Where the Buffalo Moan

They’ve been worshiped, they’ve been slaughtered. Now bison are back—so why won’t you buy some burger?

Land of Oz Meats, a wholesale and retail meat supplier in Salina, Kansas, sold 396,000 pounds of ground meat to the USDA for $1.4 million; Durham Meats, a major bison company in San Jose, California, unloaded 316,000 pounds at a cost of $1.1 million; USA Prime, a Denver-based bison brokerage company, sold 118,800 pounds for $403,000; and Medicine Lodge Ranches got rid of another 39,600 pounds for $136,000.

The NABC, which was founded in 1993 and slaughters about 11,000 bison every year in its state-of-the-art plant (it just announced that it is building a second slaughterhouse in Canada, where many of its members are), is the only bison plant in the United States that meets both USDA and European Union standards. Although Ted Turner is a major supplier to the co-op, it's possible that none of his meat went to the government since all of the meat is mixed together at the plant. "It was the press that caused the confusion," says the NABC's Sexhus. "It was presented as a bailout of the industry. Ted Turner is a major member, but he supplies a minority amount of our meat. I don't think he even did very much that year."

The last bonus buy was made on August 12, 1999, and distributed to several Indian reservations in November.

Buffalo Will: The Denver Buffalo Company's Will McFarlane thinks the bison industry is over the hump.
Buffalo Will: The Denver Buffalo Company's Will McFarlane thinks the bison industry is over the hump.
Gastronomical proportions: Bison fan Sam Arnold holds down The Fort.
Brett Amole
Gastronomical proportions: Bison fan Sam Arnold holds down The Fort.

North Dakota State's Anderson, who works at the university's bison research facilities at Carrington, says he wouldn't support another bonus buy even if the industry did ask for one again.

"They needed to grow their market to keep up with the supply, but they weren't doing it," he says. "They realize what they need to do now -- they just need to execute. If they can't figure it out, then they deserve to suffer."


One of the best things about raising bison is that they give birth on their own.

"You don't have to pull calves in the spring like you do with cattle," says April Chaffin, who, with her family, owns the Buffalo Wilds Ranch northwest of Wellington. "Yes, your fencing and handling facilities have to be different. But other than that, most of us feel they should be left alone."

Chaffin, who is an officer in the 75-member Colorado Bison Association, owns only eight buffalo -- five females and three males -- and uses them as breeding stock. "We are in the growing mode right now," she explains.

Formerly cattle ranchers, the Chaffins exemplify the new breed of small ranchers involved in the bison industry. They make their money from eggs and hay, but eventually they hope to have enough buffalo to sell. "We raise bison because of the love of the animal," Chaffin says. "If we never made a penny profit on it, we would still do it. There is something about the romance of the Old West, the sheer size and majesty of the animal."

Standing anywhere from five feet to six feet tall at the hump, the woolly brown buffalo needs to be handled by ranchers only once a year -- for weighing, vaccinations and other necessities -- while cattle are handled much more often. Buffalo are wild animals and easier to frighten than cattle; they are very strong and can jump six feet high, which usually requires extra fencing. Although there's a saying that "you can get a bison to go anywhere he wants to go," most ranchers agree that bison are much easier to raise and produce than cattle.

Some bison ranchers merely raise the animals -- especially females, which are almost never butchered -- as breeding stock; others sell buffalo, mostly bulls, directly to restaurants or to big resellers like the Denver Buffalo Company and the NABC.

Most of the animals butchered for meat are bulls between 18 and 30 months old, weighing 950 to 1,250 pounds. Of that, about 450 pounds is usable meat; about half of that is trim. But older animals usually end up being ground up entirely for burger. "Meat that is 16 to 26 months of age is the best, and the animal should be finished on some grain for four to six weeks," says The Fort's Arnold. "Younger than 16 months and the meat doesn't have much flavor. Older than two and a half years or so and it begins to get strong and tough."

There are now somewhere between 313,000 and 340,000 buffalo in the country, all but 20,000 or so on private ranches (the rest are in publicly owned herds). This is up from about 240,000 at the end of 1997, Sam Albrecht says, "so private landowners have really helped the recovery of the bison."

Over the past ten years, the bison business has grown from a novelty into a $50 million industry, according to the NBA. At the 34th annual bison auction at Custer State Park, South Dakota -- considered the benchmark of bison auctions -- yearling bulls sold for an average of $1,051 this year, while yearling heifers sold for an average of $1,854; two-year-old pregnant heifers sold for an average of $3,419, while two-year-old bulls sold for an average of $1,426.

But the overall average price per animal was $1,500, way down from $2,800 per animal in 1998 and $2,000 in 1995. The average price in 1990 was about $800, and in 1980, it was about $500.

"I think the prices for females were very high for the past few years, and we've seen them come down to a more manageable level," Albrecht says. "We knew they would go down, but just not that much. The ones who are probably hurting right now are the ones who thought they could make money really quickly. Bull prices, on the other hand, are still constant, which means our producers are making a good profit."

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