Being rewarded for what bison and their stewards do naturally

You’ve probably heard by now that the National Bison Association (NBA) is involved in one of the new U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) grant programs. South Dakota State University’s “The Grass is Greener on the Other Side: Developing Climate-Smart Beef and Bison Commodities” project includes the NBA as a primary partner for the bison portion, along with our colleagues at Tanka Fund –

As the title suggests, this project aims to develop climate-smart-raised beef and bison markets. We will develop that market using three primary avenues – producer incentives, market development, and research. The five-year project, which officially started in late April and is now getting legs under it, aims to reward enrolled producers with a premium on their climate-smart raised calves and associated land practices. These premiums will incentivize and reward responsible land stewardship.

With a goal of 27,000 head of bison incentivized over the five-year project period, opportunity abounds.

The NBA will provide a $100/head premium to enrolled producers whose calves meet the NBA and Tanka Fund-developed protocols. Those protocols certify that enrolled animals are being raised holistically utilizing USDA-provided climate-friendly land practices. Those land practices include options such as a prescribed grazing plan, wildlife habitat-friendly fencing, or biodiversity expansion. In other words, the management practices that many of today’s bison producers utilize to raise their animals that are in concert with the bison’s natural, still intact grazing behavior. That makes bison an excellent fit for this program with the potential to showcase not only the regenerative nature of bison but, more so, the land management that producers practice in raising this species.

The protocols extend beyond land use and include basic vaccine requirements, minimum calf weights, and other parameters to reward producers for raising healthy, high-quality calves that buyers demand. Producers whose animals don’t qualify for the premium can still reap the rewards of this program through land practice incentives that can assist them in creating better habitat for their animals.

This grant was written over two years ago under very different market conditions when animals were plentiful and before the significant bison processing plant expansions that have recently occurred. With that in mind, I want to point out a few important factors regarding this incentive program. First and foremost, the NBA has no hand in setting market prices for calves. The NBA’s role is to process the $100/head premium to enrolled producers for approved animals. Given the tightening supply of feeder animals currently available, this has the potential to offset the marketplace, which is top of mind for us at the NBA.

For NBA members in the target region of the project, the Northern Great Plains and beyond, who are willing to register their operation with USDA’s Farm Service Agency, allow access to project partners who will be regularly taking soil samples, share their operation’s data and map their property, this is an opportunity for you. One caveat worth mentioning is that in year one of this project, we are required to work with the appointed project-partner bison buyer as outlined in the grant proposal, and thus will limit participation. In the next four years of the grant, the NBA fully intends to make this program as inclusive as possible and bring in more buyers. That expansion of buyer resources will benefit more producers, including direct-to-consumer marketers, as the demand for climate-smart animals ramps up.

The market development portion of this project is of particular interest. Given the relatively minute size of the bison industry, we need help to pursue effective marketing campaigns to tell our collective story to consumers. These USDA CSA projects aim to build markets for climate-smart commodities, and significant funding is available to develop such a marketplace for bison. As anyone in this business for some time knows, we are in a growing agriculture sector. Because of that, we are becoming more competitive, and quality counts more than ever.

We are exploring new and exciting marketing opportunities that will reward participating producers while building consumer demand for responsibly raised bison. Thanks to the holistic approach many bison producers utilize, particularly cow-calf producers, the undomesticated nature of bison, and the land management practices that we use, bison are largely “climate-smart” already, and this is our opportunity to be rewarded for what we do as bison stewards and to showcase it to consumers.

The final objective of this project is research and the resulting data. With South Dakota State University as the lead and responsible for the research piece, we have top-notch researchers working on quantifying data points that we, as an industry, have long sought. For example, for the first time, we are measuring methane emissions of bison on select research ranches over the five-year timeline. Research teams are using Green Feed machines that provide real-time data as bison feed in them. Carbon sequestration has always been a nebulous topic in our business. Through the grant, all participants will have soil samples taken regularly and analyzed over the project period to provide data that will presumably back our largely anecdotal claims that using bison to maintain healthy grasslands sequesters carbon. Among the producer incentives to participate is that participants get to keep that carbon sequestration data, which can be traded in the growing carbon marketplace, thus adding value to their operation and expanding on-farm revenue streams.

The Grass is Greener project is both inspiring and daunting at the same time. It’s the single biggest grant project that the NBA has ever pursued, and we are committed to making it a success because it’s an amazing opportunity for our business. The NBA’s Karen Conley will serve as project manager, bringing a wealth of knowledge and producer relationships she has built in this community for the past 25 years. You can always reach Karen at with any questions regarding the program. 

You’ll be hearing more and more about this project, and I encourage you to learn more at