More than 200 years ago, bison meat was a staple in the American diet. There was plenty of availability and it was a high-quality meat that many enjoyed. At one point, it was estimated that up to 60 million bison lived on the North American continent – but thanks to land development and industrialization, by 1890, less than 1,000 bison were left.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s there was an increased interest in the meat, and many ranchers saw the opportunity to raise the animals to meet some of the growing demand. Private ranches started to pop up in the Dakotas, and slowly the bison population grew. By 1990, the population of bison had grown to 250,000. Today, it’s estimated that there are 500,000 head of bison in North America. Only 10% of that herd roams freely in conservation environments like Yellowstone National Park – the rest are raised by ranchers for consumption.

“It’s one of the biggest conservation stories out there,” said Bob Dineen, founder and president of Rocky Mountain Natural Meats LLC. “That’s one of those stories we like to tell our consumers – that by purchasing bison, by voting for bison with your dollars, you’re becoming part of that conservation story of more animals on the North American landscape. The more people eat bison, the more they become part of that conservation story.”

Growing a business

Rocky Mountain Natural Meats grew from an idea Dineen had while managing a ranch in Colorado in the late 1980s. At that time, bison wasn’t really recognized in the marketplace as a quality source of protein. His idea was to create a company that would help sustain the American bison population while sharing the benefits of bison with consumers around Colorado and ultimately, throughout the country.

“Most of bison at that time was being sold in the game meat category – it wasn’t available in regular retail stores, just in a few smaller stores in Denver,” Dineen said. “No one was focusing on distributing quality product and growing the market. No one was raising a quality animal, putting that product into modern packaging, standing behind the quality and offering fresh product to the retailer. No one was doing that, so we saw an opportunity to take this product to another level. That’s how our business started.”

In 1987, Dineen started Rocky Mountain Natural Meats and subsequently introduced the Great Range Bison brand.

Great Range Bison steaks are packaged in portion-control skin packs for retail and foodservice customers.

“The joke was that I started this company by delivering bison to customers out of the back of my pickup, but that wasn’t true,” Dineen said with a laugh. “It was a Nissan Sentra station wagon. That’s really how it got started.”

The first challenge of the new company and brand was quality.

“There was no consistency in the products before,” he explained. “We tried to resolve some of the problems by having the right aged animal, a proper feed program and good body condition. We really focused on quality.”

The company developed its own grading system early on to help it receive the product quality and consistency customers would expect. Unlike the beef industry, there is no US Department of Agriculture grading system for bison.

“Our grading system was basically a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ grade,” Dineen said. “Was it good enough to put our name on the package?”

For the first 10 years, the Great Range Bison product was mostly sold in the Denver area – at retailers such as King Sooper’s, Safeway and Albertsons. The brand also had a decent presence in the foodservice market in Denver.

“We had good consumer awareness and acceptance of the product in that area, with room to grow,” Dineen said.

The company opened a slaughter facility in Brush, Colo., in 2013 to help streamline the farm-to-fork process.

Production expansion

In 1998, Rocky Mountain built its own production facility in Denver. Prior to that time, the company was leasing a USDA-inspected plant. The slaughter and fabrication services were still outsourced to other facilities but with this new production facility the cutting and grinding was now done in-house.

“When we started doing our own cutting and grinding at our own facility, that’s when our business really took off,” Dineen said. “We put out a case-ready, 90% lean ground bison product that continues to be one of our biggest sellers today. We started out with retailers in Denver and then picked up grocery chains around the country.”

In 2007, Rocky Mountain built its current facility in Henderson, Colo., bringing fabrication, cutting and grinding, in addition to marketing and distribution, under the same roof, and gaining much-needed efficiencies at the same time. The 50,000-square-foot facility – which will soon expand to 62,000 square feet – handles all the carcass fabrication and further processing of all the bison the company sells.

One room in the plant is devoted to carcass fabrication, the other is for further processing, including two different grinding lines and a steak-cutting line. The product is packaged case ready in form-and-fill packaging with some portion-control skin packs for steaks. A very small amount of product is packaged for private label.

“We think that our product is unique enough that it’s important to sell it under our label,” Dineen said. “You lose some of the story when it’s sold private label – so it’s important to us to sell it under our brand, first and foremost.”

Seventy-five to 80% of the product is packaged case ready for retail, the rest is bound for foodservice customers.

Great Range Bison products include ground bison and ground bison patties; sirloin, ribeye, strip loin, tenderloin, flank and skirt steaks; steak medallions, stew meat, tri tip and pot roast.

In 2013, the company opened its own slaughter facility in Brush, Colo., about 80 miles from the Henderson plant. Before that time, slaughter was done on a contract basis.

“There were a lot of inefficiencies having to use a contract slaughter service, but we didn’t have enough volume to makes sense of our own operation in the beginning,” Dineen explained. “You have to crawl before you can walk.

“Adding this part of the business was the next logical step in our growth and our desire for more efficiencies. Every time we’ve been able to take on another part of the process on our own, we’ve been able to improve quality and save money. We are trying to put out the best bison on the market today, so we have to control as many parts of the process as possible.”

The 31,000-square-foot plant employs 80 people and slaughters 250 to 300 head a day. In addition to the bison for the Great Range Bison brand, the facility slaughters around 100 beef cattle a day on a contract basis. Both plants run five days a week, no second shift.

Because of the small size of the operation, the plant fulfills orders on an as-needed basis. While its fresh, ground 90% lean bison for retail is produced five days a week, other products are processed as orders arrive.

“Some of our production is filling orders, some is predictive, some depends on the size of the order that has come in and when shipments have to take place,” Dineen said. “There are a lot of logistics involved and a lot of moving parts.”

Ace Ward, chief operating officer, added, “This little, tiny business has a lot of moving parts. We don’t schedule our day based on how much we can put through the plant, we schedule our day based on how many orders we get. We’re kind of a harvest-to-order type of company. There’s no commodity market for bison, so if we produce too much, there’s nowhere in the market for it to go.”

However, the company’s small size also allows it to be nimble and flexible. “Because we’re small, we’re pretty fast on our feet – we can change our lines over pretty quickly to accommodate increases or changes in our orders.”

Last year, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when retail meat cases started to empty, the company found itself having to increase orders.

“In April and May, when grocery stores were running out of meat, our products were often the only ones left in the case,” said David Kent, senior vice president of sales. “We got a lot of new customers to try our products during the pandemic. We gained a lot of new trial with customers during that time and it’s paid dividends.”

“It’s a great feeling that a lot of people that might not have, tried our product because it was the only thing on the shelf,” Ward said. “And now, we have returning customers.”

Great Range Bison’s most popular product is its 90% lean ground meat. The brand also sells ground patties and a variety of steaks.

Rancher network

During the 30-plus years Dineen’s been in the bison business he’s developed partnerships with bison ranchers in order to support the industry, grow his side of the business, and produce the best product possible. The company buys from around 70 different rancher producers – purchasing from the top 20 of those on a weekly basis.

“There are some small ranches that we buy 10 head from a year and there are some we buy 100 to 200 head a week from, every week,” Dineen said. “There are major producers out there that feel like we’re the best company to sell their animals to and likewise, we feel like they’re the best to buy from.”

Most of the bison producers in North America are small family ranches located in the high plains of the United States and Canada. Rocky Mountain Natural Meats’ rancher partners include Beldon Bison Ranch in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, Black Kettle Buffalo in South Central Kansas and Diamond Trail Ranch in Northern Colorado. Many of the ranches are family owned and have been passed down from generation to generation.

“There are a lot of people who grow up in this business. I grew up in the bison business. Bob basically grew up in the bison business,” Ward said. “We didn’t start this business because we thought there was money in it – it’s because we love the animal. It’s because bison is what we know. There’s something about the animal that just draws you in, and that’s why we’re here. We want to promote bison.”

And as the market for bison grows, hopefully so will the market for Great Range Bison products, Ward added.

“We think everybody should eat beef six days a week and eat bison on the seventh. There’s not enough bison meat out there to feed everybody seven days a week,” Dineen said. “There’s a very limited supply of product in this industry. It will grow as consumer demand grows.

“Ultimately, we want to see the industry, as a whole, be successful. And if that happens, we’ll be successful too.”