Let’s Not Follow Chicken Across the Road

A typical comment made when first trying some type of exotic meat: “Tastes like chicken.”

But most foods don’t really taste like chicken. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, there’s something else that doesn’t taste like chicken these days: chicken.

The Journal reported last week“Chicken companies spent decades breeding birds to grow rapidly and develop large breast muscles.  Now the industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with the consequences ranging from squishy fillets known as ‘spaghetti meat,’ because they pull apart easily, to leathery ones known as ‘woody breast’.”

I don’t generally recommend that bison ranchers learn from the poultry industry, but I think there’s a major lesson for us in this story.

Commodity livestock industries have fixated for years on growing the heaviest animals possible in the shortest time from birth to harvest. No sector has mastered this goal better than the broiler chicken industry. Fifty years ago, the average broiler chicken took about nine weeks to grow to a market weight of 3.5 lbs. Continuous tinkering with genetics, feed and other factors have shaved that time by a fourth, while nearly doubling the weight of a market-ready chicken.

On top of that, the chicken has been continuously modified to meet changing consumer demand. Breast meat in high demand? Let’s create chickens that would put Dolly Parton to shame. Customers discovered the great taste of chicken wings? Let’s create flightless birds with bigger, meatier wings.

Bison ranchers, too, are  concerned about the growth rate of the slaughter animals in our herds. It’s a natural component of economic sustainability. After all, every additional day an animal spends on grass or grain is a cost of production. But there’s a strong difference in optimizing growth potential and pushing that growth potential beyond natural limits. At some point, Mother Nature is going to say: Enough.

I thought about that this week, as I looked over the latest monthly USDA wholesale bison price report. The average reported carcass weight on young bulls last month was 695 lbs. Two years ago, the average bull carcass weighed in at 600 lbs. That’s a 14 percent increase in carcass weights over a two-year period. Unlike the chicken industry, bison producers haven’t likely shortened the time required to reach that heavier carcass. But it’s fair to ask if the meat coming off of a 695 lb. carcass is going to have the same eating quality as the meat from a lighter animal.

There’s another factor to consider as well.

According to USDA, 19,959 young bison bulls were processed under federal inspection in 2018. Let’s assume those carcasses averaged 695 lbs. If so, those 19,959 bulls supplied a total of 13.87 million lbs. of carcass weight for our customers.

If those carcasses had averaged 600 lbs., 3,160 additional young bulls would have been required to produce the same amount of carcass weight. In other words, our marketers could supply a stable market by purchasing 3,160 fewer heavy young bull carcasses from ranchers. Oh, and the meat would not likely be as high quality as that coming from the lighter animals.

Years ago, the prevailing voices in the bison business made a declaration that we should never turn our animals into a mass commodity. That was sage advice. Our customers have demonstrated that they are willing to pay a premium price for great tasting meat produced in harmony with nature, and with a concern for the integrity of the animal.

While the chicken industry spends millions of dollars to figure out how to once again engineer super-sized birds to create something that tastes like chicken, let’s just use a little common sense and listen to Mother Nature…and our customers.

It’s time to lighten up.


Bison at Forefront of Eco-Marketing at Expo West

Natural Products Expo West, the nation’s largest trade show for natural and organic products taking place in California this week, is a cacophony of competing marketing claims.

The nearly 80,000 retailers, product buyers, marketers and others wandering through the 3,000 exhibits packed inside Anaheim Convention Center are steadily bombarded with claims regarding “no GMOs,” “Gluten Free,” “Humanely Raised,” and more.

The ecological impact of food production is a major theme woven throughout this trade show and the accompanying educational sessions. No fewer than four major workshops and seminars focused on regenerative agriculture. In the exhibit halls, many products that have traditionally sported the USDA Organic certification logo, are now adding an additional “Regenerative Organic Certification” label.

Of course, there are a number of relatively new exhibitors promoting their brand of meat-tasting whatever that is made from pea protein, soy, or even lab-grown cells. These booths universally had banners and signs claiming their products as eco-friendly. These were generally simple phrases like “clean protein,” “better for the environment,” and so on.

That’s why I found it interesting that the primary exhibitors at Expo providing in-depth information about how their products benefited the environment were companies that sell meat…specifically, bison.

One booth by Native American Natural Foods, makers of Tanka Bar, had a photograph of a bison. Arrows pointed to the hoofs, hair and other features, with text explaining how each of those features promoted healthy soils and biodiversity. In another aisle, Patagonia Provisions had a film loop informing attendees about the ecological benefits of bison, wild-caught salmon, and other sustainably raised proteins. Sill elsewhere, the people staffing EPIC Provisions booth liberally handed out both a brief pamphlet as well as a 112-page Impact Journal with information on the commitment ranchers have to the environment.

In the main exhibit hall, EPIC’s parent company, General Mills, hosted a booth largely devoted to their initiative to bring 1 million acres of land into regenerative production. That booth had a high-end version of the rainfall soil erosion simulator that many of us saw at NBA’s last summer conference, and at various USDA NRCS workshops through the years. The point of that simulator: healthy grasslands are vital to stopping soil erosion.

While it is a bit unsettling to see some companies making unsubstantiated claims about the environmental benefits of their products, it was heartening to see the commitment that many of our marketers are making to providing real, in-depth information.

Keep up the good work.

 


Reason, Not Rhetoric Needed in Green Discussion

I’m deeply immersed in public policy but do my best to steer clear of politics. After all, the National Bison Association has cultivated strong personal relationships during the past two decades with leaders on both sides of the political aisle. Bison is our National Mammal because Republicans and Democrats in Congress worked together over a four-year period. More recently, three Democratic and two Republican Senators sent a joint letter to USDA and FDA urging support for honest labeling of water buffalo in the marketplace.

Just as important, liberals and conservatives alike across the country have embraced the great taste and nutritional benefits of bison.

So, it’s with a bit of trepidation that I even mention three words generating a firestorm across the country: Green New Deal.

In barely a month, this phrase has emerged as a political lightning rod, with politicians, pundits and others speculating whether ice cream and hamburgers will disappear as flatulating cows are outlawed under a tidal wave of sweeping new laws and regulations.

Please: let’s not hunker down in silos of hardened opinions. An open, honest discussion about our role in climate change should be welcomed among the agriculture community. Rather than girding ourselves to argue over farting cows, let’s educate the public on the environmental benefits of bison and other grazing animals.

Bison ranchers are well positioned to stand at the forefront of that effort.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, grasslands comprise nearly 40 percent of the earth’s landmass. Closer to home, grasslands dominate most areas west of the Mississippi River, stretching from northern Mexico to the Yukon Flats. Those grasslands are  North America’s version of the Amazon Rain Forest, where  native vegetation filters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and returns it to the soil.

Bison ranchers know that grasslands collapse without grazing ruminants. Our herds rebuild soil and provide wildlife habitat and open space, in addition to addressing the CO2 equation.

New scientific research is providing clear evidence that petri-dish grown fake meat comes with heavy environmental baggage. One study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems  last month documents the amount of energy required to produce meat-tasting protein in the laboratory. 

With a blizzard of misinformation and fear swirling around the discussions of climate and the environment, it’s time to take a lesson from our herds: Keep our heads down and face the storm.

Reason, not rhetoric, is on our side. Let’s sit down to discuss our commitment to environmental stewardship with anyone willing to listen. I’ll even buy the bison burger and ice cream sundae while we talk.