A Bison Moonshot

That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

Nearly every schoolchild learns that phrase, and a few of us have been around long enough to remember watching the grainy television images as Neil Armstrong uttered those historic words while stepping onto lunar soil in 1969.

I thought about those words the other day as the Center of Excellence for Bison Studies announced the first eight proposals to be funded with more than $325,000 in support.

Those projects may not capture the attention on people outside the world of bison. For those of us associated with this magnificent animal, that announcement represented a giant leap forward.

Since the commercial bison business began to emerge roughly 50 years ago, producers on private ranches, as well as public and Tribal lands, have worked diligently to discover the proper management techniques and animal husbandry practices that would improve the health of their herds, the health of their grasslands, and the quality of the meat delivered to the marketplace.

It’s been a lot of trial and error, with errors often very prevalent.

The overriding philosophy early on in the bison business was, “If it worked on cattle, try it on bison.” Cattle and bison are both bovine ruminants, but otherwise very different. So, sometimes it worked…and sometimes it didn’t.

Through the years, a handful of dedicated veterinarians began to identify some herd health practices appropriate for bison, and generously shared their information throughout our business. More recently, USDA has weighed in with some support for selected bison research priorities.

Those bison vets will be the first to explain that more concerted and coordinated efforts were needed.  

That was the consensus of the members of the NBA Science and Research Committee, the National Buffalo Foundation, and animal science faculty at South Dakota State University who met in April 2017  to discuss research needs for bison. Not only were more coordinated efforts needed, they agreed, funding had to be secured to underwrite those efforts.

And so began the commitment to the bison research moonshot.

The Center of Excellence founded last September is the vehicle, but the generous contributions by family foundations and individual bison ranchers provided the booster engines to send the Center aloft.

The potential for the Center is evident in the breadth of projects supported through this first round of funding. Some, like research into mycoplasma and Bovine Viral Diarrhea, target basic animal health. Others explore the interaction of bison and the ecosystem they inhabit. Some focus on meat quality. One supports the examination of biological and cultural impacts of bison restoration on Tribal lands.

And this is only the beginning.

With continued support from the bison community, the Center of Excellence can foster new information, tools and outreach that will position the bison business to realize its full potential in the years ahead.

That’s one giant leap indeed.

Perhaps a Road Best Not Travelled

As genetic engineering capabilities vault forward, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) recently initiated the steps to start developing regulations governing the production of genetically modified animals, and the meat they produce.

The advance public input process undertaken by APHIS presumes that meat from genetically engineered animals will soon ben headed to retail meat cases and restaurant menus. But the “Notice of Advance Rulemaking” APHIS issued a few months ago also assumes that genetically engineered meat and poultry will only be coming from animals classified as amenable species…beef, pork, chicken, and other mainstream livestock commodities. Bison aren’t included.

For once, being excluded is just fine with me.

NBA Assistant Director Jim Matheson and I had an opportunity to tell that to APHIS officials when they scheduled a recent Zoom meeting to gain our input. We informed the officials of the NBA Code of Ethics prohibiting genetically modified bison for use in food production, as well as the code’s prohibition on crossbreeding with other species and use of artificial reproduction technologies. Our relationship with our customers, we told the officials, is based in large part on respecting the work that Mother Nature performed over thousands of years in perfecting the animal, and its relationship to the ecosystem.

Some may consider the NBA’s position to reflect an opposition to technological advances. After all, I’ve had some pointed conversations with some within our business who argue the benefits of being able to genetically engineer an animal that can finish for harvest more quickly, produce a consistently even ribeye area and other factors that can provide potential market profitability.

Yes, those characteristics are all possible, as are genetic manipulation to create disease resistance, lower methane emissions, pre-sexed offspring and other traits.

It’s possible, but is it wise?

If we were to head down that road, how far would we travel before we cross the line from actually raising an animal to simply producing cultured meat on the hoof? After all, if we want to engineer the genetics to the extent of producing all of the qualities we want while reducing the costs and other factors we don’t want, what’s the advantage of raising an actual animal over producing meat in a laboratory?

That’s a question that our friends in the beef, pork and poultry industries may have to answer sooner, rather than later.

As for me, I’ll stick with nature’s original plant-based protein…bison.