By Jim Wells and Paul Butler
The American Bison is a valuable genetic resource. If we assumed that creation of an ideal beef animal could be a straightforward design task, a project might commence by establishing a set of specifications. American Bison possess a number of traits which would be appropriate to select for incorporation into such a specification. An examination of the animal and his virtues offers an appreciation of the bison and his inherent qualities.
Through nature’s own selection and culling process, the American Bison was tailored for survival in the severe conditions of his environment. He is the product of thousands of years of trial and error through natural evolution in which only the fittest survive. A natural genetic superiority has resulted.
One of the most efficient of all foraging animals, the American Bison is extremely hardy and adaptable. His range, prior to the arrival of European explorers, was North America, coast to coast, North and South. His numbers multiplied to an estimated 60 to 100 million head at the time North America was discovered. Nature served as herdsman and veterinarian. No calving assistance was available nor were vaccinations. No man watered those herds on the dry plains or fed them during blizzards. Genetics provided the ruggedness, foraging ability and natural instincts necessary to cope with his environment.
Foraging ability of the bison is superior. He will eat whatever types of grasses are available on his range, and will eat some of all types found including weeds and bushes. The bison will make great efforts to find and secure feed. Bison have an efficient rumination system which is capable of extracting nutritious elements from roughage type feed.
Unlike pure bovine animals the bison has the ability to perspire which explains his tolerance to hot weather. Since the pores through which he perspires can open and close, he is able to adjust to sudden changes in the weather. His front-end is protected by hide and hair so thick that it is nearly impossible for cold to penetrate. On the body and rear, this winter coat of fine and long wooly-like hair offers supreme protection from cold. In a blizzard, he will face the wind directly, protected by this thick hairy cape. He can survive storms lasting for long periods of time without food, having the ability to sustain life by extracting energy from body tissues. After extended stormy periods without food, he is cautious when he has an opportunity to eat. The bison will eat small quantities of feed at first, increasing his food intake gradually as his digestive system becomes reconditioned. He will not gorge himself to death as will the bovine after extended periods without food.
The bison has a very strong herd instinct. He is neither vicious nor aggressive and will avoid confrontation. Yet if an attempt is made to separate or pen him, he will go through anything to return to the herd. He possesses great agility and speed, particularly for his size.
Individuals have for more than 150 years attempted to combine desirable characteristics of bison and bovine animals. Mossom Boyd of Bobcaygeon, Ontario, one of the early pioneers in crossbreeding, desired to take the fur and hump of bison and place them upon the back of domestic oxen. Charles Goodnight of Texas wrote of the ability of his "cattelow" to perform well under adverse range conditions as well as their high carcass yield. Jim Burnett of Montana has conducted crossbreeding experimentation for more than 25 years and gained considerable insight into captured bison traits. D. C. Basolo of California has placed emphasis on lean meat production of Beefalo. There has been a rekindled interest and activities are now greater than they have ever been.
Experimentation and research in bison bovine cross animals conducted by Agriculture Canada took place in the period between 1916 and 1964. Animals with various percentages of bison were produced and studied. The name applied to these animals was "Cattalo" and did not signify a specific percentage of bison blood. Research was conducted on bison–bovine crosses which, although not limited to Beefalo proportions, produced factual information which is relevant to Beefalo.
The American Beefalo is a cross between two distinct species and therefore a true hybrid animal. The Beefalo has been crossed and selected to produce a combination of 3/8 bison, 5/8 bovine genetics. Although most hybrid animals are incapable of reproduction, Beefalo are fertile and exhibit a conception rate as high or higher than any domestic cattle breed. Remember that all bison-bovine crosses are NOT Beefalo.
The bovine portion in Beefalo may be from any breed. Most are from a beef breed or combination of beef breeds. Because of this mixture, Beefalo have not specific color or color pattern. They may be horned or polled.
Beefalo exhibit a calm disposition and a nature as unexcitable as any bovine. Fencing requirements for Beefalo are no different from those for pure domestics. They are gentle, docile cattle which are easy to handle and control.
Calving ease is an important attribute of Beefalo. Calves average 50 to 75 pounds birth weight, a significant reason for very few calving problems.
Beefalo cows are excellent mothers. They are protective of their young. Rich milk from the Beefalo cow results in rapid weight gain of nursing calves. Average daily gain of nursing calves in outstanding.
During Agriculture Canada’s cattalo experiment, data on calf performance was gathered from 1951 to 1957. Birth weight of calves from dames of high percentage bison was found to be lower than for those of low percentage bison. Average daily gain (ADG) of all nursing cattalo calves was found to be higher than for pure domestic bovine calves. In ranking of ADG, cattalo calves from 50 percent bison dames were highest, cattalo from ¼ bison second, and cattalo from less than ¼ bison cows third. Pure domestic bovine calves ranked fourth. Researcher attributed an adjusted average 84.9 pound advantage of cattalo at weaning to superior nursing ability.
Foraging ability of the Beefalo is better than that of the pure domestic bovine. Beefalo inherit from bison an ability to consume roughage and to perform well on it, converting it to weight gain without extensive grain feeding. Tests have shown that Beefalo on roughage outgain both Beefalo and pure domestics on grain rations. On pasture, Beefalo have less of the pure domestic tendency to graze the lush tasting grasses first. Pure bovine animals tend to eat the better tasting grasses, rejecting others until the preferred ones are too short to graze. Beefalo will seek the better grazing areas, but will eat some of whatever grows.
Beefalo cattle are expected to have greater longevity than pure bovine animals due to partial inheritance of the bison’s long lifespan of 35 to 40 years. More importantly the productive lives of females should be greater. Pure bovine females reproduce for eight to ten years with 12 reproductive years being the maximum. It is known that pure bison females have a reproductive life about twice that of domestic bovine females. Females of ½ bison and ½ bovine have been known to calve at 25 years of age.
The specific longevity and reproductive life of Beefalo cannot be accurately stated until a number of animals have existed for sufficient years to obtain valid data. If we would assume that an animal 3/8 bison would inherit 3/8 of the difference in reproductive life of bison and pure bovine, we would expect Beefalo to produce calves for four to five years longer than the average pure bovine.
Any improvement in reproductive life will have a significant impact on efficiency of cattlemen’s operations. Female beef animals are grown for the primary purpose of producing calves. A good female should produce her first calf at two years of age. If she produces one calf each year for 15 years instead of ten, the increase on potential return on investment is obvious.
The extremely rugged and hardy nature of Beefalo is inherited from the bison. Having up to five times more hair per square inch than pure bovine, Beefalo are well-protected from severe cold. Winter hardiness, thicker hair-coat and the ability to tolerate severe cold was confirmed and documented in Agriculture Canada’s cattalo experiment. To take advantage of reduced winter feed costs, cattle on pasture in northern climates must be willing and able to graze under severe conditions. Hair-coat is a primary factor in adaptability to severe cold and winter hardiness of Beefalo. In addition to this hair-coat which makes them able to tolerate the coldest climates, Beefalo inherit from the bison the ability to perspire. This makes Beefalo adaptable to hot weather. One effect which has been noted by cattlemen with herds containing both pure bovine and Beefalo occurs at midday on hot days. A number of cattlemen have commented that while pure domestics lie in the shade with tongues hanging, Beefalo continue to graze.
Beefalo cattle produce a very desirable carcass. The percentage of edible meat to animal live-weight has been found to be very high compared to domestic cattle. This has been documented by several different packing organizations.
The eating quality of Beefalo meat is excellent. Results from a University of Alabama study confirms that Beefalo meat produced from animals on a high roughage ration was equal to eating quality to choice grade, corn fattened beef. The majority of consumers who have tasted Beefalo beef prefer it to pure domestic beef.
Guidelines to Beefalo Production
Becoming active in breeding or raising Beefalo is not different than for any other type of cattle. Anyone who has domestic cattle can, through artificial insemination, breed females to fullblood or purebred Beefalo bulls. Offspring will be ½ blood Beefalo (containing 19% bison). Half-blood Beefalo can be bred to fullblood or purebred bulls to produce ¾ blood Beefalo (containing 28% bison). Female 7/8 offspring contain 33% bison and are considered purebred Beefalo (note: this is no longer true in the ABI), and when bred to fullblood or purebred bulls, will produce 15/16 Beefalo (containing 35% bison). Both male and female animals of 15/16 blood are considered purebred. As is true with any type cattle, a superior herd with desirable traits can be established by strict breeding and culling practices in each generation. These are not restrictions on type of base domestic stock.
Truly an innovation in beef production, Beefalo are different and have characteristics superior to those of traditional beef breeds. However, many of their virtues have been, in some cases, exaggerated. Unfortunately, there have been a few who would attempt to maximize their individual short-term gain on any good thing. Incredible stories should be viewed with caution. Remember, these animals are 5/8 domestic bovine and cannot survive the same extremes as a pure bison. Beefalo require management, attention, feed and care, just as any other domestic animal.
When considering cattle of any type, ask for facts. For traditional breeds, performance data has been accumulated for many years. For Beefalo, some performance measurement is available and more and more valid data is accumulating. Do not consider that Beefalo cattle have been developed to the ultimate. The animal is the result of a cross between two species, and the bovine portion of the Beefalo is usually a mix of breeds. Although the animal is revolutionary, work and experimentation will continue in order to further improve Beefalo. In breeding livestock, which depart from the traditional, one can expect some criticism and opposition, particularly from those who may view any new animals as a threat or intrusion into a secure domain. Various cattlemen have established personal preferences and no matter what type of cattle one might produce, he can expect some differences in opinion.
Get to know cattlemen producing any breed of cattle you are considering. The majority of cattlemen producing Beefalo have based their breeding programs on facts. Beware of the incredible claims and ask for proof. As if performance records are maintained. Establish that you are dealing with reputable individuals and that they intend to be in business five years in the future.
Reprinted with author's permission