Roads and Grounds prepares for bison turnover

Fermilab's on-call veterinarian, right, in coveralls, treats a bison in the vaccination pen while Roads and Grounds staff help hold it steady. Photo: Dave Shemanske, FESS

Fermilab’s on-call veterinarian, right, in coveralls, treats a bison in the vaccination pen while Roads and Grounds staff help hold it steady. Photo: Dave Shemanske, FESS

Fermilab’s hardy bison are pretty low-maintenance. They rarely need shelter, sleep under the stars and feed themselves by grazing on the 80 acres of grass in the laboratory’s bison pasture, with the Roads and Grounds crew supplying supplemental food and water from a heated tanks in the winter.

But in October, bison care kicks into high gear. That’s when every member of the herd receives its annual vaccinations and when calves receive their identification tags. In a demanding nearly day-long effort, Roads and Grounds staff round up the bison, entice them into the corral system by way of winding, fenced-in passages, and assist the on-call veterinarian as he works to gain access to the shoulder of the often unyielding patient, administering medication. Staff pierce calves’ ears with tags. Heifer calves get yellow tags; bull calves get red.

“Occasionally a bison maybe uncooperative to being handled in the system,” said Cleo Garcia, herdsman and member of Roads and Grounds. “But we have a few tricks to correct their behavior.”

As the bison exit the vaccination pen, staff separate those to be sold at auction from the rest, taking preselected herd members to a pen in the corral system. The bison remain there for three to four weeks for potential buyers to view, until winning bids are awarded and buyers come to claim them.

“This is a sealed bid process generated by Bob Johnson of the Procurement Department,” said Dave Shemanske, head of Roads and Grounds. “The package is mailed out to prospective buyers.”

The annual herd vaccination and separation take about a day, but preparation for the event takes much longer. In the four weeks leading up to this year’s vaccination day on Oct. 6, Garcia, with help from Grounds crew, repaired pens, aligned and greased the sorting system’s gates, and replaced some of the wooden fences with sturdier, more durable steel panel enclosures.

“It’s a lot of work to get this area ready for the bison, and Cleo does a great job every year, spending a month or more to fix it up,” said Roads and Grounds’ Mike Pfaff.

This year the laboratory is selling 22 of the 39 in the herd: two cows, 15 calves and five yearlings. (Herd bulls are sold every five to seven years, and the laboratory purchases replacement bulls to update the genetics of the herd.) Potential bidders visit the Fermilab bison facility or review mailed bidding packages with written descriptions of the bison to determine which they’d like to bid on. This year’s bids are due on Oct. 23.

Most of the potential bidders are from Illinois, and some come from as far as Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana just to see the animals, Garcia said.

“We make sure the bison are healthy,” Garcia said. “The buyers seem happy with the quality of our bison.”