Bison Producer Keegan Kitzul
With the rising cost of food, consumers are even more discerning about what they put in their shopping cart. Knowing who’s behind the product they buy and what goes into making it, helps retailers and consumers make informed decisions.
As part of our ongoing bison story, we’re introducing our clients, chefs and customers to some of the dedicated producers behind our product. So, meet Keegan Kitzul.
Keegan may be one of our youngest bison producers but he’s by no means wet behind the ears. A fifth generation farmer, Keegan is taking the knowledge and experience of his parents and grandparents before him, and applying it to his business of growing crops and raising bison.
We caught up with Keegan this month, after a delayed honeymoon in Bali with his wife Kendall, to ask him a few questions about being a bison producer in Canada.
You’re clearly one of the new generation of bison producers. How did you get into this business?
For me, it started when I was basically a kid, working for my dad on the farm one summer. He said, “do you want to get paid in cash or with a buffalo?” Of course, I took the buffalo calf, and looking back, I see that I was severely underpaid. But from then on, I was hooked.
My family got into bison in 2000, after my grandpa developed some health issues and was looking to move away from the cattle part of the farming operation. Dad wanted elk, grandpa wanted bison; it was something pretty new at the time, not a commodity, and they were easier to raise. You can see who won out.
When grandpa passed away in the fall of 1999, my parents bought our first bison the next spring, thinking it would be more of a hobby, with 20-30 bison. Twenty-three years later, I have 1100 head on Roaming K Bison ranch in Saskatchewan.
When considering bison, did their ability to regenerate the land impact your family’s decision?
That was definitely a part of it. In the early 90s, we diversified back into livestock from only grain farming, realizing how beneficial grazing animals are. There was a lot of marginal land on our farm too, that couldn’t be fully utilized with grain farming. With livestock, we can utilize the whole thing. By adding grazing animals, the revenue per acre improved but just as importantly, so did the health of the land. Grazing bison instead of cattle helped to regenerate that land even more.
By keeping bison on the land in the winter, we get some nutrients back in the soil and end up with a better cash crop the following year. Bison are a great tool for increasing our bottom line at the end of the year; as much as bison are a great addition to the land, we need to be profitable to keep them there.
Have you seen specific improvements on your land since you started raising bison?
We integrate the bison into our operation as much as we can, to get the soil healthier and less reliant on synthetics. We have real lively soil in the samples we take on a regular basis. On land that we winter and rotational graze the bison through, the samples are phenomenal; the agrologists can’t believe the amount of organic matter in the soil. Which is great because that’s what we’re striving for.
Some of the new land we’ve recently fenced has only been grain farmed and never had bison on it. We’ll soil sample this year to get a baseline, and track the data in the coming years. We’re optimistic that the bison can regenerate this land, too. We’re trying to get more diligent at sampling on a regular basis, so that we can use the bison more and fertilizers less.
Some of our customers ask us why we grass raise and grain finish. How does that work on your farm?
It takes a lot of grass to finish one bison, and we don’t have the land base to do that. We also have really cold winters here in Canada and although the bison are very hardy, it helps them get through the winter. The oats and barley we add to the mix is essentially grass that’s gone to seed, so we give that seed back to the bison, along with straw and forage. So, in that sense, they’re finishing on what they normally eat.
The market is adapting to consumer demand, and that includes the feed industry. Before we even plant a crop, we have to commit to raising it without pesticides, and we pass that commitment and accountability onto the consumer. All our grain gets tested to make sure there’s nothing in it that shouldn’t be. And our cereals don’t get sprayed for pests because there’s really nothing harming them.
People put a lot of trust in the companies they buy their product from, so it’s important to know who they are and what goes into making the product.
How long have you been supplying bison to Noble?
I’ve been raising bison for Noble since Doug (Griller) and Kelly (Long) started the company in 2016, but I’ve known Doug since I was a little kid. He and my dad got into bison about the same time. I always admired Doug and the way he grew his business. Whatever he said he would do, he did, and very successfully. When we heard he was getting into marketing bison through Noble, it was a breath of fresh air for the industry; that we finally had a marketer really going to the table and showing what we can produce as an industry.
What’s the value of the marketer in the equation?
There’s farmers and marketers – say no more. We need their help to get our product to market and the value with Noble – and Kelly – is that they know how to market very well. It’s a big job. You need a great team, you need the resources to process humanely, you need to deliver a consistently safe and quality product. And you need to keep promoting the industry as a whole.
For Canadian consumers to finally be exposed to Canadian bison meat on a national level is great. Bison is a part of the conversation now, and as producers, we need to do our part at a grassroots level to promote bison. In the grocery store, I’ll see someone holding up a grass fed beef steak, then pick up the Noble bison steak, weighing out the options. So, I say, “get the bison!” When they ask why, I tell them what I do and why bison is so great.
What is one of the most rewarding things about working in the bison industry?
One of the benefits of the industry is that we’re pretty small – more like a big family. Most everyone gets along and we can strategize, socialize, and support one another. At the end of the day, we’re all working for the same common goal – to sell bison. We need each other to do that and we need to keep telling our story, because it’s a good one.
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