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It’s a keen wind blowing cold over the Smokey Hills in the Peace River region of Alberta. I press myself into the large round bale behind me, inside the bison (don’t say buffalo!) handling system of the Adam Ranch near Bezanson, AB. I’m thrilled to be here. Standing around me, their shoulders hunched against the cold, are bison ranchers from all over Alberta. Just before, driving into the ranch, we saw a picture out of the old days on the prairies: a dark herd of bison cows with their calves, a grove of poplar trees behind, the open meadow before.
This is the oldest bison ranch in Alberta, now operating 35 years. It saw the first boom and bust years of the bison industry and is here to enjoy the current boom. Standing there on the corral boards, Brian Olfert, manager of the ranch, doesn’t seem to feel the cold. Confidently he answers the many questions of the participants of the regional Alberta Bison Producers conference. The ranch runs 800 bison cows in two herds, one of 300 and one of 500. “We’ve worked many years to build up a strong herd,” Olfert says. A strong herd means less loss from disease.
Long known for working bison with horses, the Adam Ranch uses quads now. Horses can’t compete with a bison in speed or endurance. “Use a quad!” is the general consensus of the ranchers around me, and stories start to circulate of trying to chase bison with a horse.
I didn’t expect to see grazing corn on a bison ranch. Many are surprised to hear that, especially so far north. (I interviewed Sam King of Manning a couple years ago, who consistently grew grazing corn several hundred kilometers north of here.) “It costs a bit to put in, but the tonnes per acre outdo anything you’ll ever grow,” Olfert tells the group. We stop at the corn field on our way home. The warm summer and long fall without frost produced some nice cobs.
Silage bales aren’t your traditional bison feed either. “It changed the way we feed,” Olfert says. There is no leaf loss, with better quality. They aim for 30 pounds of hay per day per cow. Oats are mixed directly into silage bales. The bison are fed every day to reduce waste and get better weight.
“Do feed samples on your feed, guys!” Olfert admonishes the ranchers. The Adam Ranch uses a nutritionist. “They’re worth enough,” (the bison).
The heat radiating from the barrel heater inside the wood shack together with the coffee from the can on the heater drives the cold from our bones. Ross Adam sits beside the door in his big white cowboy hat and moustache. He says he keeps 30 longhorn cattle just so he can wear his cowboy hat to the dances. (Actually it’s to utilize the bush land, because bison don’t like bush and make a mess of it).
I’m glad I took the bison ranchers up on their offer to join them. It was a real ‘feel good’ day!