Lessons from the Bison

Nature generally has a way of working just fine when people don’t meddle with it.  However, we are called to exercise dominion over nature, as well as to be good stewards of our resources.  Obviously, then, we must strive for a balance between good management and letting things work naturally.

One of the best ways to achieve this balance is to observe and mimic nature, putting the laws of creation to work for us.  So let’s examine an interesting topic with many lessons for us: bison.

Of course, there is much that could be said about bison.  Whole books could be written on the subject.  However, we will content ourselves with hitting a few key points with known relevance to livestock owners today.

Stocking Density

When bison roamed the plains in bygone days, they traveled in herds, as we all know.  For one thing, they were social animals.  For another thing, there’s safety in numbers.  It’s hard to imagine now, but the bison herds in early Western history were so huge that most writers did not even attempt to guess at the number of animals before them.  The best estimates came from railroad surveyors, who counted over half a million bison per herd.

Who can imagine the pounds per acre that must have been collected in the locality of a bison herd?  Such numbers must have had an inestimable impact on the prairie.  Every time a herd came through, it would graze and trample large quantities of grass, as well as apply nitrogen-rich fertilizer in the form of manure.

Interestingly, this is precisely the impact advocates of high stocking densities (mob grazing) are seeking.  Proponents of mob grazing and management-intensive grazing claim that cattle actually have a beneficial effect on pastures when managed in this way.  Trampling and natural fertilizing add nutrients to the soil.  The key is that this heavy impact must be followed by a sufficient rest period, which brings us to our next point.

Rest Period

Lessons From the Bison

Bison in the wild rarely, if ever, overgrazed their pastures.  They were always on the move for several possible reasons:

  1. To find fresh grass and water.
  2. To avoid predators.
  3. To escape a buildup of flies.

A recovery period was equally necessary for the health of the prairie.  After heavy grazing and trampling, the grass needed a chance to grow back and replenish its energy reserves.  By the time the next herd came through, it would be just right for grazing again.

Which is exactly why a key feature of management-intensive grazing and other forms of rotational grazing is their emphasis on rest periods for the pasture.  With undue grazing pressure, grasses cannot refuel themselves and eventually die, leaving undesirable weeds in their place.

Nutrient Needs

The bison were also wise managers of their diet.  Their reproductive cycle matched the growth cycle of prairie grasses very well.  They calved late in the spring, when the grass was at its greenest.  By winter, the calf was dependent on its mother only for protection and companionship.  It could readily find its own forage, reducing its mother’s nutrient needs.  Also, the large herds would scatter out somewhat to search for food, lowering the stocking density at times when much of the prairie grass was dormant.

As those of you familiar with management-intensive forms of grazing know, adapting to the natural growth cycles of pasture plants is a key part of raising livestock on grass alone.  And so we find another important feature of management-intensive grazing in nature.

Interaction With Fire

Lessons From the Bison

Fire was a common occurrence in bygone days.  Lightning was probably the initial cause of most prairie fires, but eventually the Indians that roamed the plains noticed something interesting.  Bison seemed to like burned prairie grass.  After a fire, there was sure to be a herd of bison in the vicinity, licking up mineral-rich ashes and taking advantage of the lush regrowth as it sprang up.  Before long, the Indians were starting prairie fires of their own to attract and fatten up the bison they depended on for food.

Residents of the Flint Hills are also familiar with present-day attempts to imitate this practice.  Studies have shown that stocker cattle gain weight better after a spring prairie burn.  Unlike the modern practice of annual pasture burns, however, in nature tallgrass prairie was burned in a rather random fashion.  Some places would be burned two years in a row, while others would go untouched for years.  Furthermore, fire was just one piece of the puzzle, not the entire pasture-management system.

Nature has a way of operating smoothly, doesn’t it?  It is interesting to find that the most innovative and effective practices of our times are really just replicas of systems that God has already put in place.