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A herd of bison is pictured at the Eagle Valley Bison Ranch in Walcott, N.D. (Forum News Service photo)

Bison meat: Healthy and 'pretty darn delicious'

A growth in consumer demand and a surge in personal health initiatives are credited for a record-setting year in the bison industry, which is expected to continue its uphill climb.

In 2015, the price per-pound processors paid ranchers for market-ready bison reached $4.25 after hovering at about $4 per pound since 2011, according to Executive Director of the National Bison Association Dave Carter. According to the Bison Association, the bison business reached $336 million in retail in 2014, and Carter expects 2015 figures will show double-digit growth over that figure.

"It's being driven by the fact that customers have discovered that not only is bison really healthy and all-natural, but it's pretty darn delicious," Carter said. "There's a lot of upside potential with bison. It's an incredibly nutritious product. It's low in fat, high in protein, high in iron and it fits right in with the public's perception of sustainable food."

Carter said the industry started to take off in 2007, when many people began to take their first tastes of bison. These people, Carter said, then started looking for more, generating a "steady growth in the business."

Deanna Nolz, owner of Nolz Poor Farm Bison in Sioux Falls, said she and her husband, Ed, got into the bison industry when Ed started to experience heart problems.

"We started in 1992 because my husband had quite a bit of heart trouble, and bison is much leaner and healthier," Nolz said. "We've just really lucked out from the industry doing well. It was never our intent to benefit so much, but it's been great."

She added that it is illegal to use growth hormones and antibiotics as growth promotants in bison.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the most recent available statistics because the census is taken only once every five years, South Dakota is home to 36 of the nation's 3,953 bison farms, with a total of 288 bison.

Carter said he expects that number to increase significantly when the next census is released in 2017.

Contributing to its success, Carter said, is that the bison industry does not intend to compete with beef or other meat.

The average person in the United States consumes approximately 50 pounds of beef each year and 40 pounds of pork, Carter said. But, even with the growth of the business, the average U.S. resident is only consuming .08 pounds of bison annually.

"We never want to be a mainstream commodity. We never see ourselves competing with beef or any other kinds of protein commodities, because we think we have a very special place in the market," Carter said. "We can double the size of our business and the average person in the the U.S. wouldn't be eating two-tenths of a pound of bison per year."

Citing a long list of advantages to raising and selling bison rather than beef cattle, Carter said the most prominent "bison advantage" is the industry's willingness to welcome newcomers.

In the beef cattle industry, Carter said veterans of the industry often furrow their brows at new, young producers just starting.

"They wonder if you know what the heck you're getting into," Carter said. "But with the bison industry, it's rare that, even the old-timers who have been in the business for 20 or 30 years had parents who did the same thing, so they remember their first days. They want to help these new guys not make the same mistakes that they did."

The low-maintenance lifestyle of the animals is also advantageous.

In adverse weather, like blizzards, bison are equipped to take care of themselves, and don't typically need extra help finding shelter. And, the animals don't require human assistance during calving season.

"Calving season in the bison industry is a good time to go fishing, because that mom doesn't want you anywhere around her when she's delivering a calf," Carter said.

Nolz said if a person is interacting with a bison calf, it's important to have access to a vehicle to get away quickly in case of an emergency.

"They're really protective of their babies," Nolz said. "They won't let you get between them and the babies. That's just how animals are, so you have to remember that."

The main difference, Carter said, between raising bison and beef cattle are the fencing requirements and handling facilities for the animals that tend to get "rowdy" when being handled.

"When it comes to fencing, yeah, you do need to have good, sturdy fencing for bison, but you don't have to put in 'Jurassic Park'-type fencing. As long as the animals have good feed, good water and the right social mixture, they'll stay home."