When it comes to choosing the focal points of our family dinners, there is a list of usual suspects. Chicken, beef, salmon and pork are some. Dr. Christoph Weder, owner of The Bison Guy and Venator Ranches, would insist that bison be on that list as well.
“These animals are just fantastic,” said Christoph. “They’re the ultimate survivors, completely built for their environment. Being such a low-intervention species means it’s so easy to raise them humanely in a low-impact, sustainable way.”
Living Life Naturally
Christoph Weder, who holds an MSc and PhD in Animal Sciences, oversees 35,000 acres of land with his wife, Erika, and their four children in beautiful Hudson’s Hope, BC. 2,400 acres belong to the bison alone, the rest of the land being grazed by beef cattle. Bison have been part of the ranch since 2014, and the Weder family are proud to be raising them in a way that few other producers have adopted.
“We produce a small percent of all bison consumed in Canada, but we’re constantly sold out,” said Christoph. “Most of Canada’s bison are put into feedlots, to be grown quickly. Not only can this lead to diseases in the animals, but it’s also bad for the land. To say nothing of the fact that consumers are getting something that’s essentially identical to beef cattle. It’s not the bison you think it is.”
Letting the bison live and act as if they were in the wild is not only good for the animals, but also good for the land they graze on. These majestic creatures live as they should and they really only have one bad day. While they’re certainly still wild animals, this dedication to their quality of life is evident in the final product.
“We don’t intervene but, by supplying what they need naturally in abundance, we can guarantee consistency,” said Christoph. “Unlike feedlot bison, we can be sure we’re always offering young and healthy animals that taste like they’re supposed to. And unlike wild bison, you don’t have to hunt them yourself.”
Calves are weaned off their mother’s milk at 10 months of age, transitioning to hay for a month or two before being let out to graze. Maturity comes anywhere from 24 – 30 months after birth. These are completely grass-fed animals that never consume any grains or fillers. According to Christoph this means diseases are nearly non-existent in the herd, eliminating the need for antibiotics.
“Very few others are raising them this way,” he commented. “They have 25 of their own pastures to rotate through, eating natural plants and grasses the whole way, just as nature intended.”
From an environmental standpoint, the bison are the kings of grass-based agriculture. Nature has fine-tuned these animals over 10,000 years to live the way they do in their climate. They’re a much more athletic animal than any cow, standing much taller, but not quite as wide as cattle. Bison have a fantastic internal clock that helps them harvest grass very efficiently. Eating more in spring through fall allows them to fall back on stored reserves in winter. Beef cows, on the other hand, have had their instincts bred out over time and in many cases require year-round intervention from the ranch team, though Christoph is quick to point out that the cattle on his ranch are pretty tough as well.
The Personal Connection
So, what does all of this mean for the consumer who’s purchasing this bison? “You’re getting cuts of meat that are naturally lean and more flavourful than anything you’re used to,” said Christoph. “These animals are athletic, they have lots of fast–twitch muscle,” he continues, “which calls for slow cooking, low temperature roasting and braising. Even with the tender cuts, I tell people to never take bison above medium.”
The bison is hung and dry-aged for 14 days before being packaged for sale. Most of the sales happen through Weder’s business, The Bison Guy, which allows for online ordering and delivery in BC. “We get to meet the consumers this way, form connections,” says Christoph. “It’s not just meat. It’s an experience. We know these animals their whole lives and it’s great to be able to answer any question that a consumer might have.”
Selling directly also cuts out any middlemen with 100% of the money going to the farmers. “That’s the beauty of selling direct. It all supports BC agriculture and biodiversity,” said Christoph. Connections like these are crucial in educating people about the origins of their meat and what actually constitutes good meat. Keeping the operation personal and manageable is of the utmost importance.
The Philosophy of Sustainability
“We’re in the process of building our own abattoir,” Christoph continues, “so everything happens within a five-kilometre radius. The bison don’t have to be hauled far from where they pasture. This reduces our carbon footprint and makes for better animal welfare.”
Doing right by the land and the animals is a cornerstone of the Weders’ business and beliefs. “We’re doing total utilization; we don’t waste an ounce or an inch of these animals.” Hides and bones are sold, even the skulls are sold for ranch-style decoration pieces. Anything left is composted back into the soil.
Christoph champions cuts of meat that are less popular than the usual tenderloin or ribeye steaks. In this case again it is helpful to directly connect with the consumer. “It gives me a chance to tell them how to use the less well-known cuts. The consumers don’t have to be afraid because we can help them use every piece.”
Since starting Bison Guy in 2014, Christoph has met a few BC chefs, who have only further opened his mind to what can be done with his bison. “These guys are really adventurous. They want the tongues, the offal, the bones. They turn them into absolutely stunning dishes. That’s when people really can see what you can do with bison.”
Grass-Fed Bison Ragu
Meet Chef Derek Gray, Head Chef of Row Fourteen at Klippers Organic Acres in Cawston, BC. The restaurant prides itself on providing sustainable fine-dining cuisine and local bison often finds itself on the menu. Chef Gray shares a recipe for Bison Ragu geared towards the home cook. “Bison ragu is a great use for ground bison if you need a break from burgers,” said Chef Gray. “Just like the bison are raised naturally and organic, try to make sure the rest of your ingredients are as well.”
- 907g (2lbs.) ground grass-fed bison
- 1 large red onion, peeled and finely diced
- 2 carrots, peeled and finely diced
- 4 stalks of celery, washed and finely diced, light green leaves reserved
- 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 small bunch Italian parsley, finely chopped
- 42.2g (3 tbsp) tomato paste
- 118mL (1/2 cup) dry red wine
- 237mL (1 cup) whole milk
- 56.8g (4 tbsp) butter
- 1L (4.2 cups) beef or chicken stock, as needed
- 1 roasted bison or beef marrow bone
- 3-4 rinds of Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Place a medium sized, heavy bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Heat a film of canola oil until almost smoking.
- Once oil is hot, add the ground bison to the pot, breaking it up with a wooden spoon or spatula. Keeping the pot over medium heat, allow the bison to cook until it begins to stick to the bottom of the pot. Drizzle in a few tablespoons of water to release the meat from the bottom of the pot, stir, and repeat this step of allowing it to stick then deglazing twice more. The meat should be caramel-coloured and quite dry at this stage.
- Add the onions, carrots and celery stalks to the pot, stirring to combine and cook until softened, roughly 10-12 minutes.
- Lower the temperature to medium-low and add the garlic, parsley and celery leaves, stirring to combine. Cook until aromatic, roughly 5 minutes, ensuring that the garlic doesn’t burn, adjusting the heat if necessary.
- Move the mixture to one side and add the tomato paste directly onto the floor of the pot. Allow the tomato paste to cook until caramelized, roughly 10 minutes before stirring into the rest of the ingredients.
- Add the red wine to the pot, bring to a simmer and let the wine cook for roughly 3 minutes, until the alcohol is cooked off and the wine is slightly reduced.
- Add the milk and butter to the pot. Once the butter has melted, place the marrow bone and cheese rinds into the pot, bring the mixture back to a simmer, reduce the heat to low and cover the pot with a lid. Simmer gently for 2-3 hours, checking and stirring often, so the ragu doesn’t stick and burn. The ragu should look caramelized and have tightened up, having less liquid in its sauce.
- Remove the marrow bone and cheese rinds. Season the ragu to taste with salt and pepper.
- Serve over homemade potato gnocchi as pictured or your favorite shape of pasta. Garnish with grated Parmesan cheese. Leftover ragu is great warmed over breakfast toast with a fried egg.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.