George Briggs grew up on a mixed farm near Olds. The family raised cattle and had milking cows, chickens, sheep, pigs, and huge vegetable gardens. It was pitchfork after pitchfork of hard work and when he turned 18, George hit the road to Calgary to get an education and build a career in oil and gas.
You can take the man off the land, but you can never take the land out of the man.
After a few years of life in the big city, George would head out in his pickup for long drives in the countryside near his former family home. Here, the only high-rises he’d see were the towering Rockies to the west. It was on one such drive, that George first spotted a small herd of bison. What hooked his eyes, caught his imagination and after reading everything he could about bison, George decided these animals would lead him back to the land.
Three decades in the making.
That was over 30 years ago. George bought a half section (320 acres) to begin raising bison and kept up his career in oil and gas. He was one of the founding members of the Bison Producers of Alberta when there were only five or six bison ranchers in the province.
George’s first bull, Woody, who lived 20 years on the ranch, was one of the first 17 animals sold by the federal government. George raised his herds for breeding stock. The HGB closed stock herd is now in its fourth generation and George and his wife Heather maintain 130 cows and calves plus several bulls.
Oil Bust and Bison Boom
When the oil and gas sector busted big time a few years ago, George decided HGB Bison Ranch would finally receive the boom of his undivided attention. Heather says, “When we decided to open the meat shop, people asked us why we would go to all the trouble of processing the animals instead of just selling them whole as we’d always done. We wanted Albertans to be able to taste the meat the way we feel it was intended to be eaten – with no hormones, antibiotics or finishing feeds.”
Some people think that bison can be tough or wild tasting. Heather says, “We never chase our animals. George is gentle with them in every way. They take about three years to get to a weight where they have enough meat on them to process them and they have our 320 acres to roam stress-free for however long they are with us. Without the internal hormones caused by stressful handling and with only the native grasses as feed, the meat from our bison is flavourful, never ‘gamey’.”
An Open Farm
When Open Farm Days’ guests visit HGB Bison Ranch, they are able to go out in the pasture and get close to the herd thanks to the tractor pulled people movers the Briggs use during the event. They also get a tour of the handling system George developed for tagging and separating the animals. They can tour the family’s extensive vegetable gardens with Heather and see the results she achieves using bison manure compost.
There will be food to sample including bison burgers, smokies and hot dogs as well as a whole roasted hip of bison. “The goal is for guests to really be able to taste the meat. That hip of bison will do it!” Heather also hopes to help guests make the connection between the bison and Alberta’s Indigenous people. “We hope to have an Indigenous person to demonstrate their ways of tanning and stretching hides.” The ranch is able to accommodate people of all ages and abilities.
Bring your questions
The Briggs love the chance to answer questions about bison because they realize these mammals are mysterious for many people. George says, “Every question is a good question.” Last year, questions included, how long do they live, what’s their gestation period, are they aggressive, what’s their diet, what’s involved in raising them, how do you handle them, do they stay in a barn in winter and how do they get water in winter? George has even covered bison reproduction. He shares this story,
“A funny moment was when I was out in the field with the people mover filled with people of varying ages and backgrounds. August is when the bulls get busy with breeding and some of the folks observed this taking place in real time. A local cattle rancher asked, ‘When do you pull the bulls off the cows?’ This is a term used in the cattle industry when they want spring breeding to come to an end. That’s when they move the bulls out of the breeding pasture and into another pasture with no cows. But most people in the group didn’t understand it that way. The question generated some giggles, as some people sat there trying to figure out why one would be crazy enough to attempt to physically try and pull a bull off a cow. Lots of giggles…lots more explanations.”
The Briggs say that, “Hosting Open Farm Days was a very gratifying experience for us and for all of those who came. Everyone left with a big smile and greater appreciation of the bison and what we do. People took a moment to thank us for raising the bison naturally, for opening the meat shop and for caring and looking after the bison. We know how important bison are in the bigger picture of our ecosystems and were pleased that many others came to see that as well.”
The Briggs look forward to the 2019 Open Farm Days and for those that can’t wait, HGB Bison Ranch Meat Shop is open year-round. Check the hgbbison.com website for hours. You’ll find over 55 cuts of all-natural, grass-fed bison products at the ranch store and at Avenida Food Hall and Fresh Market in Calgary at D426, 12445 Lake Fraser Drive, South East.
Guest Writer: Karen Anderson
Karen Anderson is founder, owner, president and CEO of Alberta Food Tours, Inc. She is a Taste Canada award-winning cookbook author and recently won a World Gourmand Cookbook award for Best Culinary/Food Travel writing in Canada for the book Food Artisans of Alberta: Your Trail Guide to the Best of our Locally-Crafted Fare which she co-authored.