Bison industry sees strong growth in both production, consumption in 2016
“The secret is out about bison,” says Rancher John Flocchini of Durham Bison Ranch outside of Wright. “It wasn’t ever really a secret, but I think more and more every day, consumers are realizing the benefits of bison, not just from a nutritional point of view but also in terms of quality of eating experience.”
At their annual meeting in January, the National Bison Association (NBA) reported “closing out a record year of profitability and recognition,” with optimism for continued success into the next year.
“We’re wrapping up a banner year, with Congress designating bison as the national mammal and the American public increasingly choosing bison meat for their families,” NBA Executive Director Dave Carter says. “Our challenge for 2017 is to continue to build the business, so we can bring more bison back to pastures and rangelands across North America.”
The success of 2016 was built on higher prices and increased demand.
According to USDA, the prices marketers paid for dressed bison bulls averaged higher than $4.30 per pound throughout 2016.
“We anticipate that prices will remain strong as demand for bison meat continues to grow,” Carter says.
In the retail and restaurant sales arenas, bison products grew $10 million in sales in 2016 to $350 million.
USDA data shows that 61,300 bison were processed under federal and state inspection last year, an increase of 1,000 animals from the year before.
Flocchini comments that many consumers have a fear of cooking bison – or over-cooking it.
“Bison isn’t hard to deal with as a regular food item,” he explains. “It has a great taste and stigma of over-cooking bison is changing.”
At the same time, those consumers focusing on specialty diets or with a desire to connect to their food are drawn to the alternative protein.
“Bison is a low fat, low cholesterol alternative meat, and it’s naturally high in iron,” Flocchini says, adding that several years ago, Reader’s Digest listed bison as one of the most five important food for women because of it’s low fat and high iron. “This product is naturally healthy for consumers.”
Flocchini also adds that bison is distinctly different from beef, providing an entirely different eating experience.
“Bison doesn’t have the marbling that beef does, so it doesn’t have that buttery experience,” he explains. “It has more of a sweet, lean eating experience, which is great.”
Bison meat has been particularly appealing to consumers seeking indigenous products, and it has seen a strong following from those consumers on a paleo diet and in the Cross Fit community.
“Beef will never be threatened by bison,” Flocchini says, “but bison is a great niche market.”
While the number of people consuming bison has grown, Flocchini remarks that producer numbers have also grown in the last few years.
“Our peak production was in the late 1990s, when there was a lot of hype in the industry as far as breeding animals go, and people got really excited,” he says. “The concept was great, but unfortunately, at the time, the foundation for the meat market had not really established.”
Flocchini adds, “The enthusiasm outgrew the reality of the marketplace at that time, and there was a contraction within the industry.”
A decline in prices meant that many producers lost large amounts of money, and a large number were forced out of the market.
“Those who stuck with bison production have come through the other side, and recently, we’ve seen a lot more brand new producers who are interested in raising bison,” Flocchini says. “That’s exciting because we see a lot of demand but not enough supply.”
The resurgence in bison meat has been a long time coming, says Flocchini.
“NBA has been focusing on meat marketing our protect for a while as far as describing bison, but it’s taken time to get to consumers,” he says. “It’s more of a niche product, so supply limits how quickly that demand spreads.”
“We are in a challenging situation,” Carter adds. “As more people discover the great taste and nutritional benefits of bison, we have to keep pace. We are working with existing ranchers to increase their herds and have rolled out the welcome mat for new producers willing to join us in bringing more naturally-raised bison meat to the marketplace.”
While he doesn’t attribute all of the success of bison to the marketing efforts of NBA, Flocchini says that other key marketers in the industry, as well as farm-to-table operations, have begun to emerge, as well.
“Word has trickled out, and the press has begun to catch up with our story,” he comments. “There’s a great story to be shared, and now, bison is much more available than it has been in the past.”
As demand has increased, grocery stores across the country have started carrying bison products, as well.
“People probably get introduced to bison for the first time in restaurants or from friends, and when they see that, in most metropolitan areas, it’s available, it begins to catch on,” says Flocchini
In the future
As NBA looks at 2017, they see even more potential, with planned programming to increase profitability for those currently in the bison business and introduce prospective producers to the opportunities available.
“The bison market is enjoying strong stability and profitability, with growth projected to continue as long as we can expand herds across the country,” Carter says. “Our primary focus today is reaching out to producers to build the herds of bison across the country.”
In July 2017, NBA will host an International Bison Conference in Big Sky, Mont., bringing producers from primarily the U.S. and Canada but also from around the world.
“Most people producing bison are in the U.S. and Canada, but there will be people from all over the world in attendance, including Europeans and Australians,” Flocchini says. “Folks are raising bison in the most amazing places.”
Flocchini comments, “Continued strong demand on the meat side and more demand for live animals for breeding means that bison producers are optimistic and the bison industry is strong.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org