Bison — A Farmer’s Dream Animal

If you ask Trevor Gompf, bison are the perfect farm animal. They eat less than beef cattle, rarely get sick, calve themselves, and stay out to pasture literally all-year-round. Of course, it helps when you’ve been in the business for 15 years.

As proprietors of Bison Spirit Ranch at Oak Lake, Gompf and his wife Jodie run a herd of 500 bison on 1280 acres, a herd that started out much smaller as a business venture between family in 1997.

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“Years ago my dad [Garnet] and brother [Tim] decided that we should get into something that would diversify agriculture in our area, and bison just seemed to be the right choice,” says the rancher, who eventually purchased their shares to become the sole owner of the operation.

In the beginning, Gompf’s parents marketed the meat off the farm—as many as four animals per week. But “since I’ve taken over,” he says, “the markets have gotten so big that we can’t get the price in Canada that we can get by shipping the animals to the U.S.” He is quick to add, though, that once custom prepared in the states, the meat still goes to Canadian meat marketers who distribute the product throughout Canada, the United States and Europe.

For a while, he was shipping as many as a load of bison per month in the winter and one or two every summer, but Gompf says he’s changed his direction. “I’ve been steering towards trying to be a breeding stock seller, which is something that I’ve always been trying to do.” Nowadays, the number of bison sold for consumption has been significantly reduced in favour of selling bison stock for breeding.

And, if the long list of grand champion and reserve grand champion animals is any indication, breeding is a business that he excels at.

A regular at bison shows and sales across Canada—where the animals are penned and judged—Gompf’s bison are often recognized as top grade specimens. In January [2012], his stock proved to be among the highest quality of bison in the United States as well when he entered two bulls at the National Bison Association Show and Sale in Denver Colorado for the first time. His yearling captured Grand Champion Bull while the two-year-old took Reserve Grand Champion. “I’ve wanted to take them down to Denver since I got into bison, so I was pretty happy with how things turned out.”

Obviously, Gompf’s bison do well in competition, but how are they on the farm?

“They’re pretty easy,” he says, though he adds their infrastructure and handling system is a bit more costly. Fences are constructed out of five-and-a-half foot page wire and rarely require repair, the animals eat approximately one third less than beef cattle, and he has “never, ever had to give an antibiotic to a bison. If they are sick, it’s usually due to a deficiency of copper or selenium and they’re usually past the point of recovery.”

Gompf has also never had to assist a bison in calving, which they do out in the pasture between April and May. In fact, during last May’s [2011] freak snow storm, Gompf became storm stayed in Russell. Back home, his calving herd had been left in a pasture without tree cover—a fact which he believed meant the loss of at least a few calves. Upon his return, however, he was surprised to find all 20 newborn calves roaming the pasture, happy and healthy. “It’s in their genetics—survival of the fittest has brought these traits on.”

And as a breeder, Gompf is obviously interested in their genetics. “The best thing to do is to go out and get to know who the best producers are in the industry, find out what they’re doing and what animals they’re using.” At Bison Spirit Ranch, Gompf crosses the two breeds—Bison bison athabascae (Wood Bison) and Bison bison bison (Plains Bison). “In my opinion, the more you cross them, the better they get. I’ve got eight generations of crosses that are doing really well at shows, so I guess I’m doing something right,” he says with a laugh.

In addition to breeding, and showing, Gompf also plans to start up an annual production sale with two other bison ranchers that will occur each December and feature approximately 250 head of breeding stock. December 2012 will be their first sale.

The head of such a burgeoning business and father to three sons, Gompf would like to hand his enterprise to his children some day. “They may be interested, but who knows. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Published in the Virden Empire-Advance Agriculture Section. March, 2012.