They’re ‘bullish’ on bison
The future of the buffalo industry looks brighter than it has in 15 years, says Frank Kralicek Jr., Yankton, S.D.
He and his family have been raising buffalo since 1983 and have endured the industry’s ups and downs. They have a herd of 40 cows and a bison feedlot. They finish about 500 bison annually, including their own feeders and ones they buy from other producers in as many as 13 states. They also have marketed bison seedstock, meat, hides and heads.
“The meat market right now is as high as it’s ever been,” Kralicek says.
This fall, processors were paying approximately $3 per cwt. (carcass weight), or about $1,800 to $2,000 per head.
Over the past four years, bison processors have increased prices for bison by 40%, says Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, Denver.
Processing reached a record 92,000 animals last year, double the number processed in 2005. The U.S. bison herd is estimated to now total 220,000 head. North Dakota and South Dakota are leading bison-producing states with more than 54,500 head, according to the 2007 Agriculture Census.
“Demand is holding up extremely well,” Carter says. “In fact, we’ve had to ask some of our commercial markets to be a little patient with us because demand is outstripping supply right now.”
• Bison prices have risen significantly; demand is up.
• The National Bison Association is working to expand the U.S. herd.
• SD producer says the future looks as bright as it has in 15 years for bison.
That’s a big change from the 1990s, when processors had freezers full of meat they couldn’t sell. Many producers didn’t get paid, and eventually some processors and producers went bankrupt. The breeding market collapsed, as well. Replacement heifer prices fell from a high of $2,500 per head in the late 1990s to less than $200 in 2003. In 1999, the highest-selling bull at the industry’s biggest show brought $101,000. A few years later, the top bull sold for $5,000.
Carter credits the turnaround to several factors. Consumers who tried bison meat in high-end restaurants started eating it at home, too. More health-conscious consumers discovered bison. “People are turning to bison because it is a lean, healthy meat,” Carter says.
Mostly grass-fed, bison fits the demand for so-called sustainable food, too. “People like the story of bison,” Carter says.
Also, processors are able to sell more of each animal today than a decade ago when most of the demand was only for the tenderloins and New York strip steaks — about 10% of the carcass. Today, burgers are in the biggest demand. Pet food manufacturers are buying what isn’t sold for food, and tanners are making new products from the hide. Stetson introduced a bison felt hat, for example.
“We’re selling the whole animal today,” Carter says. “We have a much better foundation for the industry.”
New producers wanted
The National Bison Association and the Canadian Bison Association are trying a number of things to encourage producers to expand or to start raising bison.
The trade groups have reached out to youth organizations, such as the FFA. They also have held bison production workshops for new and expanding producers. They published a 260-page handbook. Thirty longtime bison ranchers contributed to the book, covering every aspect of raising and marketing bison. The trade groups have established a mentoring program linking new producers with existing ones, and they are briefing bankers on what’s happening with the industry.
“In all of these materials, we are asking producers to consider the ‘Bison Advantage,’” Carter says.
Bison are economical to raise and environmentally sustainable. They don’t need barns or other shelters. They don’t require help with calving. They eat mostly grass.
“America’s original red meat is good for our health, good for our environment and absolutely delicious,” Carter says.
Still a niche
For all the recent growth, however, bison remains a niche. The 92,000 head processed in North America last year represents less than one day’s processing of cattle in the U.S.
For more information, call the National Bison Association at 303-292-2833 or go to www.nationalbisonassociation.com.
Photo: Curt Arens
This article published in the December, 2010 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.