Thursday, August 04, 2016

Bison Industry Drives to Recruit Ranchers as Demand Climbs

The U.S. bison industry is trying to draw more ranchers to where the buffalo roam. After collapsing in 2002, demand for bison burgers and steaks from retailers such as Whole Foods Market Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kroger Co. is rising, sending processors and marketers on a recruiting drive to round up more producers to raise the hulking creatures. One major hurdle to recruiting ranchers: convincing them to handle animals that can grow to the size of a Mini Cooper, and sometimes get ornery. “That’s like sticking bobcats in gunnysacks,” said Lee Graese, a former bodybuilder who raises bison with his wife, Mary, a dietitian, near Rice Lake, Wis. “If you can run into it at 35 miles per hour with your pickup and it’s still standing, you’ve got a pen that’ll hold a bison.” Bison-meat sales topped $340 million last year, according to data from the National Bison Association. This is a tiny fraction of the more than $100 billion in sales of cattle, hogs and poultry produced in the U.S. in 2015. But bison producers say their meat boasts an edge in the marketplace as consumers seek out more naturally raised protein, and sales have grown by 22% over the past five years. Fans say it tastes like beef, but leaner and slightly sweeter. Dave Carter, executive director of the Westminster, Colo.-based Bison Association, says the industry needs commercial-scale ranches like the beef industry has, capable of raising thousands more bison to further build the market. Cattlemen, he said, are natural candidates, beleaguered by a 20% decline in cattle-carcass prices since early 2015...more

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