the finished meat, to humanely treat their herds, and to protect grasslands and the health of the animals.


A healthy herd and a financially viable business requires ranchers to efficiently manage their bison within the limitations of their land base. Ranchers today work to replicate the ability of bison to demonstrate their natural tendencies as much as possible. But ranches have boundaries, and any time an animal is kept within a fenced environment, producers must provide certain interventions to protect the health and welfare of the herd. Mineral supplementation and deworming practices are just two examples of human interventions that are regularly conducted on bison in all types of production protocols, including most public herds.


Keeping bison in a corral finishing system is widely considered as a practice tied to grain finishing animals. But there are many reasons that bison are also contained in corral systems.


Bison require no outside shelter and they will turn to face storms and may appear to become dormant during heavy snow fall. They will lie down during heavy snow and let the show cover their bodies. Predators are also of little concern as the herd will defend themselves. They will circle the predator and drive it from their domain.

Because bison can jump fences and break through almost any barrier, a strong containment system is essential. Fences around the pasture should consist of eight high-tensile wires, three of which carry a high voltage of electricity, or equivalent fencing. A corral-chute system with no sharp turns or corners and with sides 7 to 8 feet high is recommended. The system should include catwalks, feed bunks, water, lighting, tractor access, plenty of space for each animal, and spring-loaded, locking slam gates. The squeeze chute should have a crash gate and palpation cage. A crowding circle, alleyway(s), and sorting pens are also necessary.

Ideal land for bison would have boulders, rocks, rugged areas, woods, and thickets, but the only requirements are adequate pasture and a water source. Running water is preferable, but a pond will suffice. If you satisfy a bison’s food and water requirements, it will stay within the fenced area. Otherwise, almost no barrier can stop a hungry bison.


Until recently, the commercial meat market focused almost exclusively on grain-finished products. This is the environment in which bison producers and marketers struggled to introduce their products to the American public through the years.

Quality and consistency was a major impediment to establishing a commercial market for bison in the early years. As one marketer recalls, “When I started 26 years ago, most of the bison was being marketed by the exotic game purveyors. There was little quality control. Age, body condition and the presence of fat/fat color did not matter – it was buffalo.”

Producers began developing practices and protocols that would address the problems of inconsistency in quality and supply, and would produce meat appealing to a wider segment of the public. Even so, those practices were developed with a strong recognition to the basic realities of bison biology and social behavior.

First of all, confinement in corrals for finishing is conducted under a much shorter time period than similar finishing regimens for beef. All bison—regardless of finishing protocols—spend the majority of their lives on pasture. A survey conducted by the National Bison Association found that bison finishing operations typically keep bulls in finishing facilities for 180 days or less, and female animals for 120 days or less. Bison have not been bred to contain internal fat marbling that is common in choice and prime beef. Consequently, there is little financial incentive for producers to keep animals in finishing facilities any longer than necessary.

Because any meat carries the flavor of the feed the animal consumed prior to harvest, finishing on a ration containing a mixture of grain and forage produces a product that has consistent flavor from season-to-season, and region-to-region. Additionally, the finishing ration produces meat with a white fat cover, which is desired among many consumers.

Not all finishing systems utilize a grain-based ration. Bison can be finished on a diet of grass hay and forage, but may still be kept in corrals for a period of time to facilitate handling prior to slaughter.

Bison in finishing facilities consume a diet that is much less “hot” than a typical cattle ration, with a lower percentage of energy (fat) and a higher level of roughage. The bison’s diet must consist of components that are both conducive to conversion and amenable to the digestive tract of the bison and their evolutionary reality. Producers thus often mimic the nutritional regimen of the most selectable flora, but supply additional energy for balance. Diet components that are synthetic, or that artificially promote growth are prohibited by the bison industry and the NBA’s Code of Ethics. Further, bison are frequently finished with feed provided in a “free choice” arrangement. This allows the animals to self-select how much grain and forage they consume to meet their nutritional requirements.

Finishing protocols are one reason for keeping bison in pens, but there are other reasons as well.


Mature cows weigh between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds, reaching peak physical maturity at 8 to 10 years of age. They can live to be 30 years old or more. With good management, cows can reproduce every year and can begin breeding at two years of age. The normal gestation period is 280 to 285 days. The breeding season begins in August and continues into October, while the calving season begins in May and continues into July. Bulls weigh about 2,000 pounds at maturity and can be used for breeding at two years of age. One bull can breed 10 to 15 cows.

Some producers are trying artificial insemination, but natural breeding methods are safer because of the bison’s unpredictable temperament and the scarcity of bison semen. To prevent inbreeding and improve the herd, new young bulls should be brought into the herd every two or three years. Do not keep any one bull in the same herd for longer than three years. However, if you have a superior bull (a high-producing, dominant bull), it may be difficult to rotate new bulls into the herd. You can separate the calves after weaning and sell the calves at slaughter weight. This will allow you to keep a superior bull longer than two to three years. The goal of the producer should be to improve the performance of the herd by breeding and selecting bigger animals that gain weight faster. The following practices are recommended for a herd breeding program:

Keep accurate health and reproduction records.

Cull cows that are difficult to breed and animals that are slow to recover from sickness or injury or that gain weight slowly.

Cull all but the best bulls, and bring new young bulls into the herd for breeding on a regular basis.


Bison are closely related to cattle, so they are susceptible to many of the same diseases. However, bison have stronger immune systems. Because they live in the open, they are less likely to infect one another. You should vaccinate your bison herd for common cattle diseases. As a precautionary measure, test and quarantine all new animals for three months before allowing them to enter the herd. Because of the bison’s rugged nature and calving ease, a veterinarian’s assistance is rarely needed; however, you should locate a veterinarian for vaccinations and emergencies.

Bison should be on a routine deworming program for tapeworms, roundworms, lungworms, flukes, and other parasitic worms. The deworming program should be developed with a veterinarian, and should take into account climate, regional and farm parasite problems, and grazing intensity. External parasites, including flies, louses, mites, and ticks, can be controlled with strips, baits, sprays, foggers, dust bags, and liquid products.

Any bison transported across state lines must have all their health records, including negative bovine tuberculosis and bovine brucellosis tests, prior to shipment. Bison born on your farm and transported from your farm directly to an in-state slaughter facility do not need testing or health records.


In the wild, bison eat twigs, leaves, and grasses. An intensive grazing program will help you make the most use of your pasture. Bison continue to graze through the winter by rooting under the snow. Grasses that stand up through the snow and retain a high protein percentage in the stems are best for winter pasture. Hay should be available when the snow is coated with ice. Grain rations should be included in the winter or when pasture conditions are poor.

Salt, vitamins, and minerals should be added to the diet as needed. The extra nutrition gained from supplements increases reproductive efficiency and weight gain. Selenium is especially important for reproduction because a deficiency of this mineral causes an increased number of aborted calves. The soils in the eastern United States have very little selenium, and since bison get most of their nutrition from forage, it is important to supplement selenium.

Bison require 1 pound of roughage per 100 pounds of body weight for digestion and 2 pounds of dry matter per 100 pounds of live weight for energy. Clean, fresh water should be available at all times. A herd of 32 animals may require up to 500 gallons of water per day during the summer months. For added weight gain and to improve meat texture and flavor, you should begin feeding grain 90 to 120 days prior to slaughter. The meat of bison finished on corn has a taste similar to beef, which many consumers prefer.


Bison producers today supply a year-round market. That means that they need to select animals on a regular basis for processing. Bison right off pasture tend to be harder to handle and more flighty. Bison in a small pasture or corral settle with the daily presence of humans and eventually handle a bit easier. The result is less bruising, easier loading/sorting. This is even more important today with the concerns about animal welfare. So supplementing grain and forage to have them “on the gain”, and to become used to human interaction, provides less stress on the animal and more safety for the handlers.

All producers know that stress is a major factor that inhibits growth and compromises the health of their animals. Accordingly, bison finishers have adopted protocols that allow for adequate space so that bison can establish their pecking order without creating stress on the animals. As a rule, bison producers allow more room for animal than cattle producers in finishing facilities in order to alleviate stress on the herds.

Bison producers do not regularly sort animals among pens during the finishing phase. Again, every time you change the mix of animals, they have to establish a new pecking order, which increases stress and decreases performance.

Additionally, producers regularly use corrals as a means to house animals that are injured and ill, and to help those animals regain full health in a low-stress environment.


Bison are considered an exotic or “non-amenable” species and are under voluntary inspection. This means that unless you will transport the meat across state lines, inspection is not necessary. Although Pennsylvania does not require meat inspection of slaughtered bison, many restaurants and retailers prefer USDA- or state-inspected meat. Voluntary inspection is handled under the Agriculture Marketing Act. USDA inspection is required if meat is to be sold across state lines. Five USDA-inspected slaughter plants licensed for bison operate in Pennsylvania, but any meat-processing plant licensed for exotics can slaughter bison. However, the plant must be willing to thoroughly clean the plant before and after the slaughter and must have equipment to adequately handle the larger animals.


The current drought illustrates the extreme difficulty bison producers’ face in maintaining a healthy balance of animals on their pastures and rangelands. Overgrazing is always a consideration, even in years of “normal” moisture throughout most of the North American ecosystem. When dry weather, or an extended drought, settles in, ranchers must be proactive to adjust their stocking rates to protect their pastures. An overgrazed pasture may require years of recovery time, particularly in the semi-arid regions of the country,

Without corrals as an option, bison producers would simply have to de-stock during dry periods by sending their animals to slaughter. Drought conditions obviously impact all livestock sectors, however bison producers face additional challenges because of the nature of the business. Replacement animals are not as readily available as they are with domestic livestock.

Corrals Help Small Producers Maintain Economic Viability

Farmers in the United States have historically brought their livestock into corrals in the winter, and prior to slaughter. In fact, finishing in corrals (regardless of the feed composition) can actually help small producers be economically viable.

For example, if a land base has a carrying capacity of one animal “unit” (cow and calf) per 30 acres, it will require more than 60 acres to bring an animal from birth to slaughter at 27 months of age in a purely pasture-based model. However, by moving some of those animals into a finishing facility prior to slaughter, a rancher eases the grazing impact on their pasture land, and keeps the growing grass for use by the mother cows and their new calves, where nutrition is most vital.

Also some small producers who farm and raise their own feed can utilize the lower quality grain they produce by feeding it to their own livestock vs. taking a lower price at the elevator. Farmers and ranchers need options in order to stay viable and sustainable.


Included in this web page is a bison production budget. The budget summarizes the receipts, costs, and net returns of a bison cow-calf operation in which the offspring are sold for slaughter. This sample budget should help ensure that all costs and receipts are included in your calculations. Costs and returns are often difficult to estimate in budget preparation because they are numerous and variable. Therefore, you should think of this budget as an approximation and then make appropriate adjustments in the “Your Estimate” column to reflect your specific production and resource situation. More information on the use of livestock budgets can be found in “Agricultural Alternatives: Budgeting for Agricultural Decision Making.” More information on the use of crop budgets can be found in ” Budgeting for Agricultural Decision Making.”

You can make changes to the interactive PDF budget file for this publication by inputting your own prices and quantities in the green outlined cells for any item. The cells outlined in red automatically calculate your revised totals based on the changes you made to the cells outlined in green. You will need to click on and add your own estimated price and quantity information to all of the green outlined cells to complete your customized budget. When you have completed your budget, you can print the form using the green Print Form button at the bottom of the form. You can use the red Clear Form button to clear all the information from your budget when you are finished.

In addition to slaughtering costs, the rates charged by individual plants and USDA inspectors is $60 per hour for the inspection with a three-hour minimum per animal for a cost of at least $180. The symbol used for non-amenable species is triangular in shape, which easily distinguishes it the traditional circular USDA symbols used for meat and poultry slaughter plants

Initial Resource Requirements

Land: 25–40 acres

Labor: 400–500 hours


Livestock: $20,000–35,000

Buildings, equipment, and fencing: $35,000–40,000

Total capital invested: $55,000–75,000


You should carefully consider how to manage risk on your farm. First, you should insure your facilities and equipment. This may be accomplished by consulting your insurance agent or broker. It is especially important to have adequate levels of property, vehicle, and liability insurance. You will also need workers’ compensation insurance if you have any employees. You may also want to consider your needs for life and health insurance and if you need coverage for business interruption or employee dishonesty. For more on agricultural business insurance, see ” Agricultural Alternatives: Agricultural Business Insurance .” For more information on farm liability issues, see ” Agricultural Alternatives: Understanding Agricultural Liability .”

Second, check to see if there are multi-peril crop insurance programs available for your crop or livestock enterprises. There are crop insurance programs designed to help farmers manage both yield risk and revenue shortfalls. However, individual crop insurance coverage is not available for all crops. Whole Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) provides a risk management safety net for all commodities on your farm under one insurance policy. You can buy WFRP alone or with other buy-up level (additional) federal crop insurance policies. Coverage levels range from 50 to 85 percent of your expected revenue or whole farm historic average revenue (based on your 1040-F information), whichever is lower. For more information concerning crop insurance, contact a crop insurance agent or check the Extension Crop Insurance article.


In the normal course of operations, farmers handle pesticides and other chemicals, may have manure to collect and spread, and use equipment to prepare fields and harvest crops. Any of these routine on-farm activities can be a potential source of surface water or groundwater pollution. Because of this possibility, you must understand the regulations to follow concerning the proper handling and application of chemicals and the disposal and transport of waste. Depending on the watershed where your farm is located, there may be additional environmental regulations regarding erosion control, pesticide leaching, and nutrient runoff. Contact your soil and water conservation district, extension office, zoning board, state departments of agriculture and environmental protection, and your local governing authorities to determine what regulations may pertain to your operation.


Bison have evolved though the centuries to efficiently harvest nutrients from the grasses and forage native to the North American ecosystem. Bison ranchers today work to accommodate those natural behaviors as much as possible. And, in fact, the National Bison Association Code of Ethics is aimed at assuring that “buffalo will always be buffalo.”

A few large producers have thousands of animals spread across vast landscapes. But the average producer in the United States maintains a herd of fewer than 35 animals. Large or small, bison producers across the country strive to consistently supply the market with nutrient dense, quality meat from humanely and naturally raised animals. Regardless of finishing protocols, low-fat, high protein bison meat is proven to have strong nutritional benefits.

This partnership between ranchers and their customers is the key factor that will provide an incentive for continued restoration of the bison species on the privately owned lands of North America.