Where the Buffalo Moan

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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."

The most prestigious auction is the Gold Trophy Show and Sale, which takes place at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. Two years ago a championship bull sold to a Kentucky rancher for a record $101,000. The six-hour event will be held on January 22 this year, and Albrecht expects about 200 animals to be sold. "Part of the reason the National Bison Association is in Denver is because of the National Western Stock Show," he says, adding that there are probably more bison in North and South Dakota than in Colorado, "but there are more people in Denver."

In fact, the offices of the NBA are located on the stockyards grounds, at 4701 Marion Street. (Albrecht heads over to the Stockyards Inn a few yards away whenever he has a hankering for a buffalo burger himself.) The NBA has about 2,400 members in several countries and all fifty states, including 143 in Colorado; they range from producers and slaughterhouses to restaurants and ranchers to absentee bison owners, investors and marketing companies.

The association puts out several publications and reports and maintains a Web site and animal registry. It also sells buffalo key chains, coffee mugs, hats, T-shirts, pencils, earrings, magnets, videos, stuffed animals (buffalo, of course), books and other souvenirs. It doesn't sell any meat or meat by-products, however. It leaves that to its members.

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes