Roaming the research of bison production in South Dakota

The country's largest bison producing state sees an increased interest in bison and the need for more bison research.

Bison roam the prairie at Kremer Buffalo Ranch in Custer, South Dakota.
Ariana Schumacher / Agweek

CUSTER, S.D. — Bison production and research is growing across the state of South Dakota. More than six researchers at South Dakota State University alone are researching the species, both on campus in Brookings and at the SDSU Center of Excellence for Bison Studies in Rapid City.

As you drive through the state of South Dakota, you may notice several bison herds roaming the open prairies. These animals are a crucial livestock species to the state.

“Bison punch above their belt when it comes to economic input and return. They have a high return on investment for not just producers but also for agritourism. These things are completely coupled in this state,” said Dr. Jeff Martin, assistant professor for the Department of Natural Resource Management at South Dakota State University.

Dr. Jeff Martin
Contributed / South Dakota State University

Not only are they great to look at and provide a positive return on investment, but they are also great livestock for the ecosystem.

“Bison and cattle as we have been learning through research now is that they do not graze the same. They utilize different areas of the landscape, especially when you have hills,” Martin said. “They will also avoid eating forbes, so your flowering plants. That allows for those flowing plants to well, flourish. So, we get this increased what’s called alpha diversity, that very first biodiversity measure of plants. They also don’t graze near as hard, so you don’t have grass taken all the way down to the soil.”


There are many similarities between bison and beef cattle, however there are some differences.

The Center of Excellence for Bison Studies in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Ariana Schumacher / Agweek

“We have the benefit of a lot of beef research and veterinary training on beef, but the problems are that they aren’t exactly the same species,” Martin said. “So, some of the knowledge that we can gain for veterinary and other animal science is applicable to a point or bare minimum in the scientific realm, serves as a known model for us to test against. So, like ‘this is what we suspect, do they do it?’ Well, more and more times, they don’t do that, they do something slightly different, for example.”

Bison are also more prone to disease.

“Because all of the diseases that they are inheriting from their landscape aren’t from North America. They have been brought in from either Africa or Europe, based on their host species that they were tagging along with,” said Martin. “So, there is no immune system in place for them to be able to fight off some of these diseases.”

Bison are more dangerous to handle than cattle .

“Principles as far as handling and such, the basics are the same, but bison are unique in that they are still, you know, partially wild, so they fight, and flight zones on them are a lot touchier,” said Chad Kremer, herd manager at Custer State Park and owner of Kremer Buffalo Ranch.

While bison can be a difficult species to work with, they typically require minimal maintenance.

“Like I always say at the park, we are minimal hands-on management there. We do do a roundup, and if you boil it down, it’s basically for population control because the land base that we have can only support so many,” said Kremer said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a private operation or a state park like we are there, you have to apply some type of management to control them numbers.”


Bison at Kremer Buffalo Ranch in Custer, South Dakota.
Ariana Schumacher / Agweek

South Dakota has the highest bison population in the United States. The USDA collects bison population numbers every five years. The 2022 numbers for South Dakota have not been released yet.

“So, what I am referring to now are the 2017 numbers, and that was right around 45,000 bison that were in the production sector alone. But when you start to add places like Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park, Custer, the public sector, we are bumping that up to another 5,000, give or take, depending on the year and drought or not. Then we also have un-censused animals on tribal lands as well,” Martin said.

Bison at Kremer Buffalo Ranch in Custer, South Dakota.
Ariana Schumacher / Agweek

There are fewer herds across the country, but those herds are growing in size.

“Slight growth over the last 15-20 years, we have been relatively static at about 40,000 head in South Dakota and 400,000 across Canada and the U.S.,” said Martin. “So, we see these new producers — that’s what I am really excited for in the 2022’s is seemingly over the last five years there’s been a lot of brand-new people coming to conferences, and we know they are buying animals at these auctions, so it will be really exciting to see how many new herds are entering the system.”

Martin expects to continue to see bison production growing across South Dakota.

“I expect that the production is going to increase and will continue to increase,” Martin said. “A lot of the ranches that we get for bison usually come from the beef side. They want to do something slightly different than what they’ve as a fourth or fifth generation rancher, might want to change it up a little bit. And that’s what we see are these people coming from the beef side.”

Bison at Kremer Buffalo Ranch in Custer, South Dakota.
Ariana Schumacher / Agweek

Not only will we likely see more herds, but we can also expect to see herds in more eastern portions of the state.

“What we are also beginning to see is on the eastern part of the state, some of those areas of small grains are falling out of production just because of the changes we are seeing in drought patterns and rainfall patterns, that they may be opportune places to put bison that maybe haven’t had a grazer in quite some time,” Martin said. “So, restoring the prairie that is South Dakota, bison are the easy option for that.”


And right now is the perfect time to get out and enjoy the bison population, from a safe distance.

“Springtime is a great time of year to go and enjoy bison, no matter if they are in your backyard with a neighboring ranch or coming out west to see buffalo in the Black Hills, in Custer State Park and Wind Cave and Badlands, we would love to have you,” Martin said.

Ariana is a reporter for Agweek based out of South Dakota. She graduated from South Dakota State University in 2022 with a double major in Agricultural Communications and Journalism, with a minor in Animal Science. She is currently a graduate student at SDSU, working towards her Masters of Mass Communications degree. She enjoys reporting on all things agriculture and sharing the stories that matter to both the producers and the consumers.

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