The Bison Whisperers
A collection of hides and horns was displayed near a tipi, and as I was admiring one thick, brown hide, George Briggs appeared. His jeans were dusted to a shade of grey, his boot heels worn to a comfortable curve, and his hands were a testament to hard work. Without introduction, he plunged those hands into the deep fur of the hide until it covered his wrists and began to explain how bison are perfectly suited to survival on the plains.
His love for bison was obvious, from the way he spoke about them to the twinkle in his eye, and as I found out later, it was mutual. “I’ve always had something between me and animals,” he says. “And I don’t know what it is, but we don’t chase and we don’t hurt, so when we call them, they come on the run.” It’s a remarkable feat, especially if you know that a herd of bison is called an obstinacy for good reason. Together, Heather and George Briggs raised the first herd of wood bison in the Olds area, founded the Alberta Bison Association, (now the Bison Producers of Alberta), built an animal-friendly hydraulic bison handling system called “the squeeze,” and started the HGB Ranch Meat Shop.
Wood bison, or mountain bison, are a subspecies of the American bison. Although they’re often called wood buffalo, their scientific name tells you what to call them – twice – Bison bison athabascae. Their heads are more compact, and they don’t have the wooly shoulder capes of their southern neighbours. Millions of them used to range from Alaska, the Yukon, and western Northwest Territories, down into northern Alberta and northwest Saskatchewan before they were hunted to near extinction in the late 1800s. This was part of the US and Canadian governments’ plans to deprive Indigenous people of their main food source. Mountains of bison bones were ground down for fertilizer and only remnant herds remained scattered throughout North America. The mere existence of wood bison is a bit of a miracle.
Unlike domesticated cows, bison don’t need shelter in the winter because of their thick coats. The same thick hide protects calves, so they can be born safely on the prairie, even during a snow storm. A domestic cow needs to be sheltered for her calf to survive. Because of their legendary warmth, the NWMP, later the RCMP, were outfitted for bison coats each winter until 1961.
An open-top trailer took our group on a short drive into the pasture. With the truck’s engine silenced, there was no sound but the rustle of sweet prairie grass. We watched the heifers and calves move into line and amble slowly away from us across the plains like a row of brown tumbleweeds pushed by a breeze.
I followed George on a walking tour of the ranch after the trailer ride. He talked about growing up on a family farm, followed by years in the oil and gas business, before he made the decision to raise animals. “But I didn’t want to have to pull cows, nurse them, and put out bedding every day,” he says. Bison were a natural fit. “It’s like a little river when they move,” George says. “When one goes the other one goes. They have their own social groups when they’re by themselves, but any concern in the herd and they’re all hands on deck, and they definitely look after the little ones. Their exquisite sense of smell is what sends the average 263 kg (580 lb) bulls and 235 kg (520 lbs) heifers gliding away from danger, reaching speeds up to 65 kilometres an hour. But George found a natural affinity with the huge animals, starting with Woody, their first bull. Even heifers and calves allow him into their space, and Heather has some of the bulls eating out of her hand. In the field, bison dine on native grasses, leaves, and twigs, and never need hormones, antibiotics or steroids. Their metabolism slows in the winter, allowing them to drink snow instead of water.
The absence of chemicals and herbicides makes the pastures a safe environment for wildlife with no farm machinery required. And bison poop is a great natural fertilizer.
When it’s time for bulls to leave HGB Ranch, or for calves to be tagged, they’re gently maneuvered into a hydraulic handling system called “the squeeze” that George invented and built by hand. It only takes one person to operate it, and Heather is adept at singlehandedly guiding the animals through in about a minute, minimizing their stress. The rolling door system is almost completely silent and built so that the animals can only glimpse the operator, which is just enough to make them move down the chute. It was based on years of close observation of bison habits and a level of care for the animals similar to Temple Grandin’s work with domestic cows. If an animal is in distress, George reaches down to put his hand on their back and chats with them until they calm down. Still, he admits, there are some animals he and Heather have bonded with that will never leave, like Woody’s daughter, Ariel. They’ll live their whole natural life on the farm.
In addition to taking animals to market, Heather supplies bison to The Deane House in Calgary, The Farm Table in Carstairs and Our Flames Restaurant in Olds. Thanks to her, HGB Ranch is now part of Slow Foods International, Calgary chapter, and a contributor to Urban Farm Long Table Dinners. She also finds the time to cultivate an amazing garden that’s open to the public, along with the ranch, during Alberta Open Farm Days. Drop by and Ariel may meet you at the fence to munch treats from your hand.
HGB bison are butchered and dry aged for two weeks, then cut and vacuum sealed for sale on the ranch in the HGB Meat Shop. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 4 km south of Olds on the 2A Highway. George recommends the flatiron, a shoulder cut that’s “more tender than tenderloin,” seared medium rare.
“When we call them, they come on the run.”