Human treatment of all animals has been a core principal of ours since long before getting into farming, and we set out to create Virginia Bison Co. from the outset with this extremely important element as a central theme. All employees are trained to handle livestock with proper handling, care and respect. We set up our coral using a Temple Grandin design, which is all circular in layout and specifically constructed to apply to the bison’s natural instincts to move in circles and flow in a direction that takes them back to their point of origin. All bison at Virginia Bison Co. are lead and not driven, using a bucket of grain cubes and training to a call that we use during moves.
We respect the animal and the sustenance that it provides to us and our customers. We acknowledge the symbiotic relationship that we have with both our source of food and the environment, and how those things can work together. Bison are extremely aggressive and dangerous animals and we have built a structure and facilities that allow them to live and thrive in the most natural conditions that we can provide, while keeping them secure and comfortable in a low stress environment. This is both beneficial to the animal as an individual and our production goals. Bison are not domestic, and it will take 3,000-5,000 years for that to happen. They are high strung and easily agitated creatures, and we recognize that and work carefully to keep them calm and satisfied with their conditions. All of our bison are living on open range grass based pastures and we do not maintain any sort of confinement or feed-lot facilities, with the coral used as a tool, not as containment.
As with all farmed livestock, we need them to move in order to maintain productivity, handle them in the coral and load them into a trailer when needed. We are often quite and careful and aim to lead them more then push them. When we want to move them to different pastures, we simply open gates and call them forward using a grain pellet bucket, a consistent calling sound and an ATV (so that we can move out of their way at the point that the herd decides to run to greener pastures). When we need to move them into smaller spaces, like the coral or a trailer, we use their natural flight-zone space. This simply means getting into their “personal space” which for cattle might be 5 feet away from them, but for bison is closer to 15-20 feet away from them. Sometimes we simply stand still and make a clicking sound with our mouth and after a few moments they get uncomfortable and move away, and if we are positioned at the correct angle, knowing their behavioral patterns, they will move away from us and in the direction that we desire them to go. In the coral, which we use for sorting, testing, weighing, etc., we also use their flight-zone behavior to move them forward through the alleys, using a soft-sounding rattle-paddle that has pebbles inside from an above level catwalk. They move through the handling sections and flow with swift even movements around the circular handling system. There is no pushing, prodding or physical pressure. From the time that they enter to the time that they leave is usually under a minute for sorting or up to three minutes for handling (testing, weighing, etc.).
We have been experimenting of late with letting the calves wean themselves from the cows. This happens naturally as the cow gets near to birthing her next calf, the cow’s milk supply dries up and the calf loses interest over time. We are finding lower stress in both cow and calf, higher gains in the calf and better overall health.
Since we operate a rotational grazing grass program, the grass is always kept in a vegetative state. Bison as a species developed on the great planes where native grasses can produce up to 500 lbs. or more of grain (seed heads) per acre, and we learned over time that this “grass-only” system that we followed is not so conducive to health and productivity and that the bison thrived with access to some grain. We provide a wagon of grain that we park out on the grass pastures so that they can free-choice as needed per individual, and since doing that the quality of our health and herd has increased 150%.