For Becky and Denver Johnson, owners of Bison Ridge Farms in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, becoming bison ranchers five years ago was a perfect fit.
“We’re first-generation bison ranchers,” says Denver. “We knew we loved farming; we didn’t know what that would look like for us. Having livestock has been a big learning curve.”
Becky’s family are long-time grain farmers in the area, so their efforts with bison feel like carrying on a family legacy. Denver grew up in Saskatoon and he too hails from farmers.
“Both my grandparents had grain farms. Those are my fondest memories as a child, spending a few weeks in the summer on the farm. The nostalgia of going out on a combine and dirt biking. I loved it.”
Rain, shine or minus 30-degree temperatures, the family, including kids aged 7, 5, and 4, work hard together.
“We’re busy. My shift work is conducive to farm life. I worked the last two nights, but here I am going strong today,” says Denver, who is a firefighter. “The kids are always out there, calf-checking, helping to feed. They’re definitely a big part of what we do. Some days they like it, some days they don’t, they’re kids.”
A Troubled Industry
One reason Becky and Denver wanted to get into bison is to provide alternative products to feed lot and industrial cattle operations that are the norm in the prairies.
“Bison ranches in the province are a very small percentage compared to cattle operations. In Saskatchewan and Alberta, cattle operations are everywhere, and people are growing tired of that to some extent,” says Denver.
From Denver’s perspective, it comes down to one point.
“There is always that fight between the cost of production versus the cost of quality. A portion of people don’t care yet where their food comes from; they just want the cheapest protein possible, which comes from mass production in a feedlot.”
Denver says the emphasis on cheap meat has ripple effects.
“There has been a loss in trust between the consumer and farmer because of things like pesticides and feedlots, but for the most part, even conventional farmers are to a certain extent trying to do their best.”
This is a problem that the Johnsons are trying to address with their farm.
“We want healthy plants and animals, and so we want to work at building trust with our customers. We share a lot through social media just to say, ‘hey, we’re transparent, a lot is going on here, and we do think about sustainability and the health of our products.’”
Bison Farming Requires a Herd Instinct
There is an established bison industry in the province.
“There are a lot of great bison producers in Saskatchewan, like 300,” says Denver. “There is a lot of connecting and networking between producers and people doing similar things to us.”
Denver says they always get asked, why bison?
“Things that attracted us to bison are their self-sufficiency, their hardiness, the way they do really well regenerating the land, and the hands-off sustainability. They don’t need the everyday care, bedding and shelter cows need in our climate. They’re built for it.”
But there is also the meat, which, when raised well, is a sustainable protein.
“We love the product. We are always looking for better quality, healthier, sustainably raised food,” says Denver. “Looking at consumer trends as well, especially post-pandemic, even before, people were starting to look for better, healthier alternatives and the future of bison meat in the marketplace looked very bright.”
Originally, they thought they would raise and sell calves but decided to test the waters by selling meat. The fall of 2019 was their first time slaughtering.
“We’re very passionate about keeping this local and supporting our local community. We butchered five bison before Christmas, and they were gone in a matter of weeks. So we jumped in full force, and now everything we raise we sell off the farm.”
Ahead of the Herd
Several years back, Becky’s father started to grow his grains like alfalfa, hays, forages and clovers without using herbicides and pesticides.
“We thought ‘we have access to all of this feed, why don’t we close the loop and start feeding all these forages to animals’? It was a good fit to partner with the family farm and start raising livestock,” says Denver.
They are raising their bison in a sustainable way, that doesn’t make excess carbon pollution that leads to climate change.
“We raise our animals with rotational grazing and grow very diverse blends of many species of plants. Plants draw down carbon out of the atmosphere and deposit it back in the soil through the root systems,” explains Denver.
It means a lot to Denver that they are making a difference.
“Healthy soils and healthy plants are beneficial to us and the long-term viability of what we’re doing, but a by-product of that, it positively affects climate change. It’s exciting to us that we’re part of the solution.”
They are learning big lessons through their bison.
“Bison are very good naturally at grazing and healthily managing the land. A lot of beef farmers are trying to mimic what the bison do naturally now. They naturally do rotational grazing.”
And their efforts are paying off.
“Last summer we started to see a lot of dung beetles return; those are things you never see in a field of conventional crops. We have seen a lot of healthy bugs return to the soils.”
A Bright Bison Future
The Johnsons are growing their business, thoughtfully. For the last year they have been building a health-certified slaughterhouse on site.
“We hope to be operating in the next few weeks so we don’t have to haul animals 20 miles away and have our own autonomy to harvest animals at the appropriate times. We saw an opportunity to not only solve our issues but provide a service to other farmers. It’s been quite a process, but we’re getting there,” says Denver.
For Denver, it’s personal.
“I always have a hard time, you work so hard raising these animals and building into your soil, and your land, and then to get close to the end and lose part of the piece of the pie has always bothered me. So to work towards capturing that whole pie and being in control of not just how our animals are raised but how they are processed is really important to us.”
As their sales and customer base grow, the Johnsons look forward to a bright future with their herd.
“People always appreciate their food so much more when they know where it comes from—when they know the story behind their food, so we try to share that as much as we can. There’s no better story than the story of the bison.”