Back in April, five male bison were delivered to Mahaska County Farm Bureau members Lucas and Bethany De Bruin at their farm near Oskaloosa. So started their adventure of raising and selling bison in a bid to diversify their row crop operation.

“Everybody has cattle. I guess I wanted to do something different,” Lucas said last week. 

Almost six months into the new business, the herd has grown to 17, penned about 100 yards from their house at the De Bruin family homeplace, which the couple bought from Lucas’ grandparents shortly after they married in 2019.

The young couple work at Agriland FS in Oskaloosa. Lucas is an agronomist, while Bethany is an animal feed specialist. Additionally, they grow corn, soybeans and rye cover crops with Lucas’ dad on the elder De Bruin’s acres.

Lucas said the bison are something that’s entirely their own project.

“I’d say diversification is a goal, but really this is meant to make us money too,” Lucas said. “It’s not just a hobby.”

Caring for the herd

Bethany’s work with animal nutrition helped immensely when they started planning the herd.

“I thought I was going to have a lot to learn about bison nutrition, but honestly, it’s less complicated than cattle or hogs,” she said.

The herd is fed out primarily on corn along with a protein balancer. They buy the bison, mostly at auctions, at about 400 pounds and feed them out to between 1,200 to 1,400 pounds, which takes between 12 to 18 months. 

Once at market weight, the bison are trucked to a Colorado processor. “I think the market for bison meat is a little more stable compared to the cattle market,” Lucas said. 

Comes with surprises

Adding bison to their operation has come with some surprises.

“I knew bison could jump, but when you see it for the first time, it’s really surprising,” Bethany said. 

She said bison can jump about 6 feet high from a standing position.

“Any of them could get out of this pen if they wanted,” Lucas said.

“But they’re pretty docile for the most part,” Bethany noted.

Generally, bison for the U.S. meat market come in two species: the Plains bison and the Woods bison. So far, Lucas and Bethany have raised mostly Plains bison, which are smaller and brown and black in color.

Health concerns

Perhaps the most complicated aspect of herd health is delivering medication to the animals. 

Because of federal regulations, they aren't able to add medicine to the bison feed, which means they have to inject it. This is accomplished with a dart gun, a slow and tedious process.

Additionally, the bison herd must be kept away from sheep for biosecurity reasons. Sheep can be carriers of Malignant Catarrhal Fever (MCF), which can spread quickly within a bison herd, debilitating the animals and potentially causing death.

The De Bruins were helped into the bison-raising business by Merino Bison, another Mahaska County-based bison operation. 

Lucas said the advice and opportunities they have received by working with Merino have been invaluable. 

“We would not have been able to do this without them,” he said.

Better than expected

Bethany's and Lucas’ goal right now is to continue to grow their herd and see where the venture takes them.

“So far, this has worked out better than I expected,” Bethany said.

In addition to farming and his work at the Agriland FS, Lucas graduated from Iowa Farm Bureau’s Ag Leaders program this year and serves on the Mahaska County Farm Bureau board.