If you’re a bison rancher in Manitoba, chances are you know Michelle Gaudry.
She has spent the last five years promoting the sector’s growth as an industry development specialist with the province. Bison ranchers will have seen her at Manitoba Bison Association (MBA) meetings or hosted her on a visit to their farm. They likely have seen her name at the bottom of the province’s cost-of-production documents, where her contact is nestled among the handful of other provincial bison experts producers are encouraged to reach for.
If you happened to be at this year’s annual meeting of the Manitoba Bison Association, you would have seen her yet again, this time applauded as she accepted the biggest award given out every year by the MBA. Among her other accomplishments, Michelle Gaudry is now the latest winner of the MBA’s Bill Lenton Memorial Award, an award that, until now, has always been given to a producer.
“Michelle’s been really instrumental in helping kind of guide the board and bridge that gap between government and our association,” MBA president Robert Johnson said.
In particular, he noted, Gaudry has helped bison producers navigate programs around riparian areas, while also developing market information on bison and helping guide business risk management. Gaudry was critical in helping Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation gather market intelligence and benchmarking data for both cow-calf and feeder operations, he said, noting that accurate information is critical in cases such as a compensation for a predation loss.
“She is just so good at her job and she just goes that extra mile,” Johnson said. “She takes time out of her own personal schedule. Like, on weekends and that, if she’s travelling and she’s going to be in a certain area, she’ll stop in and meet with bison producers.”
Gaudry described her win as, “a shock and an honour to be named alongside the pioneers, really, of our industry.”
“I basically harness the energy of the producers and the board members whom I work with and you just go with it,” she said. “It’s just been a really good five years.”
Named after a pioneer of both the Manitoba and Canadian bison industry — Lenton ran one of the country’s first commercial herds from his farm near Miami, Man., and is credited with helping to open the door for international trade — the Manitoba Bison Association gives out the Bill Lenton Memorial Award every year to someone they feel has been an advocate for both the industry and the MBA.
The MBA introduced the award in 2004, following Lenton’s death.
Sharp learning curve
Gaudry might be a familiar face to the bison industry now, but she didn’t always fit in on a farm.
Growing up in Winnipeg, Gaudry did not have any farm background when she came to the University of Manitoba, although she was always fascinated by livestock.
“I’ve always been curious about livestock, specifically, and agriculture and decided that the best way to inform myself was to go and study agriculture, so that’s what I did,” she said.
Even for a farm kid, that learning curve would have been steep. Bison have comparatively little information, compared to the maelstrom of data, reports and studies available in the cattle sector, Gaudry noted.
The production systems of bison further set them apart from cattle, she noted. Direct marketing is more common for the smaller market, and some of the farms she has worked with actually run different systems at the same time, with some animals marked for direct marketing while others might be sold live in a more conventional marketing strategy.
“There’s definitely some digging and extra research that goes into finding that information,” she said, noting that for a good portion of that education, she can thank the farmers.
“They’re very open to accepting you and welcoming you on their farm and you learn a lot just from conversations with producers. They’ve been super helpful in that way,” she said.
Gaudry also noted the shift she has seen, even just in the last five years in the industry.
The sector is still small, she noted, although perhaps less of a niche market than when she first started with the province. The sector itself has grown, while price volatility has largely calmed.
“I think it just represents that there’s definitely staying power to the bison industry and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere,” she said.