Bison do double duty on organic farm

Unlike many organic farmers, John Finnie isn’t always scrambling for manure — he has 150 helpers in that task.

His herd of Plains bison are a perfect fit on his 1,000-acre certified organic operation near Kenton, northwest of Brandon, he says.

“I like to look at them as being a very large piece of machinery,” said Finnie, who went organic a dozen years ago.

“I try to use the animals as a tool or almost as a piece of machinery, if you will, to consume the crop residue that is left over.”

About half of the farm’s income comes from the bison, which Finnie markets directly to consumers, as well as at retail outlets such as Grassroots Kitchen at The Forks Market in Winnipeg.

Intercropping with legumes such as peas and hairy vetch is key to his strategy on the grain side.

Seeding legumes in with his oats, barley and wheat provides additional nutrients to his cereals and the higher plant density keeps down weeds. It also boosts the feed quality of the crop residues to the point where the bison can be wintered mainly on the straw, along with supplemental hay, screenings, and lower-quality grain.

Instead of discing crop residues into the soil as a green manure, the herd acts as a “large fertilizing machine” that speeds up the decomposition of crop residues by breaking the straw down into manure and urine. After that, the microscopic “soil-based livestock” on his farm finish the job of creating plant-available nutrients for successive crops.

“Instead of me using machinery, they work for food,” he said.

Each winter, he chooses a particular field for the fertility treatment, and unrolls bales daily with a tractor so the herd’s manure is distributed as evenly as possible.

“My objective is to have at least one buffalo pattie on every square metre of the field,” he said.

To further save on costs, he’s considering rolling up half-size bales of chaff and straw from the combine and leaving them on the field for the bison to clean up. Less finicky than cattle, they waste very little forage.

“Down the road, I’d like to make it so I have to do less and they do more of the work,” said Finnie.

Certifying the bison as organic made sense. Extremely hardy, they were designed by nature to require little pampering, and their shaggy coats mean they have no problems enduring bitterly cold winds on bare fields with only snow as a water source.

The other reason, he added, is that handling the wild and woolly critters is a “nightmare.”

“They are a wild animal, basically,” he said. “They are nice to look at out in the field, but if you get them in a pen they are nasty and dangerous.”

The bison can’t be rounded up with an ATV or on horseback. Instead, he is careful to keep them acquainted with grain, which he uses to “lure” them in the desired direction.

“They are suckers for grain, just like cattle,” he said.

Calving, obviously, is a hands-off process. Also, their natural instinct to ostracize sick animals from the herd helps prevent the transmission of disease. Parasites are managed by avoiding overcrowding, and rotating pastures.

On the rare occasion that an animal falls sick, he separates it from the herd, treats it with antibiotics, and then markets it through conventional channels. In severe cases, however, euthanasia is often the only practical option.

Perimeter fences are five strands of high-tensile wire, with two hot wires and one serving as ground, held up by posts 15 feet apart.

Finishing the bison to 1,000 to 1,200 pounds takes up to 30 months, compared to 18 to 20 months for cattle, and they end up weighing about 500 to 600 pounds on the hook. Slaughter and processing fees, at $500 per head, eat up a large portion of his profits.

He sells hamburger for $6 per pound, and has built up a regular clientele after six years of direct marketing. Although his meat is organic, his philosophy is to charge roughly the same as conventional in order to move product faster.

Finnie is also experimenting with various chemical-free tanning methods for the hides left over after delivering animals to the local abattoir. Bison skulls are in demand as ornaments and for Aboriginal ceremonies. To clean them, he simply places them in a compost pile and removes them a few months later after the soft tissues have decomposed.

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