By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
When the first bison came to Northwind Bison near Moorefield, Shane and Amanda Stege used to grab a couple of pails and sit in the field to watch them. The animals were young and kept their distance.
Now, with a bison bull in his prime and 11 new calves in the pasture, the bison keep to their side of the fence and the Steges to the other, though they will enter the pasture to check the fencing and grass, and observe the animals from a safe distance.
“When you have a dominant bull, it’s a different dynamic,” admits Amanda. Though bison are not aggressive, they are defensive, especially with new calves in the mix. When Amanda and Shane walked me to the deck they built beside the high fence surrounding the pasture, I could see why. I was lucky enough to have the dominant bull walk surely and steadily toward me, with all the power and confidence a prairie bison contains in his enormous head and shoulders. The furry skull dwindles to a surprisingly lean and narrow hind end. He was a presence and his gaze was unwavering. The herd, honestly, was amazing to see and photograph.
The Steges understand the fascination so they have hosted a few open houses. The events draw crowds of 200 people to see these mammals, rich in history on our continent, graze the grass that transforms the calves into hulking cows and bulls.
It all began for the Steges when Shane was called to a bison farm for his work at Norwell Dairy. “He was raised on a dairy farm and he really missed four-legged creatures. After seeing those bison, he couldn’t let the idea of them go.”
The pair were already busy enough with their own broiler barn, Shane’s off-farm job and Amanda’s work as a dental hygienist, while raising their three children. But Shane couldn’t stop thinking about bison. So the pair researched what it takes to become bison meat producers, visiting three different bison farms and chatting with members of the Ontario Bison Association. Shane was always keen – he likes a bit of adventure – but Amanda wasn’t sure until she learned about the nutritional component of bison meat. It’s low in fat while being high in protein and iron. “It’s similar to beef but not the same. It has a milder flavor with a hint of sweetness and is more nutrient dense,” she says. The meat is really more like elk, than traditional beef, she explains.
By 2019, they took the plunge, and purchased six, two-year-old animals.
Amanda remembers being surprised how small they were at the time…something that changed quickly as the cattle aged.
“The females know us well and those matriarchs have a calm demeanor in the herd,” says Shane. “But the breeder bull during the rut likes to let us know who is boss and that’s a good thing. He is taking ownership.”
They’ve only really had one frightening incident and that was on a day when Shane was bringing hay into the enclosure. He had done this many times without incident by driving in with a tractor, dumping the hay and driving out. The bull always kept a respectable distance. This time, as Shane drove out, the bull made a run for it and was outside before the gate could be shut.
It was a tense and terrifying moment. The bull looked at Shane and Shane looked at the bull. The family dog started barking and fearing the bull would charge, Shane raised his arms in the air and started yelling. Thankfully, the bull decided to turn around and race back into the pasture with Shane quickly closing the gate behind him.
“He came into the house white as a sheet and lay on the couch for a good hour,” remembers Amanda, after the event. Changes to the pasture were made soon after, with a double gate system to prevent an escape from happening again.
The cows aren’t as aggressive. When they calve, they keep to the back corner of the pasture and it takes a week or more before they will come up to the fence with their calves. Bison heifers are bred when they reach 750 pounds, which is when they are about three years old. Eleven of the 14 females calved this year. The cattle are pasture-raised, supplemented with hay and given salt and minerals as needed.
Shelter isn’t a necessity for animals raised to survive Canada’s harsh winters but many people are concerned they don’t have a barn to enter, admit the Steges. Thing is, the bison really don’t need it. Bison have a thick skin and wooly coat that protects them. On harsh cold days, they will gather in a group with their back ends facing the wind and ride out the storm. Or, they will lay down in the pasture and allow the snow to build on them as a layer of insulation, a position that also protects their belly and preserves body heat.
It’s actually the hot summer days that bother them more, says Amanda. “In the summer they will graze in the morning and then lay flat out all day until nine or 10 at night when they will start grazing again.”
The bison are dewormed and vaccinated by a veterinarian who keeps his distance by using a dart gun. When it comes time to butcher a bison, the animals are dropped in the field before going to a processing plant. It’s not safe for the Steges, transporters or workers at the abattoir to deal with a live bison so this is the safest way. Plus, it’s less stressful on the animal. Peel Meat Packers in Drayton does the skinning and processing while J-Mar Custom Meats Inc. in Mount Forest does the butchering and wrapping.
The Steges are now at the point where they can sell all their own bison meat in the on-farm store they created at their Moorefield farm. Bison meat is a niche market and “demand is increasing” says Amanda. They hope profits will continue to grow to the point they can hire an employee to manage their on-farm store in the future.
“Bison is a long-term investment because you have to grow your herd,” explains Shane. Eventually, they hope to sell breeding stock. The herd now stands at 36 animals which include the first four calves born in 2021 and seven calves in 2022, along with the 11 calves born this year.
As they look to the future, they plan to host more open-house events that include wagon rides around the outside of the pasture. The Steges often spend summer evenings on the fence-side deck watching their herd and they understand the appeal of these large, wooly animals. Their size almost matched their icon-status in Canadian history.
“We respect them and the power they have,” concludes Amanda. ◊