Thu January 20, 2011

As Bison Demand Rises, So Does Need For Ranchers

Bison ranchers from across the U.S. are gathering in Denver this week to figure out how to recruit more people into the bison business and ratchet up the meat supply. That's because a shortage of bison is pushing prices to a near-record high.

Bison meat is averaging $7 per pound -- an increase of $2 from a year ago. And so far, consumers don't mind paying extra for the meat.

At a Ted's Montana Grill in Denver, accountants Cory Vann and Reid Schellhous sat down to some bison burgers for lunch.

Asked how the burgers taste, Schellhous says, "It's a little bit sweeter, slightly different texture, I'd say. A little bit smoother."

For these number-crunchers, paying $12 per burger isn't a deterrent.

"I mean, if it was twice as much as beef, I think I'd stick with beef. But it's only a couple dollars' difference, and so it's not that big of a deal," Vann says.

A recent supply shortage forced the restaurant to raise its prices on bison. But general manager Scott Procup says that so far, customer demand is holding steady.

"We started prepping more beef, but it stayed in line still with the prices," he says. "They're willing to pay the extra price for the product."

Bison is a niche market -- last year, 92,000 head were processed in North America. That's less than one day's beef production in the United States.

But as prices continue to rise, many in the industry expect customers to push back. That has led the National Bison Association to launch a massive recruiting effort to bring more ranchers into the business.

And people like Chandler Morton are answering the call. When we visited him, he was out stringing electrical fence wire, preparing grazing land for his 15 recently purchased bison.

Morton is in his mid-30s; he has a master's degree in accounting. His disdain for sitting behind a desk led him to start an animal hide tanning store, which he's now using to fund an upstart bison business.

"I think there's several years to go before we can even come close to matching demand. So that's what's exciting about it," he says. "Because there's not too many industries you can look at in 2011 and say that's what's happening."

But it will take time for Morton to grow his herd. A female bison can't have her first calf until she's 3; that's compared with age 2 for beef cows. It may sound like a shortcoming, but this can actually be an asset, according to Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association.

"The good thing is, with the higher prices, that's all going right back to the ranchers right now. And that's a great signal for ranchers to build their herds," he says.

While ranchers may be benefiting, processors like Rocky Mountain Natural Meats are not.

President Bob Dineen started the business out of his Nissan station wagon decades ago. Today his factory supplies meat to Whole Foods and Ted's Montana Grill.

"We've increased sales in the 10 to 20 percent range pretty much every year," Dineen says, "this year being the lower end of that, because of supply issues."

Last year, the industry saw some growing pains. Rocky Mountain Natural Meats initiated its largest recall ever, due to possible contamination by E. coli bacteria. Dineen says the processing plant tests daily for it. And he says that growing the business means preserving the quality customers expect.

Back at Ted's Montana Grill, diner Cory Vann says he probably couldn't taste the difference between beef and bison if he were blindfolded. And right now, that's part of the appeal for consumers like Vann, who also cooks the lower-fat meat at home.

"We've made like a Bolognese with bison instead of ground beef before," he says. "We'll make burgers at home, but even taco meat you can make with bison instead."

It seems that just about the only culinary limit the bison industry has right now is dessert. Copyright 2011 KUNC-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kunc.org.