Are bison like cattle?


Photo by Marlon Maulsby: Bison scratching face with hind hoof

One of the first questions people ask me when I tell them I raise bison is, "Are bison like cattle?"

My response: "Well, yes.....and no."

Bison eat the same things cattle eat for the most part. Ours have a diet that is mostly grass with some minerals and range cake thrown in. That's a little different from cattle ranching because many cattle ranchers feed their herds grain. But, overall, the animals will eat the same type of food.

They are both large animals. They walk on four legs and have hooves. They have horns. They both have a herd instinct, although you will rarely see a healthy bison stray far from the safety of the herd, while it's common to see a herd of cattle spread across an entire pasture.

And that, I would have to say, is the biggest difference. Bison have not been domesticated as cattle have been.

What does that mean? They still have that strong survival instinct, the same one that tells them to stay with the herd. While there are bison that will allow you to pet them, and some that have been trained to do tricks, for the most part, bison are wary of people.

Our bison know us. They know how we smell, how we sound, how we treat them. They will allow us to get relatively close to them because we have established a kind of trust with them that we mean them no harm. But they don't get close enough for us to pet them. They don't eat from our hands. And if we move suddenly or unexpectedly, they will shy away.

While they are herd animals, they don't herd very well. You can push cattle along. Bison will move better if you lead them with treats and let them move at their own pace, which, when they are calm, is slow and meandering.

But it's important to remember that bison can run 40 mph, stop and turn on a dime, jump 6 ft in the air from a standstill, and plow through any ranch fence. It's a good idea to keep them calm and happy and let them move at their own pace.