When my dad first mentioned that we would start raising buffalo on our ranch in Alberta, Canada, I imagined myself scuttling up a tree as some ice-age monster snorted and pawed the ground underneath me. I spent the first few days in abject terror, but it didn’t take too long to get used to these surprisingly gentle beasts.
Buffalo ranching is different from raising cattle. The fences have to be higher for one thing—despite their bulk, a buffalo can outrun a horse and jump a five-foot fence. And buffalo are insatiably curious. When they were in the pasture around our house we’d have buffalo nose-prints on all the lower-floor windows from their spying on human life. Once when we were sledding behind our house, the buffalo formed a line along the trail to watch us as we sped down the hill. They’d try it themselves, too—when the weather got icy, they would take a running start at our driveway, lock their legs, and skid down to the bottom. We have pictures of my brothers playing toy cars on a hill in our front yard with three or four buffalo standing over them to watch.
And of course, there was the corralling. My favorite—and yet most terrifying—job as a teenager was ear-tagging the buffalo. One of my brothers would lean on the gate that squeezes around the animal’s neck, and I’d stand in front of the snorting, terrified buffalo, throw an old towel over its eyes to maybe calm it down a bit, then reach in and try to grab one of its ears and punch the tag in before it swung its head and caught my hand between its horns and the iron bars. We didn’t brand them; you don’t brand buffalo, unless you’re crazy. We’d ear-tag them, weigh them, separate off the slaughter bulls, and get them out of the chutes as fast as we possibly could. And no, I’ve never ridden a buffalo except once, and that was by accident.
Raising buffalo was considered a bit odd back when my family first started in 1994. When I told people about our herd, most said they thought buffalo were extinct. But today, over 100 years after hunters like Buffalo Bill Cody nearly drove them to extinction, buffalo, or more properly bison, are in the midst of a major comeback.
Bison are raised for their meat, similar to beef. It’s taken a while, but they have recently been gaining rapid ground in the American market. In 2006, the amount of animals processed under federal inspection rose 21 percent, following a 17 percent rise in 2005. That means over 42,000 animals processed and $230 million worth of meat sales.
Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, sees several reasons for the recent growth. “I think we’re sitting at the sweet spot of three trends that are going on in the food industry today,” he says, pointing to the growing demand for sustainable food, the increasing focus on healthy diets (bison meat is low in fat and high in iron) and the increased availability of bison meat. Carter points out that bison are native to the United States and gentle on the native grassland. They don’t do well on high-protein feeds and in feedlots. Many bison are raised purely on grass.
Rusty Seedig, a longtime bison producer who sits on the board of the National Bison Association, says another contribution to the bison boom was the mad cow scare that hit the beef industry a few years ago, causing many consumers to search for a different red meat. And like so many trends sweeping America, the baby boomers are playing a role. “They’re now coming to retirement, they’re concerned about their health, they want to eat better food,” Seedig says. And, he adds, they can afford to try a more expensive meat like bison.
At The Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, bison has been on the menu for about a decade. Purchasing Manager Joel Patraker says the restaurant goes through an average of about 200 pounds of bison per week. “It’s an American restaurant, and it’s certainly the American meat,” he said. It's a popular item, Patraker said, although beef sales are much higher, averaging 1,500 pounds per week.
But don’t expect to see buffalo burgers on the McDonald’s dollar menu just yet. Carter says that while 43,000 animals processed in a year was big news for bison producers, the beef industry processes 125,000 animals a day. “We’re not in line to be the next beef, and we don’t want to be,” he says. Since most bison are raised and even finished on grass instead of in feedlots, and without the use of growth hormones, buffalo are likely to remain something of a specialty market. “Our overall goal is to make sure we retain the integrity of the product and the integrity of the animal,” Carter says.
The bison craze started in the 1990s, says Carter, when the cattle market dropped and bison prices shot up, with some heifer calves going for over $2,000 each as new producers bid against each other for breeding stock. The industry crashed in the late ‘90s, with heifer calves selling for as little as $200. By 2003, the industry began to make a cautious comeback, this time basing industry growth on the demand for meat.
Even with recent growth trends, the relatively young industry faces challenges, including marketing. Seedig says bison meat is something of an unknown to the average person. Yet there is no industrywide advertising strategy. “There’s not enough money to promote the product,” Seedig says.
Even a sudden rise in demand for bison meat would be problematic. If a major supermarket chain suddenly wanted buffalo in all its stores nationwide, it would take about five years to make a significant change in the level of production, according to Carter. “We’re really trying to chart out and make sure we’re growing the herds at the same time as the demand is growing,” he says.
The next time an angry buffalo bull breathes down my neck, I’ll remember: it's worth it.