Thursday, 31 May 2018 10:24

Raising bison is a sweet venture for Spencer

Written by  Jamie Rieger
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It's only been a few short years since Cody Spencer started up his bison ranch, but in that time, he has expanded his herd and now has bison in three different locations in southern Alberta.

Last week, he added bison to some land along the Oldman River.
Spencer grew up on a farm near Milk River, always had conservation interests, and knew for a long time that he wanted to raise bison.
As a youth, he and his family moved to Lethbridge where he finished his schooling and went on to obtain his welding ticket and did some carpentry work.
"Then, I wanted something more. I wanted to buy some bison," said Spencer.
It was while he was working for Rick MacKenzie at the MacKenzie Ranch near Foremost that he was able to start see his dream become a reality.
"Working at MacKenzie Ranching was an opportunity for me. I helped them by working for them and I learned from them about bison. Rick MacKenzie helped me so much," he said. "Rick sold me some heifers and I still have some in his herd"
Spencer has been involved with bison for the past five years and started the company, Sweetgrass Bison early in 2014 and his business has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since.
Spencer then had an opportunity to buy a herd south of Pincher Creek three years ago and jumped at the opportunity, despite the distance between his herd at Foremost and Pincher Creek.
A year ago, while attending the Homestead Show in Fort Macleod, Spencer met Ken MacIntosh, who is involved with the Mountain Bluebird Conservation Society and has a ranch along the Oldman River.
"I was looking for some more land and he had a 1,200 acre ranch on the river. It was a perfect fit," said Spencer. "My business relies on renting land from people who have the same conservation values that I have."
Last week, with bison from his herds at Pincher Creek and Foremost, and a bull he bought from Bitterroot Ranch in Montana, he started a new herd at the Oldman River property. He currently has about 100 head in total.
"The herd I brought from Pincher Creek were from the original herd at Foremost, so I brought them together," he said.
Bringing the bull across the international border did not pose any problems for Spencer.
"It went pretty smooth. We had all the health certificates and all the tests came back negative. The vet provided all the documentation we needed," he said.
Spencer was eager to get out to the property to start building fences and preparing for the bison as soon as the winter was drawing to a close.
"As soon as the snow broke, we got to building fences," he said.
Conservation considerations are always at the forefront of his business even with his fences.
"We drop the fences down when we don't need them so the wildlife can get through and there are different fencing methods that can be used," said Spencer.
Spencer used to work for the Oldman Watershed Council and has tapped into their expertise, as well as from Multisar, an organization that works with ranchers and farmers in developing management practices that focuses on habitat stewardship while maintaining their agricultural operations.
"Multisar, over the course of 13 years, has done some great work and helps with funding. They've helped us with our watering system," said Spencer.
In some areas along the river, Spencer said over-grazing in the past had done damage to the riparian vegetation. He wanted to ensure those areas would not be utilized by his herd.
"We were able to fence the river off and have watering points in places that were under-utilized. We were able to distribute that grazing and stay off sensitive areas," he said.
In the middle of cattle country, Spencer would like to see more people start raising bison, but noted that misconceptions about bison behavior, despite all the benefits has deterred people.
"Southern Alberta is cattle country and some people have a hard time with change," said Spencer, adding that a couple decades ago there were some bison producers in southern Alberta.
"There were bison farmers in the 90s, when it was just a niche market, and they were taken down in 2003 by BSE."
The misconceptions and the way bison are portrayed in the movies are not at all what the animals are truly like.
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"You need to be a little more patient with them," said Spencer. "The bison is a majestic beast."
Demand his high for bison meat and there are not enough producers to meet the demand, so Spencer would like to see more ranchers get into the bison business.
The grazing is very similar between bison and cow and Spencer uses the same animal unit calculations as a cattle rancher.
"In the winter, the bison actually consume less because their metabolism slows down," he said, adding that calving is a lot easier than with cattle.
"There hasn't been enough of the new generation raising bison. There's a huge opportunity for people. Embrace the benefits of raising bison. There's no work when it comes to calving because they calve on their own. They are built for our climate, both winter and summer," he said.
 Still, with herds in several locations in southern Alberta, managing them requires a little help from some friends.
"Luckily, in Pincher Creek, Roger Marsh is able to at least keep an eye on things for me and Rick at MacKenzie Ranch. I wouldn't have been able to do it without guys like Rick and Roger," he said.
Spencer direct markets most of his product, but some is sold at the Urban Grocer, in Lethbridge, a store owned by his wife, Julia Mitchell.
"I've built up a good customer base. Bison meat fits all the trends consumers are looking for; high protein, low fat, and Omega 3 and 6. The demand for it has grown over the last 10 years," he said.
Spencer noted that there are good provincial and federal associations for bison producers and producers are always willing to lend a hand and give guidance.
"It's not a competitive industry. It's under-supplied, so we help each other," he said.

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