2015 a banner year for bison industry
CHRISTINE, N.D.—Last year was a banner year for the bison industry, and it's expected to continue, said Dave Carter, National Bison Association executive director.
"We're actively promoting what we call the bison advantage to other producers to take a look at getting into the bison business," he said. "We think the customer demand is going to continue to increase."
The price processors are paying ranchers for market-ready bison increased from $1.60 a pound in 2004, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture started keeping a monthly price report on bison, to $4 a pound in 2011, Carter said. It's been between $3.90 and $4.25 a pound since then, he said.
"Since 2011, we have been in a really strong, stable position," he said.
Randy Lacher of Eagle Valley Bison Ranch near Christine, N.D., has been in the bison industry since 1994. There was a time when he called raising bison his hobby, but he said he can make some money at it now.
"There is a serious demand for the product," he said. "Sales are extremely strong. It's a good problem to have."
Lacher sells bison meat at Hornbacher's grocery stores in Fargo. Peoples Organic cafe and Würst Bier Hall restaurant and bar in Fargo also sell Eagle Valley Bison Ranch meat, he said.
"The biggest thing I see is, I have customers who like my product and they're repeat customers," Lacher said. "That's really big. Anybody can sell it the first time."
The National Bison Association's most recent survey of marketers showed that 93 percent say the demand for bison burgers is exceeding the supply, Carter said.
"We're short on all supplies right now," he said. "This means more opportunities. Our major push right now is we're trying to get people to take a look at bison. We're trying to get existing producers to increase their herds."
Customers are willing to pay $9 a pound for ground bison in the grocery store, he said, because bison is low-fat and high in protein and iron, it's illegal to use growth hormones and antibiotics as growth promotants in bison, and it's great-tasting.
Raising bison, Carter said, is similar to cattle in some ways, but it's also different.
"It's not a wild animal, but it's an undomesticated animal," he said.
Lacher said anybody who raises bison should "have their ducks in a row."
"They can be mean," he said. "They're really dangerous animals."
He was once hurt pretty seriously, he said.
"It was a mistake on my part," he said. "I walked into the middle of the pen and I didn't have a feeder or anything to hide behind and all of a sudden she just casually came walking out of the crowd."
He couldn't get away. The cow threw him up into the air, cracked a couple of ribs, put a cut above his eye and stepped on his wrist, Lacher said.
"As soon as I hit the ground I turned around and just crawled and ran," he said.
Despite that, he said bison are easier to raise than cattle.
"I wanted something exotic with a brain," he said. "They're smart animals. I don't have to worry about them if a blizzard comes up or during calving."
The disadvantage is females don't produce calves until they're about 3 years old, Carter said, but they give birth to twice as many calves over a lifetime and bison live well into their 20s. And calving season, he said, "is a good time to go fishing." They don't need help and don't want anyone around.
Contrary to popular belief, Carter said producers don't need "Fort Knox" to hold bison.
A five- or six-strand barbed wire fence with a top strand about 5 feet high should do the trick, he said, adding that producers near an interstate highway might want something a little more stout. As long as they have grass, water and the right social mix, he said they won't want to get out.
Land requirements are about the same as they are for cattle. But producers will need to spend more money on handling facilities and a sturdy chute, Carter said.
Bison don't have to be castrated, branded or dehorned. And even in North Dakota, he said, bison don't want to be inside.
"When you get a good blizzard blowing across the prairie, you don't have to roll out of bed first thing in the morning and worry about getting the feed out to the animals," he said. "Mother Nature's not going to throw anything at them that they haven't seen."