Where is MFL Bison Ranch Ltd. in this 'conservation ag' story?

Having given a broad overview of the 'vision' of conservation agriculture, it is worth answering the question about where MFL Bison Ranch Ltd. fits in.  

At MFL we are in the early stages of adopting a complete conservation agriculture model.  As much as we'd love to be the 'model' for this revolution in agriculture, reality and limited resources mean that this is a process that will take time.  We've had to prioritize our efforts and therefore led off with DNA testing our herd, following up with the adoption of regenerative management practices.

DNA Testing - Our first step into adding to the conservation equation was to start DNA testing all our herd. 

 

Many who entered the bison industry in the 1990s did so with a romantic notion of forging a different path, becoming the contrarian ranchers who replaced their cattle/sheep/goats/etc with bison and committed to raising a wild species out in the sparely populated 'west'.  This was an apolitical movement and many wanted, and still wish to remain, to be left alone to live with nature and derive an honest living out of hard work, the outdoors and a commitment to a more natural method of food production involving the species of animal native to these lands.

Unfortunately, and as the old saying goes, 'just because you don't take an interest in politics, that doesn't mean that politics won't take an interest in you'.  There are a small number of loud ideologues who vehemently oppose the Zimbabwean and South African conservation model and wish to see it fail.  Often well meaning but dreadfully ignorant of ecology and population genetics, these groups fail to see the irreversible danger in genetically isolating small populations in small parks, as occurs with most western conservation strategies.  Unaware that genetic drift will result in the inevitable extinction of many wildlife populations, there is a push to continue to expand the separation between 'conservation' and 'agriculture'. 

 

In the process, some have campaigned to separate 'domestic' bison from 'wild' bison, despite there being no such division scientifically.  They're genetically identical and many private herds are managed in a way that more closely mimics nature than modern public parks do.  In addition, there has been a claim that 'most' privately owned bison are cattle/bison 'hybrids', and therefore not real bison.  Therefore, the argument goes, 'real' bison are a 'threatened' species and need special protection by legislation.

An even smaller fraction of activists wish to see all wildlife removed from private ownership, either unaware or uncaring of the inevitable tragedy that will result if that goal comes to fruition.

The fact is that only a fraction of the bison in North America live in public parks.  Most of those parks have a significant percentage of cattle/bison 'hybrids', with only a couple exceptions known.  It is also a fact that 75% of the bison owned privately are 'pure' according to the DNA test used to declare park herds 'pure'.  This leaves roughly 300,000 'pure' bison in private ownership in North America and only 10-15000 in parks.

If either subspecies of bison become 'protected' by law, then those 300,000 privately owned bison suddenly have no place to live as private ranchers would be forced to sell them for slaughter and replace them with economically valuable livestock.  As the single biggest repository of bison genetics on earth, we simply cannot afford for them to be lost, as the genetic loss would be irreversible.  This would be a tragedy on the scale of the wholesale slaughter of wild bison herds in the mid 19th century, and totally unavoidable.  We've lost enough species of wildlife to extinction due to blinkered policy making, we don't need to add Plains or Woods Bison to the list!!

Let's not forget the six species (plus another subspecies) of African wildlife that have been saved from extinction by private conservation ranches in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Therefore, we at MFL Bison Ranch Ltd. decided to do our part to prevent such a loss.  To provide the scientific evidence that bison are not endangered and that private sector ranches are absolutely essential to their continued survival, we decided that our herd would be tested and managed to a 'pure' status.  This effort would come in two phases:

  • Phase 1 - MFL's herd would be tested to the same standard as the Canadian and American park herds have been.  Any bovine (domestic cattle) DNA introgression would be removed from the herd and any new herd additions would be tested to the same standard.  Any additions who failed to meet this standard would be rejected.  

    • Initial testing began in 2013 and by the autumn of 2014, MFL's whole herd had been tested.

    • We found 18.7% of our herd showed bovine mtDNA or nDNA introgression.  This was below the 25% predicted by Texas A&M University for private herds in North America.

    • By breeding season in 2015, MFL's herd was down to 7.6% bovine DNA introgression.  These were culled out over the next two years.

    • In the autumn of 2015, MFL was able to market only 'pure' animals as breeding stock (bred heifers and breeding bulls).

    • As of 2018, MFL's breeding stock herd is managed as 100% pure according to the current microsatellite test, which tests 30 gene pairs known to be reliable predictors of bovine DNA introgression.

  • Phase 2a - MFL would encourage and join an project of Canadian Bison Association to lead the development of a more advanced single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP or 'Snip' test) test for bison.  Others in the industry were also very interested in the potential for such a test and the research and development is now in advanced stages.  The new test will:

    • Provide additional accuracy for the identification and removal of bovine DNA within the bison genome.

    • Allow for differentiation between the Plains and Woods subspecies of bison.

    • Parentage testing.

    • Initial validation testing is expected to occur during Q3 of 2019 - MFL and others will be providing herd DNA samples for this validation.

    • The new SNP testing tool should be commercially available in 2020.

  • Phase 3b - MFL has an interest in refining the SNP test to provide additional data important for conservation and managing 'genetic flow'.

    • We would like a tool that will provide mtDNA and nDNA haplotype and haplogroup data for individual animals.

    • We would like haplotype and haplogroup data to be able to provide an 'index of genetic diversity' measure, set against the known bison genome.

    • We would like to see the bison industry, both public and private, contribute toward further bison genomic research and expanded sequencing of 'historic' bison DNA samples to build an even higher resolution picture of the whole bison genome.

    • MFL is committed to staying engaged throughout the process(s) involved with this research.

It is our hope that this effort will break down some of the barriers that currently exist between public and private conservation efforts.  Eventually, we'd like to see genomics tools such as the new SNP test and regenerative rangeland management practices used to restore bison herd genetics, health and ecosystem impact in both private and public herds.  This effort should be collaborative and the long term potential for such collaboration is extremely good for both wildlife and humans.

Regenerative Agriculture Practices - MFL moved away from monoculture or simple polyculture (2 grasses, 1 legume) forage crops in 2017 in favour of multi-species polyculture forage crops.  As part of a program to regenerate our winter forage production, in 2017 MFL planted an 8 species polyculture annual forage crop and followed that in 2018 with a 10 species perennial forage crop and another 5 species annual crop.  To ensure our flexibility in using these polycultures, we obtained a rebuilt and modified no-till seed drill in 2018.  It allows us to seed in most conditions, including through pasture sod in all but the hardest/driest conditions.

As time goes on we will investigate the feasibility of a shift away from baled hay/green-feed toward swath grazing or standing forage.  The advantages of this shift would be a reduction in input, particularly regarding diesel and iron (tractors, cutters, balers, etc) and a greater flexibility in forage crop species.  Freed from the need to 'dry down' the crops, a number of deep rooted broadleaf species could be added to our forage mixes.  This would give greater benefits for adaptation to variations in seasonal precipitation as well as greater contributions toward soil health benefits.  Some of these deeper rooted broadleaves have the ability to access nutrients at much greater depths while simultaneously building soil biomass to those same depths.  

These advantages must be balanced against the risks.  In a high snowfall winter, the bison will struggle to access standing forage and even swathed windrows could be difficult to access in some extreme conditions.  Some ranchers have addressed this risk by obtaining a large plow and tractor, to be used to plow heavy drifts and ice crusts off the forage on rare years when they become a problem.  As such snowfall is unusual in our area, this may be an option for us, but my enthusiasm for 1980s vintage 4wd tractors is not shared by everyone so other ideas will be examined.

As bison are excellent at grazing through significant snow cover, the risks may not be as high as our personal fears indicate.  They survived ice ages before we arrived on scene, so us humans are probably the weak link in the equation.

Stay tuned for updates.

Holistic Rangeland Management (Planned Grazing Management) - MFL has begun a program of additional cross fencing to divide our current pasture lands into a number of smaller paddocks.  With all the other activities at MFL, this is the last and slowest to get going.  However, by adopting a few new ideas, expanding of the workshop and making it more winter friendly, we should soon see this part of our regenerative plan gain more steam.  The long term goal is the ability to use paddock exposures limited to 5 days or less and paddock rest periods of 60 days or more.

That's a whole lot of fence!  However, as trained wolf packs or trained bears aren't exactly common on Kijiji or eBay, we must create the best alternatives within our available finances.

I've (Stew) got a few ideas that Dad (Dick) probably thinks are nuts.  However, between my nutty ideas and his hard-earned experience, a workable system will slowly emerge and MFL's beautiful Plains Bison will continue to roam our Northern Parklands rangeland in greater numbers.

So, that's where we're at in November 2018.  We'll update our story when significant steps are made.

© 2017 MFL Bison Ranch Ltd. Proudly created with Wix.com

  • Facebook Clean