Chefs know bison meat has to be handled differently in the kitchen thChefs know they have to handle bison meat differently than beef in the kitchen. Ranchers know they have to handle bison themselves differently than cattle in a corral. From ranch to restaurant, interest in bison is growing as are opportunities for more income.
It’s worth noting that not everyone – consumers and producers – are ready to try bison. In fact, it takes a special breed of ranchers to raise and market America’s official national mammal. For those who do, the rewards are there, and leaders in the industry have already worked out the learning curve challenges.
Just ask Dave Carter, the executive director of the National Bison Association. “First, we haven’t even begun to achieve our potential market size. The average American now eats more than 50 pounds of beef each year and more than 70 pounds of chicken. The per-capita consumption of bison stands at 0.08 pounds per year. If we tripled the size of the bison business, we would produce enough product for the average person to have one quarter-pounder each year. That represents a lot of upside potential.”
The U.S. bison industry has had its share of growing pains as ranchers worked to match product volume to consumer demand. “In the 1980s and ‘90s, many ranchers were looking for an alternative to cattle production because of consolidation in beef packing, the flood of imported product, and other factors,” says Carter. “Bison seemed like a good alternative. There weren’t a lot of live bison available to help build herds, so the people coming into the business began to bid up the price of live animals.” Although a niche market, bison ranchers were investing in herds and facilities. “Then, some large players like Ted Turner began to come into the business and stock their ranches, so the price of live animals went even higher. By the end of the 1990s, some people were jumping in because bison seemed like a get-rich-quick scheme: buy a bred heifer this year, have a calf, and sell them both at a profit next year.
That situation had a parallel. In the 1990s, some farmers and ranchers were buying and raising emus as a way to diversify their operations. Like bison, emus measure in at six-feet tall, and they are fast and temperamental. Trying to grow market demand (let alone awareness) and find meat processing facilities were daunting tasks for those raising emus. It was a ground-floor industry that struggled to build sustainable consumer acceptance and demand.
From speculation to sustainability
Bison ranchers were getting good at learning how to handle the rugged animals. Convincing consumers that bison were worth their attention was another matter. “A few chefs were putting some bison tenderloins and strip steaks on the menu, but freezers were filling with unsold end meats and trim. So, the bison business collapsed in 2000,” adds Carter. The obvious solution was to encourage people to try bison meat. Bison ranchers chose to work together. They created the National Bison Association and began to focus all of their efforts on building consumer demand. “We worked with chefs to introduce a broader range of products, and to make sure they properly prepared the meat. We courted retailers, and we connected with food journalists.” Prepared well, bison meat is tender, but the initial sell can be tough. Yet bison’s appeal includes less fat and more protein than competing meats.
“Starting in 2007, we saw the demand for bison meat began to rise. That demand has increased steadily over the past decade, creating a stable, profitable foundation for ranchers and marketers alike,” explains Carter. “And, we are now selling the whole animal. Bison fajitas, short ribs, and flank steak are now featured on menus across the country. Pet food manufacturers are chasing bison supply. Even Stetson has a line of hats with a blend of bison felt.”
Strong and increasing demand means returns are getting back to the ranchers. That demand is tracking in the double-digit range. Many ranchers believe the market has room for more supply and more sales. It is a bright spot in agriculture, considering the overall economic downturn for farmers and ranchers.
“Bison is situated in the sweet spot of several market trends that are likely to continue. The nutritional qualities of bison meat resonate with customers who recognize the direct link between their diet and their health. The fact that it is illegal to use growth hormones in bison, and that the animal is a natural part of our ecosystem helps us connect with customers seeking natural, sustainable food,” adds Carter. “And, people are discovering that bison meat tastes great. Great tasting, healthy, sustainably-produced food is not a passing fad.”
Bison ranchers are a cooperative bunch
As mentioned before, working together is a hallmark of bison ranchers. “One of the best aspects of the bison business is the welcoming nature of the people already involved. Even those ranchers who have been raising bison for 30 years didn’t likely grow up in a bison ranching family. They came in as newcomers at some point, and remember those challenges. They now want to help others,” continues Carter.
He advises anyone with an interest in bison to begin by learning as much as possible, beginning with reading the second edition of Bison Producers’ Handbook, a 300-page guide written by more than 25 producers experienced in everything from buying the right animals to selling the meat.
Next, he recommends watching the 40-minute instructional DVD entitled The Insiders’ Guide to Bison Handling and Management. This production contains a series of five-minute segments filmed at operations across the country.
Both the handbook and the DVD are available on the National Bison Association website at www.bisoncentral.com. While on the website, people can find a lot of additional information about bison ranching and marketing. And consider joining the National Bison Association. New members receive the handbook and DVD as a part of their $250 dues. Members of the association also have access to an extensive on-line curriculum entitled Bison 101, Bison 201 and Bison 301. Consider it the cost of doing business and an inexpensive yet effect education on building a successful operation.
Next on Carter’s list of getting off to a good start is reaching out to connect with a nearby bison producer. “We’ll help connect prospective producers with someone who will be happy to help them get started. They’ll likely invite the prospective producer to spend some time with them in their operation, and will provide some advice in designing fencing and facilities appropriate to your environment,” he says. A good business plan is paramount to building a successful business. There are a series of on-line resources and spreadsheets designed to help people run the numbers.
In addition to the National Bison Association, the Rocky Mountain Buffalo Association hosts activities for producers throughout Colorado and Wyoming.
The difference between bison and beef herds
Carter says the appropriate herd size depends on the individual’s goals. “A few years ago, as I was giving my report to the National Bison Association annual conference, I looked in the audience and saw Ted Turner, who whose 14 ranches are home to 50,000 head. Sitting right next to him was a young couple who have about 30 mother cows and who sell buffalo burgers out of a food truck. Both of them and folks everywhere in between have a home in the bison business.”
People involved in direct marketing avenues such as farmers markets can succeed with a small herd of 30 to 40 mother cows and one bull for about every 15 to 20 cows. People wanting to build a successful cow-calf operation may want to look at starting with at least 150 females.
“We don’t have the ability to buy and sell animals at many of the market outlets as our friends in the beef business. Sale barns don’t generally handle bison,” according to Carter. “There are some auctions conducted around the country, but most of the animals move through private sales between producers. The National Bison Association’s Trading Board advertising is also a major buy-sell marketplace.”
Unlike beef cattle, female bison don’t have their first calves until they are three years old. “That’s an extra year behind a beef cow, and a major reason that we advise newcomers to buy bred heifers to start their business.”
Bison require good fencing and solidly-built working facilities. “Bison-ready fencing needs to be good, but not on the scale of Alcatraz. Most cattle fencing will work for bison, as long as the top strand is about five feet high. Good pasture, water, and social mix are more important than fencing in keeping bison at home.” Handling facilities need to be designed to keep both the animals and the handlers safe during roundup. Bison can be unpredictable in behavior. They can run at 30 miles per hour, jump a five-foot fence, and they do what they want with little regard for anything or anyone else.
Kenneth “Doc” Throlson, a North Dakota veterinarian who started a bison ranch in the 1990s, was known for telling people that bison will go where they want to go. The solution, he added, was to get them to do what he wanted but let them think it was their idea.
Calving offers time for coffee, fishing
Given that bison thrived on the Great Plains for countless years, it’s no surprise they survive severe winters just fine. “The morning after a blizzard is nothing to worry about. Bison are designed to withstand harsh weather conditions. Enjoy another cup of coffee and watch your neighbors haul feed out to their livestock herds after a blizzard,” jokes Carter. “Bison are very low maintenance animals. We don’t castrate, brand, dehorn or used artificial insemination. Mother nature did a great job perfecting these animals, so let’s not tinker with it.”
A female giving her first calf at age three will likely produce nearly twice as many calves over the course of her lifetime as an equivalent beef cow. Bison are long-lived animals, and the females can calve each year into their 20s. Winter feeding in general is a lot less intensive. Bison are biologically designed to get through the winter without a lot of supplemental feed. Their metabolism slows down in the winter, so their feed requirements are reduced. Their large hump and head act like snowplows to let them get down to the forage under the snow. And, a healthy bison is designed to lose 10-15 percent of its body weight over the winter.
It gets better. “Calving season is a great time to go fishing. Bison generally calve between late April and mid-June. That mother cow doesn’t want you anywhere near her when she is calving,” says Carter. “We haven’t bred the animals to give a bigger calf than mother nature intended, so bison cows can easily deliver a calf that weighs 45-50 pounds.” Remember the extra money bison ranchers spend on facilities? “Well, you’ll never build another barn or loafing shed. These animals don’t want to be inside,” he adds.
As with all livestock operations, bison ranchers are looking at the bottom line and profitability. “We are not a commodity. The bison business is very entrepreneurial, with people finding a successful niche in many areas. We never want to be a commodity, and recognize that we can continue to build our business by connecting with customers willing to pay the full value for delicious, healthy, sustainable raised meat,” offers Carter.
The National Bison Association is working with other groups including Farmers Union to promote Farm Bill policies that will help provide opportunities for more young and beginning produces to get into the business.
“I’ve learned over the past 15 years that the best thing about the bison business, is the animal. This is a magnificent animal that captivates our imagination, and produces a great-tasting meat,” adds Carter. “The second-best thing is the people. Bison producers have created a very welcoming community. They are committed to building this business in a manner that respects the animal, and continues to provide our customers with a quality product.”