At Steve and Kylie Tolmie’s Sandy Valley farm, bison are making their home on very different plains.
- A farmer says more bulls are needed to increase breeding
- Animals would walk themselves nearly to death looking for food to graze during drought
- Drought nearly crippled the enterprise, but they are slowly coming back
For nearly 17 years, Mr Tolmie has been building up his bison herd.
From an initial three animals bought from Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, he added some females from the Beetoomba bison farm in Corryong, Victoria.
These days, Sandy Valley Bison, just on the outskirts of Dubbo in the Western Plains region of NSW, is the only place you will see bison in the area.
The Western Plains Zoo no longer has any on show — something Steve thinks is very disappointing.
“They belong in this area — they’re a plains animal — and there’s a lot of people who’d love to see them at the zoo,” said Mr Tolmie.
‘A lot of respect’
One of their prize bulls, Wyoming, is a direct descendent of one of the original zoo animals.
Standing more than six foot (183cm) at the shoulder and weighing “around 1,100 kilos”, Mr Tolmie said.
He has a lot of respect for the wild nature of his herd.
“He’s friendly-ish. We watch them all the time, and they like us, but 100 per cent of the time, they’re a wild animal.
“One of Kylie’s favourite bulls will come up and kiss her hand.
“But you watch for the warning signs — you learn the behaviours, and you be cautious.
“The bison’s reaction time makes a cow look like a snail. They can run at 60kph and maintain 40kph for two hours.”
Looking for food
The recent drought was hard for Sandy Valley Bison, with feed proving expensive and significant stock losses.
The herd went from 60 to around 40.
“We’ve got about 40 bison at the moment. We had 60 or so, but over the last four years, we lost a few,” Mr Tolmie said.
With 25 acres to move around, Mr Tolmie said the animals would walk themselves close to death looking for food to graze.
“We lost some young ones when mum couldn’t feed them anymore. We lost some old ones as well, and for us, that was always devastating.”
For Mr Tolmie, the bison is more than just the sum of its meat and skin and other products, although he’s a big booster for that side of the business.
“Each bison will give you around 380 to 420 kilos of product, but you’ve got to find an abattoir that can process them, then a wholesale butcher that will sell it. You’ve got to find someone who’s willing to be on your side.”
“We should push bison meat much more in this country,” Mr Tolmie said.
“It’s a rich red meat, full of flavour — eat 200 grams of bison meat, and you’ll feel like you’ve had 350 grams of beef.”
Mr Tolmie said the business had been a struggle and, given that Sandy Valley was still recovering from the losses during the drought, he has moved away from that side of the business for a while.
“We just can’t do it with the numbers we have. We’re just on-sell them now to people training cutting horses.”
So what needs to change to make bison farming a viable business in Australia?
According to Mr Tolmie, the answer is quite simply a numbers game.
“We need to widen a secure a safe genetic line. Just three males every two years, we could double our numbers and make it a viable for the restaurant industry.”
But like the bison themselves, Mr Tolmie is not one to shy away from a fight.
“It’s been an uphill battle all the way, but an enjoyable one.
“The future of bison is strong. They’re wonderful creatures. They’re magical.
“They’re the mystical thunder beast, and they’re beautiful.”