ELORA – Jeremy Bowman isn’t raising the traditional animals his family has known for three generations.
Bowman is raising bison at his farm in Elora.
“I remember driving by and seeing bison on a farm in Ayr, and I thought, wow! These are incredibly cool animals just to look at,” Bowman said.
“I knew essentially nothing about bison before, I thought they were buffalo.”
Bowman soon began to do his research.
“Well, I thought I have limited acreage and don’t have the finances to put up the infrastructure for something extensive. This just seemed like a viable option,” he said.
In 2017, Bowman and good friend Jay Woytaz, established Black Powder Bison Co.
The farm offers 100 per cent natural, grass fed bison in a stress-free environment, where two herds of plains bison graze on over 50 acres of pasture.
“I enjoy the serenity of a farm with grazing animals versus the difference from pig farming that was once here. It’s so quiet. It’s a different style of farming, with more of a ranch feel,” Bowman said.
Although raising bison was not part of the original plan, Bowman says today there is certainly a market for it.
“There is an untapped, strong market for bison meat. People are really starting to realize that, which is why we are seeing more bison farms popping up,” Bowman said.
Natural, grass-fed bison is a nutrient-dense alternative compared to traditional proteins.
“There are people who seek bison because they are allergic to beef. There is an allergen in beef that bison does not have. It digests easier, is lower in fat and extremely high in iron,” Bowman said.
According to Canadian Food Focus, the bison population declined in the 1800s, mostly due to over hunting, and by 1899 there were less than 1,000 bison left.
Strong efforts have increased the number of bison to almost 400,000 in North America. As of 2017, there are 975 bison farmers in Canada, raising about 145,000 bison.
“We’re seeing a lot of excitement in the bison business,” Bowman said.
Bowman’s grandfather bought the original farm property in the 1940s and raised primarily pigs and beef.
“I’ve worked with cattle, chickens, pigs and cattle. I’ve lived here my entire life,” Bowman said. “My wife and I have owned this farm now for just under three years The infrastructure got old and then it was either we build new barns and continue with that, or take everything down and try something new.
“And that’s what we decided to do.”
Black Powder Bison Co. began with only six female bison.
“Here, they are all bred naturally. I usually have around 10 breeding females with my breeder bull and then the offspring.”
Females have a calf every spring, if all goes to plan.
“The herd here fluctuates a little, but I would rather have fewer animals and more grass and space than too many animals and be worried that they are not getting everything they need,” Bowman said.
Handling of bison is kept to a minimum to avoid unnecessary stress. Pastures are a mix of grasses designed specifically for bison, split into sections to take advantage of rotational grazing.
Bison are larger, more agile and more skittish compared to cattle. Their temperament can vary.
“Observing them from afar, they are gentle giants, slow moving and meek. But they have an extreme aggressive side. They are very instinctual. The females are extremely protective of their young. It’s fight or flight. They can do both very well,” Bowman said.
“The bull is the big one. He’s my pet that wants to kill me. I can touch his nose, and feed him from my hand, but there are times when I’m not paying attention, and he will try and get me with his horns. So, it’s a unique relationship we have. I don’t always trust him, but I love him very much. They do develop a bit of a relationship with me,” Bowman said.
Bison are outdoors all year round and they enjoy space.
“They thrive in cold weather. It’s a very 'hands-off' type of farming,” Bowman said.
“Infrastructure wise, we had to build a fence. This just keeps them in because they want to be kept in. But if they want to get over the fence, they will.”
Bowman says it has become a slower, and more calculated way of doing things on the farm.
“It’s not like there is a time crunch for anything. If a calf is going to be with a cow for an extra couple of weeks, I can allow that to happen,” he said.
“That works in this style of farming. These animals do not do well when they are excited or scared. This is how they should be, just out on the field.”
The average weight of a female bison is about 1,200 lbs, and bulls can reach up to about 2,000 lbs.
When not raising bison, Bowman works as a full-time police officer in Waterloo Region.
“So, I classify this as a hobby business. In the world of farming, we are a just drop in the bucket,” Bowman said. “We are small scale, but this is how we do things. And you can see from looking at the animals, that they have a very stress-free life. What these animals need, is what they get.”
Black Powder Bison Co. has a shop on the farm that offers its own products as well as items from partnering local farms.
“The distance people will drive to get to this farm is so humbling. Some will travel two and a half hours. We have tours come this way and we meet people from all over the world. That’s amazing because when we look at ourselves, we are just a small part of this world of agriculture," Bowman said.
"And dollar value, it's not compared to large scale agriculture, but somehow, we are still on the map."
Bowman says bison meat is more expensive than beef.
“You can buy a pound of beef in the five-dollar range and bison is about $13 a pound. The reason for that is that beef can be raised at a much lesser cost and time. Bison are transported differently, require more government input, everything has to be done correctly. So there are a lot of factors as to why it is a more expensive.”
Bowman’s father now lives just next door to his son.
"We bought the farm from him and now, he has more bison than I do. He loves them. He’s a 40-year farmer who has been in the pork industry his entire life," Bowman said.
The two now work as partners.
“My father always said that if my grandfather would know now that there are bison on his farm, he would not be able to believe it,” Bowman said.
“There’s nothing like looking out your window and seeing bison grazing.”