The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Bison Demand Up, Supply Down

Bison Demand Up, Supply Down

Shoppers and Trends

March 27, 2011

Consumer demand is outpacing the available supply of bison meat, according to the National Bison Association. Sales have doubled since 2005, but the sector is still a small fraction of the meat marketplace. The 92,000 head of bison processed in the U.S. and Canada in 2009 represented less than one-day’s production of beef in the U.S. Now, ranchers are finding new incentives to enter the bison business.

“For years, we’ve said that the best way to save bison was to eat them. Consumers are doing their part, so now ranchers are working to build their herds, and to establish new herds, around the country,” says Dave Carter, Executive Director of the National Bison Association.

Demand, says Carter, is growing for three primary reasons. First, an increasing number of people are recognizing the direct link between diet and health. With its profile of low fat, high protein, and high iron, bison fits perfectly as a part of a healthy diet. Second, more people are now paying attention to how their food is produced, and who is producing it, and bison is a sustainably produced product that been a part of the ecosystem for tens of thousands of years. Finally, says Carter, bison is delicious.

“For years, people have recognized the health benefits of bison, and have appreciated the fact that we are truly a natural meat. But they were still hesitant to try it,” says Carter. “So we focused a lot of resources to convince people to take their first bite of bison. As people took that first bite, they fell in love with the flavor and have been looking for more.”

Over the past year, The National Bison Association has been working with local producers, and with regional associations, to host a series of Bison Advantage Workshops. These two-day workshops introduce prospective producers into some of the nuts and bolts of bison production. As a part of those workshops, they are working to connect newcomers with some bison veterans who can serve as mentors.

“We are particularly reaching out to young and beginning producers, and others involved in cultivating the next generation of agricultural leaders. And we are reaching out to agricultural lenders to educate them on the growth and profitability of the bison business. They are a critical link in providing the capital necessary for our producers to build the herds,” says Carter.

Even with the rapid rise in demand for bison meat, bison (often referred to as buffalo in the U.S., though technically the term buffalo refers to water buffalo) are only a sliver of the red meat marketplace. Last year, they were pleased that 53,000 bison were processed under USDA inspection. By comparison, the U.S. beef industry processes roughly 125,000 head of cattle every day. Similarly, the average American now eats more than 65 pounds of beef each year, while the per-capita consumption of bison is barely one-tenth of a pound.

“We are, and always intend to be, a niche part of the red meat industry. While we want to grow, we never want bison to become another ‘commodity’ product. Our customers are actively seeking bison in large part because we have not tinkered with the animals to produce more meat more quickly. We want to make sure that we don’t sacrifice the essential qualities of the animal in a rush to produce more meat,” says Carter.

With consumption of bison at one-tenth of a pound per person each year, there is tremendous room for growth. The main factor limiting growth at this point is the available supply. And bison farming is not without its challenges. One of the significant differences between cattle and bison stems from the fact that bison are undomesticated. Bison producers must understand the natural behavior, and the social structure of their herds. Fencing doesn’t have to be built like a fortress, but it does need to provide an incentive of the animals to stay in their pastures. It is also important to recognize that bison cannot be pushed or pressured into responding to their human handlers, so there is a lot more psychology involved.

Despite the challenges, says Carter, there are several advantages to raising bison. Because bison is not a commodity product, ranchers are not locked into working with the pricing and marketing systems that are common in the major commodity markets. In addition, it is a very entrepreneurial business, with lots of opportunities for producers to carve out a successful business niche. Also, the animals are very low maintenance. 

“While blizzards and other harsh weather incidents can be fatal for cattle herds, bison have evolved under those kinds of weather conditions for more than 10,000 years. Similarly, bison do not require human assistance when they calve. Because this ecosystem evolved under continuous grazing by bison, the natural grasses in North America provide the natural diet for bison,” says Carter. 

Carter also points out that bison are very long-lived animals. Even though a female bison does not deliver her first calf until she is three years old (compared to age two for beef heifers), the bison cow will deliver up to twice as many calves over the course of her life. There are significant nutritional differences and the marketing possibilities are significant as well. 

From a marketing perspective, Carter says that retailers need to stress to their customers that bison is easy to prepare, and can be substituted for beef in any recipe. The key to cooking bison is to remember that, because of its low fat content, it will cook more quickly than beef and therefore, care should be taken to ensure that the meat is not over-cooked. Lastly, the best way for retailers to describe the taste difference, he says, is to explain that bison is slightly sweeter than beef.

“I see steady growth for our business,” says Carter. “Producers have the responsibility to expand our herds without compromising the very attributes that make bison special. If we can take care of business, we will continue to build a strong market-based connection with customers who value delicious, nutritious, sustainably-raised food.”