Brian Arnold has a life-long passion for agriculture but his foray into regenerative farming and bison conservation began in 2015.
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“Before we bought this place (Thunder Ridge Bison Company), we bought our first bull, and I had nowhere to put him,” said Arnold during a Farm and Food Care Ontario tour earlier this month.
Why it matters: Bison’s popularity as a nutrient-dense, lean red meat is growing, as is its production in Ontario.
Fortunately, another producer heard he’d bought Bruce, a Plains bison bull, and asked if he could rent him for the summer. That gave Arnold time to split an eastern 50-acre pasture into two and bring in eight bison cows.
He now manages 80 animals split between three farms.
“We spend a lot of money on our genetics,” he said. “There’s a good diverse group of animals from the West that we can access.”
Bruce’s lineage traces back to the Yellowstone herd, but Arnold said bison from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park and Saskatchewan’s Grassland Provincial Park produce excellent genetics.
He said Ontario has dominated nationally for new producer expansion over the last few years.
“Where some areas like Saskatchewan and Manitoba have seen a decline, we’ve actually seen a growth,” he said. “Northern Ontario has been very good to us with some new producers up there, and we’ve also had two new producers in the (outer) GTA area.”
Approximately 70 per cent of Ontario Bison Association members are primarily bison producers. Some diversified their existing operations with bison and others changed from other livestock.
“I’m excited to see the growth and recognition the product is getting, and the consumer demand is growing,” said Arnold, who is president and vice-president of the Ontario and Canadian Bison Associations, respectively.
“The responsibility is going to fall on us to educate people a little bit more and show them there are other protein alternatives.”
After a decline in 2016, Ontario’s bison herd sits at approximately 2,600 animals. Western droughts resulted in herd contractions in that region but Alberta remains home to about 50 per cent of the nation’s herd.
Unlike the Prairies, Ontario has managed to weather drought conditions with little impact on herd numbers because the forage lands bounce back once rains come and provide enough grass and hay to get animals through the year, Arnold said.
As in other livestock sectors, grazing land and processing capacity are the two most significant challenges facing bison production.
Arnold said the up-front investment required for infrastructure is costly and restrictive, especially for new entrants who need to rent land. Factor in high loan interest rates, seed costs, and the time necessary to transform bare soil into pasture, and it’s often easier for landowners to rent to a cash-cropper who has a better return on investment guarantee.
Thunder Ridge was a cash crop operation with poor soil health when Arnold bought it, and he struggled to reinstate pasture on the land. He ordered a native grass mix from Saskatchewan, and with intensive rotational winter feeding, the spring grass finally made gains.
After eight years, the most recent soil test showed a 23 per cent microbiome increase and a return of three bird species with increased hatch rates, attributed to availability of bison fur to line the nests.
“That’s no sprays, no chemicals, no fertilizers – just putting the animals back on the ground,” said Arnold.
“Growing bison, especially in Ontario, is a very ecologically and environmentally sound practice that we can all be very proud of.”
Bison herd instincts are strong and they dispatch predators quickly. They breed and calve naturally. For the spring vet check and calf tagging, Arnold uses oats and barley, along with herd dynamics, to move animals through the catch system.
“We try to keep an eye on them all the time. If we see somebody’s maybe lacking or should be a little heavier, then we will maybe bring them in and treat them,” he said. “But again, trying to get things back to nature is huge for us.”
Even the best-laid plans can go awry due to Mother Nature. For example, Arnold anticipated approximately 20 calves to be born in spring. He got fewer than half that number and producers across Ontario also saw fewer calves.
“They’re susceptible to changes in the weather and what their genetics are telling them,” he said.
Producers speculate that hot, dry weather during breeding season may have played a part.
Bison do not like containment, so Arnold harvests in-field with inspector authorization before transporting carcasses to a processing facility.
“We’ll dispatch the animals, and then we’re on a time clock. We have to get it to the plant to have it inspected and processed within two hours.”
Bison aren’t subject to the same market influences as cattle, explained Arnold, but are generally harvested at 30 months of age and 450 to 500 pounds.
“One of our biggest headaches is the availability of processing space for us or even the willingness of some of the abattoirs to take on bison,” Arnold said. “I hear it all the way across the country.”
But when a market interruption like the pandemic occurs, bison producers can wait it out without overtaxing the land or the animals.
“If they live here for another year, two years, three years, five years – it doesn’t matter,” he said. “To me, that’s sustainability. I’m not relying on any other systems, and that’s what makes us a little bit different.”
He rotationally grazes his animals, moving them every week or two, but said some producers have a month or two of regeneration before the animals return. His land keeps rotation tight, and he culls to meet market demand.
“Bison don’t get to full size until they’re eight. Our bull, he’s pretty lean right now because it’s breeding season, so he’s been working pretty hard, but generally, he’ll sit between 2,000 and 2,200 pounds.”
Pre-Covid, Arnold estimates 80 per cent of the business was restaurants and a few retail outlets. Now, he sells directly to consumers from the on-farm shop with an in-house butcher.
Connecting with hockey
Five years ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs organization shifted to sourcing bison through Arnold because it’s a local, nutrient-dense, lean protein alternative with less fat than beef. Its high iron content is ideal for athletes and those recovering from surgery or cancer treatment.
“They (bison) have a unique ability to uptake trace minerals that sometimes we’re lacking in our systems,” said Arnold. “It’s a very sweet, not gamey-tasting meat, and most people wouldn’t know it’s not beef unless you told them.”
He won’t sell to anyone who doesn’t come to the farm first, preferring to build relationships with buyers who understand his focus on nose-to-tail use of each animal.
Arnold often donates hides to Trent University’s Indigenous groups. Winter hides can be transformed into heavy robes with an approximate $2,200 price tag.
On average, bison is five to 10 per cent more expensive than beef in a direct marketing scenario, said Arnold, but the gap is closing because it used to be 20 per cent.
“The cost of beef has gone up so much and bison prices haven’t fluctuated as much. I would say beef is catching up to bison pricing.
“The funny thing is, demand for bones is huge. We have people who drive an hour and a half (for them),” said Arnold, and they carry a premium charge.
“We have hardly any waste anymore. Our scrap stuff goes to dog food, and we do that in-house as well.”