Much progress has been made since the early days of bison handling. We have learned how bison view the world and how best to handle these amazingly powerful, excitable and often dangerous creatures. These insights can be built into a corral system.
Over the last 30 years, I have worked with bison in all manner of corrals and pasture situations. My primary instructor has been the bison themselves. My education in handling bison originated on a large ranch that often found me alone with small bands of bison, or large groups of up to several hundred in number, with the task of returning them to their home range, sometimes as many as 15 to 20 miles distant.
In this situation, brute force through massive manpower was not an option. Only through careful study and hundreds of hours of application of various techniques was I able to master the art of getting bison to do what I wanted them to do. What I didn’t know then was that I was learning to speak bison – from the bison themselves. These principles, learned out on the open ranges, have deeply impacted my design and use of corrals.
In this chapter I will share with you the basic principles I’ve discovered and provide you with the layout of my current corral design. I’ve designed and built many working facilities around the country, but this design is one that was so different than my prior designs that I never had the courage to build it for someone else. That changed when our family moved to our own ranch and we bet all we had on starting our own enterprise. I built the corrals and have used them now for 16 years with amazing results.
A good set of corrals should be able to work all classes of bison in a manner that minimizes or eliminates injury and stress to man and beast alike.
Here is what I describe as a proper set of bison corrals:
• They can be worked with one person but can also be worked three or more people with a resultant increase of hourly capacity
• The bison are in the “nucleus” (the area of high stress) of the facility for a very short time – under ~10 minutes
• The corrals will effectively handle animals, of all classes, that have come straight off the truck and have never seen the facility This shows the layout speaks the universal language of bison
• Animals that are processed regularly flow through the system better each time
• It is easy to corral the bison and stage them for processing
• When the animals are not in the nucleus they are calm and can be held, fed and watered and made comfortable (the spa treatment)
The importance of a proper set of corrals cannot be understated. If you don’t have the capability to gather and ship your animals any day of the year, you are not truly in the bison business. Many start-ups feel that buying the bison and taking them home is the start and plan to build corrals sometime later.
This can be a big mistake. Just like when you get in a vehicle, experience tells you that it’s best to make sure you know how all the systems work and that they are operational. Don’t get in the bison business unless you have a proper set of corrals, either built or in the latter stages of completion. Save yourself the wreck!
A proper set of bison corrals will allow you to apply the following principles:
• You will be able to apply and release pressure to the animals’ ribcage (side view) flight zone from the head to the tail, up to and including the load-out and entry into the squeeze chute.
• Humans over the count of three are largely hidden from bison view I believe that bison can count to three Threats numbering over that amount cause an ever-increasing level of anxiety and stress Once a bison is stressed there is perhaps no harder animal to handle Hence, the fewer the people the better
• When threats (people) are in the corrals, the animals must always have somewhere safe to get away A proper design will allow you to carefully apply pressure as needed and they will “escape” right to where you want them to go
• Bison will always come back better than they went This principle can and should be used to get them to go places that they would prefer not to go
• Bison are herd animals, and as such, there are followers and leaders If your corrals allow you to work the leaders, the rest will follow at a run If your corrals ignore this trait and treat them as one big blob, with no social structure, you will be adding stress where it is not needed Additionally, if your corrals ignore that they are herd animals and require you to needlessly separate animals, the stress levels will increase
• Working bison is an exercise in trust building At the end of the experience, if your lead animals feel that you have been firm, but fair and everything worked out pretty well, you’ve had a good day Conversely, if your animals feel like they have been rammed, jammed and abused – good luck with next time
A short list of no-no’s includes:
• Dead ends Bison hate dead-ends Of course, some-dead ends can’t be prevented (squeeze chutes, kill boxes, etc ) so it is best to allow or provide light so it doesn’t appear to be a dead-end Paint colors matter, too Light colors will help draw animals in Often, tough spots in the corral appear to be a dead-end due to shadows or perspectives Take the time to study a tough spot and see it thru your “bison eyes” Get down at their level and look at it Imagine that you are a prey species with an attitude and fight is equal to flight if the chips are down
• Places where bison can pile up in large groups are a big no-no Bison instinctively know they can get seriously injured or killed when heaped in a mass Make sure your corral system doesn’t jam large numbers into small areas Large numbers should be in large pens and small numbers should be in small pens Don’t get greedy and try to stuff in more than is comfortable.
• Brute force (lots of people, loud voices, hot shots, pushing with tractors, etc ) may work with cattle and may get you by in a pinch with bison, but more often than not, the more brute force you apply, the bigger the problem will get Use your mind and intuition to get them to want to do what you want That said, often times a little brute force is the most humane and the least stressful method to proceed
For example, it is not uncommon that right before the squeeze chute some animals will hang up A well-placed jolt of electricity (usually right behind the should blade) after quickly trying non-electric means, will keep the animal from getting more excited by keeping the flow going Use force such as this very sparingly
• Loud voices are only for life and death situations If a bison is about to run a horn through you, then you have permission to use all means necessary to save your hide However, voices carry a long way and the animals can sense the stress in your voice Those loud voices will stir up animals yet to enter the stress zone and you will create an ever-increasing environment of stress in which you will lose and the bison will suffer.