Bison meat in growing demand | TSLN.com

Bison meat in growing demand

Eric Brown & Whitney Phillips
for Tri-State Livestock News

A bison glances back while walking along the fence Tuesday afternoon at Spomer Ranch in Milliken. The Westminster-based National Bison Association petitioned to have the USDA begin its study.

With a herd of just 48 head, Mike Sarchet, along with the handful of other small bison ranchers in Nebraska, is eager to expand his operation, and help meet a growing demand for a product that's seemingly always in short supply.

That's why he and many others are pleased to see the U.S. Department of Agriculture taking an interest in their industry, conducting a historic survey.

Also excited is Dave Carter, the executive director of the Westminster, Colo.-based National Bison Association, who said demand for bison meat has increased a great deal over the last decade, especially among those looking for natural, lean options.

Carter further noted that the USDA's new survey – the first extensive one done on his industry – will hopefully produce information on diseases in bison, helping to fortify the industry.

He said the industry went to the USDA for help conducting a survey that will help producers battle health issues in the animals, and the agency agreed.

"This is really a comprehensive study to address a whole manner of health and production issues in our business," he said.

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The bison industry pales in comparison to those of traditional meats.

To put it in perspective, Carter said about 60,000 bison were processed last year in the U.S. – compared to the 125,000 cattle processed every day on average.

Sarchet – a schoolteacher and coach in Scottsbluff, Neb., for about 30 years, who ranches near Minatare and sits on the Nebraska Farmers Union board — and Carter said they're happy with that, hoping to keep theirs more of a niche industry focused on natural production.

"The worst thing we could have is everybody in the country going to the store tomorrow looking for bison because we can't supply that," Carter said.

Up until about 10 years ago, bison was mostly viewed as a foreign meat.

"Our biggest challenge over the last decade has been to get that first taste in people's mouths," Carter said.

As more and more people showed interest in the meat, which is generally low in fat, the industry began working with the likes of Whole Foods, Costco and King Soopers to stock grocery store meat sections.

Prices rose to $10 per pound of ground bison at one point last year, and they've settled at closer to $9, which Carter said seems to be working for consumers and producers. When prices had peaked, there was concern among the bison industry that they might price themselves out of business.

"When you start to see national customer demand increase like it has, we continue to scramble to keep up," Carter said.

Keeping up is difficult in an industry with a longer production cycle. Females generally take five years from birth to the age at which they can reproduce — you can't just turn on and turn off supply in this industry, as ranchers explained it.

Since there is little wiggle room in terms of production, the results of the USDA's new study will likely help ranchers do more with the resources they have available, Carter and Sarchet said.

Carter explained that the study should give the industry more information on diseases, like microplasma bovis, for which vaccines and treatments aren't as effective in bison.

Carter said it's important, especially to ranchers, to bring about an increase in production without sacrificing the natural way in which bison are raised.

"We know that our customers expect us to demonstrate a level of care with these animals," Carter said. "They don't want us tinkering with what Mother Nature's been working on for tens of thousands of years."

Sarchet noted that his biggest challenge in Nebraska – where, outside of Ted Turner's large operations in the Sandhills region, he's one of only a handful of bison producers, all of which are small – is marketing and a lack of processors nearby. Currently, he's selling his product by word-of-mouth, and having his bison processed by the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, which is the country's leading bison meat processor and distributor.

While those are the bigger challenges for him and others, he said he's still happy the USDA is stepping up to help his industry in the area of disease research.

"Even after 20-plus years of doing this, I'm still learning as I go … so any information that helps me be a better producer is very welcome," said Sarchet, who at one time had more than 100 head of bison, but had to down size due to drought. "A lot of smaller producers … not just in the bison industry, but other sectors of ag … have gotten out of the industry over the years. There's been a lot of missed opportunities.

"Hopefully the USDA's involvement now, and the information gained, can help us with that. We certainly need more producers."