Bison furnish highly nutritious meat that is naturally lower in fat than most animals consumed by Americans who enjoy eating meat. How this foraging animal converts plants that humans don’t eat into meat — and its esteemed regard among Native Americans — enhances the appeal of bison meat.

Three weeks ago I had the opportunity to address the summer conference of the National Bison Association, which uses the same initials, NBA, as the major association of professional basketball players. This hardy and hearty group of ranchers and allied people who produce what is colloquially called buffalo met in Bismarck, N.D.

It wasn’t a coincidence that my son, his father-in-law and I coordinated my speaking opportunity with a fishing trip to Devils Lake in North Dakota. Both were highly beneficial experiences!

Bison in North America now number nearly a half million after their near extermination during the 19th century. Most bison are raised for food and assorted other uses, but the natural course of life for about 20,000 animals is protected in national or state parks and in other sanctuaries in the U.S. and Canada.

My talk at the NBA conference followed an informative session on regenerative agriculture involving bison. Bison, I learned, graze specific areas that have the most nutritious young grasses and other edible plants, then they move to new sites to repeat their selective grazing.

They seek out prairie dog towns, if they are available, because these areas usually harbor new grass shoots after the prairie dogs have consumed or stored the plants surrounding their towns. The bison also use the cleared ground nearest to burrows as spas in which they wallow by rolling on their backs and stirring up the dust.

Dust on their hairy bodies deters flies and parasites under their hair. The size of the dust clouds created by bulls signals the status of bison bulls in the herd, and rolling soothes itchy backs that might need scratching.

A wise, dominant and usually elderly bison cow leads an accompanying court of experienced cows that is followed by the rest of the herd onto new grazing terrain. She has remarkable memory for the locations of prairie dog towns, as well as watering holes and hollowed-out depressions in the earth called wallows. The migrating herd follows the matriarch to a prairie dog town sauna, if one exists in the new territory, before they begin spreading out in the new pastureland.

Bison producers can capitalize on these behaviors to increase the carrying capacity of their pastures two- or even three-fold by dividing available grazing land into paddocks that the bison exploit until all the palatable forbs are consumed, and not just patches that they graze while other swatches remain untouched. Carrying capacity is increased due to pasture management that includes frequent moves from one grazing paddock to another.

By initially leaving the gate open between the former and the currently used paddocks, cows that have calved recently can go back to their former pasture to retrieve newborn calves still hiding due to their instinctual inclination when the herd moved on. The herd doesn’t go back to recently grazed terrain unless they are starving.

When bison roamed freely before more recent human immigrants from Europe altered their habitat, they bit patches of grass and forbs to ground-level while leaving adjacent swatches of sagebrush and a variety of flora unscathed. Animals that depend on the swatches that are left intact, such as prairie chickens, sage grouse and jack rabbits, flourished, but these species declined in rangeland that was intensively grazed by cattle or bison.

As might be expected, the populations of upland birds, hares and other species dependent on varied prairie habitat increase in protected parks and national wildlife ranges. This argues for raising at least some bison in natural habitat without intensive grazing management if we are to retain varied species.

That the behaviors of cattle are similar in many ways to their genetic cousins, bison, helped me relate to the bison producers at the NBA conference because cattle and I have a long affinity. I emphasized the importance of farmers and ranchers managing their behavior so they can optimize the production of animals they raise.

The behavioral well-being of people who work with animals is detected by the animals they care for. Research findings show that dairies and livestock feedlots with distressed caretakers incur more veterinary visits and lower production of milk and meat than those in which the managers and employees feel valued and emotionally grounded. Optimal management of anxious and depressive thinking and actions enhances livestock production.

After the conference, I joined my cohorts “to practice what I preach.” They had scouted out productive locations to fish on the massive Devils Lake.

We caught our limits of walleyes two days straight, along with several big white bass and northern pike. We restored our behavioral well-being and destressed a lot.


Dr. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist and farmer at Harlan, Iowa. Contact the author at mike@agbehavioralhealth.com.