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Bison v. Beef

In Iowa, beef cows are the second most popular livestock owned by farmers! It’s not uncommon to see herds of cattle grazing as you drive by an Iowa farm. . What is fairly uncommon, however, is seeing herds of bison in passing! This past week, we ventured out to Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch where we got to learn all about raising bison and the difference between bison and beef cows!

Cows have been domesticated for thousands of years. At this point in time, cows rely heavily on humans for survival. Cows need help from farmers for many things, such as feeding, especially in winter months, or during calving season, where complications can arise like twins or milking struggles. Today, there are over 250 cattle breeds recognized worldwide. This leads to differences in the cow’s health, coloring, behavior, and flavor! There are many crossbreed varieties today as well for the best taste.

Hawkeye Farms hereford bulls

In the past hundred or so years, farmers have attempted to domesticate bison. It has been fairly successful, as there are now thousands of bison farms around the U.S. However, bison are still considered somewhat wild, meaning they still have natural wild instincts, unlike cows. This means that bison aren’t quite as tame and still share some natural survival instincts, making it more difficult for farmers to care for them in the same way they do cattle. Thankfully, bison rarely need to be handled! They basically take care of themselves as they have for thousands of years. Bison herds don’t even need shelter and actually prefer to just be given a wide open pasture to graze and live happily. When put in enclosed spaces, bison tend to get skittish and can jump up to 6 feet in the air to get out of that space! Bison are also incredibly fast with the ability to run up to 40 miles per hour. Because of their agility, it’s important for bison farmers to have high electric fences of at least 6 feet to prevent any bison escaping. In the winter months, the bison’s diet will be supplemented with hay but they will also root under the snow to get to vegetation. They tend to have fairly easy calving seasons and rarely experience the birth of twins, which often cause complications with cattle.

While cows have hundreds of different breeds, there are only two species of bison! There is the “wood” and “plains” bison which, although appear very similar, actually have stark differences! Wood bison bulls are often much heavier and taller than plains bison. They also have a much more square hump and a darker fur color. They have smaller, more pointed beards and little-to-no chap hair on their forelegs. Plain bison, on the other hand, are much stockier, lighter (both in weight and color) and have plenty of long chap hair on the forelegs. Plain bison also have frizzier, curlier hair on their heads and rounded beards. They also

vary in location, with plain bison more traditionally being located in America and wood bison living in northern regions.

Wood bison (left) and plains bison (right)

It’s also important to note the difference between the terms buffalo and bison. Many people use the terms bison and buffalo interchangeable but we learned from Martha at Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch, that the term bison is the correct term and the nickname American Buffalo was given back when the settlers sailed to the Americas and one sailer, saw the bison and said “la boeuf” in french which means “the beef” and similar to phone tag, it eventually turned into buffalo but technically buffalo are water buffalo that live in Africa and Asia. Martha and her family are sure to clarify by calling their meat bison or American Buffalo.

Another difference between beef cows and bison is the meat products that are derived from them. Bison meat is much leaner than beef, making it a slightly healthier option when compared to beef. Bison meat isn’t gamey but is often described as somewhat sweet. It’s also much more expensive than beef due to the lack of availability. Beef, however, has many more by-products than bison, which is often mainly used for meat and hides. There are thousands of byproducts derived from beef cattle, so almost all of the cow is used.

While it may seem like these two animals are extremely different, there are plenty of similarities between beef and bison as well! Cows and bison share similar terminology, meaning they both have bulls, cows, heifers, and calves. These two animals are also very similar in genetics, dietary preferences and grazing habits. It’s fascinating to see the striking similarities and vast differences between the two creatures!

After visiting this bison farm, one thing is certainly clear: don’t be surprised if you start seeing more bison farms around here!


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