KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Prior to 1600, an estimated 30 to 60 million bison roamed North America. Before the turn of the 20th century, the estimate dropped to below 1,000. But the strong and majestic animal now numbers roughly 400,000 and the bison business is booming. Ranchers, processors, chefs, environmentalists, diners and retail shoppers have all contributed to the bison’s resurgence in its native land, but consumers want more.
Bringing the bison back has proved beneficial in a number of ways. From restoring the North American ecosystems to an attempt to atone for the decimation of the past, but the American consumer might benefit the most. In today’s health-conscious food landscape, bison meat provides the taste quality of red meat with a desirable nutrition profile.
Benefits of the bison
For the fat- and calorie-conscious consumer, bison provides a red meat containing significantly less calories and fat than beef. The United States Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) states that 0.22 lbs. of raw bison (separable lean only) contains 109 calories and 1.8 g. of fat, while the same amount of choice grade beef contains 291 calories and 24 g. of fat, but not all consumers shopping with health and wellness in mind count calories and grams of fat.
The heartiness of bison contributes to its attractiveness, not only for the rancher, but for the consumer looking for specific production attributes when purchasing food. The bison’s natural lifestyle lends itself to sustainability, a trend that shows no sign of dwindling anytime soon.
Bison prefer to live outdoors year round, alleviating the need for any buildings to provide shelter. That means no maintenance, repair, energy consumption or anything else that goes along with housing animals. Bison do well eating most of the grasses in the US, cutting down or eliminating costs associated with commercial feed. Consequently, bison add benefits to the environment. Along with this, US consumers appreciate the more natural processes used by ranchers to raise Bison.
Use of artificial growth hormones in bison are prohibited by the Federal government, and according to the National Bison Association, antibiotic use is limited to treating only animals with an illness with a minimal amount needed according to industry protocols.
“It’s illegal to use growth hormones in bison. It’s illegal to use antibiotics for growth purposes in bison,” says Dave Carter, executive director for the National Bison Association in Westminster, Colorado. “When you talk about sustainable food, what’s more sustainable than the animal that’s been a part of this ecosystem for thousands of years?”
For ranchers, processors and distributors, bison offers a segment that has shown steady growth and continues to gain popularity.
Carter believes the consumer demand will continue to grow due to a sweet spot within three strong trends happening in food – the healthy diet, natural and sustainable food, and consumers looking for adventurous taste.
People have made the connection between diet and their health and longevity, Carter says, and people understood the story regarding natural and sustainable food. But when it came to taste, Carter found the general public to be weary at first.
“They were a little suspicious about the taste because they’d never taken a bite,” Carter says. “We found that once people take their first bite of bison, and find out how good it tastes, they start looking for some more. From that aspect we see that the consumer demand is going to increase.
“Our main challenge now is to keep up with the production. Whereas a decade ago, I was spending 90 percent of my time talking to the consuming public or the general public about eating bison, I’m now spending 90 percent of my time talking to folks about building the herds or getting into the bison business so that we can keep up with that demand,” he adds.
Lee Graese, founder and co-owner of North Star Bison, Rice Lake, Wisconsin agrees with Carter.
“We are working on recruiting more ranchers,” Graese says.
From the second quarter of 2015 to the second quarter of 2016, Graese and North Star have seen about 50 percent growth and a lot had to be left on the table.
“We could sell way more if we had the animals,” Graese says. “I think we figured we needed about 24,000 more head just to meet the demand that came at us in the first three months of this year. That’s over and above our normal business. We couldn’t find that. They [animals] are not there.”
North Star sells to foodservice, retail stores and ships direct to customers and has very recently seen some changes in the demand curve as its wholesale business grows.
“The wholesale side is really taking off,” Graese says. “It might be 70 percent wholesale, which would be both foodservice and retail stores with 30 percent direct to the consumer.”
The most popular bison product North Star sells?
“The highest demand write now is the trim, the ground products,” Graese says. “That is what’s driving everything right now. We’re a burger nation.”
Growing the niche
The NBA and producers across the country determined as an industry to keep the bison a niche product. That means all the practices and advantages that go along with being a niche meat will remain.
“Being a niche product means we’re going to raise the animals in a different way,” Carter says. “We’re going to market ourselves in a different way and we’re going to really reach out and talk to folks who are willing to pay a premium for products that have certain attributes.” And although the consumer demand continues to grow, Carter sees no future where increased bison production will exceed a niche market.
“The chasm between where we are and where mainstream commodity meats are is pretty significant,” he says. “Last year for example, we processed about 60,000 head of bison under USDA and state inspection. That’s what the cattle industry does before noon on an average day.”
With the average person eating about 55 lbs. of beef per year and .08 lbs. of bison per year, according to Carter, US bison production could triple and still be at a point where the average person ate one bison burger a year.
“We’d soak up all of our demand,” he says. “We see upside…a lot of opportunities.”
Bison vs. buffalo
Although widely accepted as interchangeable names for the same animal, buffalo and bison aren’t the same thing. Buffalo are found in Africa and Asia, while bison live in North America.
European settlers first saw the American bison and mistakenly called them buffalo because of their familiarity with the African and Asian animals and the similarities in appearance, and the name stuck.
A few of the physical differences between buffalo and bison are:
• Bison have a hairy fur coat on their body which grows thicker in the winters as a protection from the rugged environment they live in. Buffalo do not have thick fur.
• Bison have very sharp horns which they use for their defense. A buffalo's horns aren't very sharp but are longer than a bison's.
• Bison have a huge hump on their back which buffaloes do not have.
• Bison also have a thick beard that circles around their rib cage but buffaloes do not have a thick beard.
• Buffaloes grow up to 5 ft. in size while bison may grow to 6 ft.
Dan O’Brien, owner of Wild Idea Buffalo Co., has taken his experiences in cattle ranching, nature conservancy and academia to create a unique livestock production business model that not only addresses animal welfare, but addresses land conservation and bolstering the historic American bison herd back to its once thriving state. Read about Wild Idea Buffalo Co. in the September issue of MEAT+POULTRY, here.