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.


A Paycheck for Fighting Climate Change

Years ago, farmers in the European Union coined the term “multifunctional” to describe agriculture’s role in society.

As one French farmer explained to me, “We produce so much more than simply food and fiber commodities. We protect healthy soils and watershed, provide wildlife habitat, and create the open spaces that the public enjoys. Why do we only get paid for producing food?”

I thought about this a couple of weeks ago as I listened to an array of political leaders participating in the three-day webinar hosted by a Washington D.C.-based agricultural news service.

The overriding theme of the seminar was the role of agriculture in addressing the new national policy focus on climate change. That makes many bison producers nervous because it conjures up images of a spate of new regulations.

The lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, however, spent little time talking about regulations. Instead, the conversations focused on potential financial incentives to reward producers who are capturing and sequestering carbon. Encouragingly, several speakers mentioned the importance of rewarding the “early adopters;” producers who have sequestered carbon for years.

That certainly describes many bison ranches.

Also encouraging is the emergence of market-based initiatives to purchase carbon credits from ranchers and farmers sequestering carbon. One NBA member-ranch just finalized a contract with a company that will document their carbon sequestration, and then purchase credits that companies will buy to help offset their carbon footprint. Several airlines are among the customers purchasing those credits.

Some of the public policy initiatives discussed during the Washington D.C. seminar focused on expanding the value of those credits.

We’ve long known that the grassland ecosystems carefully nurtured by bison capture carbon from the atmosphere and lock it into the soil. The NBA’s new Conservation Management Plan program provides recognition for bison ranchers who utilize practices to maximize that ecological benefit.

It’s rewarding to know that those ranchers may soon be able to reap financial rewards for their hard work.

Today, on Earth Day 2021, a so-called expert is likely jetting into a major city to present a speech on livestock’s supposed contribution to global warming. It’s a bit ironic to know that the carbon footprint of their jetliner may be offset by a herd of bison quietly grazing on a pasture of newly greening spring grass.


Wildlife Among the Petri Dishes

A couple of news articles caught my attention in recent weeks. First was a story headlined, “Plant Based Diets Crucial to Saving Global Wildlife.” A few days later, my newsfeed carried a story on the assertion by Bill Gates that eating lab-grown meat was an important step to addressing climate change and protecting biodiversity. Then, the Governor of Colorado declared March 20 as “Meatout” (meat free) day, citing, in part, climate concerns.

I thought about those stories as Dave Wentz and I were moving the bison to a new paddock on the ranch where we keep our herds.  I had paused my four-wheeler beneath a tree where a couple of porcupines were lazily climbing the branches. Overhead, one of the pair of the bald eagles that had recently nested along the riparian area was circling the sky, sizing up the prairie dog smorgasbord laid out below.

I wondered how those animals would fare in a meat lab. I know that most laboratory fractionating columns aren’t tall enough for porcupines to climb, or for eagles to utilize as nesting sites. Petri dishes, likewise, probably aren’t suitable for use by ground nesting birds. The antelope and deer moving around through a laboratory are likely to create some real havoc with the high-priced, sensitive equipment “growing” the meat. And the prairie dogs…I suppose they could utilize some of the pipes and tubing for their burrows.

Okay, so forget about the lab-grown meat. What about the “plant-based” products? I’ve already blogged about the arms’ length ingredient panel—filled with unidentifiable ingredients—that comprise most plant-based “meat” products. But even the identifiable ingredients come from crops that are grown in cultivated fields, sprayed with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to live in a home that isn’t subject to total destruction once or twice each year. Burrowing animals probably feel the same way. Having your home (and perhaps your family) disked, plowed, drilled or otherwise cultivated is not conducive to long-term survival.

It’s not just about mammals and reptiles. Over the past few years, the collapse of pollinators has become an increasing point of concern among biologists. According to Cornell University, 70% of the 20,000 species of bees in North America nest underground. I doubt those bees thrive on having their nests periodically pulverized.

Then, there’s the fungi beneath the soil that is becoming appreciated for its role in breaking down biological matter and building healthy soil. Every trip across a field by a plow or disk is fatal to that vital, delicate link in the ecological cycle.

I’m not castigating farmers, or all farmlands. After all, I enjoy my steel-cut oats every morning, and a good slice of crusty bread with supper. Farming is important. But expecting that transitioning our food production into a system where every ounce of protein comes from a laboratory or a tilled field is a certain prescription for ecological collapse.

Pastures, prairies, and rangelands and the bison and other ruminants that keep those grasslands healthy, are vital components for wildlife habit, biological diversity, and healthy diets. That’s something to celebrate over a good bison burger on March 20, or any time.

 

 


Navigating Choppy Waters

Last year began with more than 600 bison ranchers, marketers and enthusiasts gathering in Denver, CO to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the National Bison Association. There was a lot to celebrate:

  • The bison business had enjoyed a decade-long run of steadily increasing market prices and producer profitability.
  • The cooperation between the National Bison Association, Tribal leaders and conservationists that led to designation of bison as the National Mammal in 2016 was continuing to grow and strengthen.
  • After a multi-year fight, the nation’s pet food regulators adopted new rules to prohibit water buffalo and water buffalo ingredients to be deceptively marketed simply as “buffalo.”
  • New social media apps developed through assistance from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and Risk Management Agency assisted producers to connect with consumers, and effectively manage the health of their herds.

Then March hit.

The bison business was not immune to the disruption that hit farmers and ranchers across the country. As restaurants shuttered, the market for the high-end cuts of bison meat disappeared. Even as consumers began to reach out to bison ranchers to directly source meat for their freezers, the closure of the large meat processing facilities created a bottleneck at smaller-scale plants that forced those ranchers to face a months-long delay in being able to schedule their animals for processing.

Just as bison turn into storms, so, too did the National Bison Association face the challenges created by COVID-19.

After being deemed ineligible for relief under the two initial USDA Coronavirus Assistance Programs, persistent efforts by the NBA and its individual rancher-members convinced USDA to reverse positions in September and include bison producers. Similarly, a concerted effort by the association and its members convinced the USDA to agree to purchase $17 million in bison meat for use in federal food and nutrition programs.

Those two efforts are helping to create a new foundation upon which the bison business can rebuild stability and profitability. The outlook is bright.

In a recent full-day planning session, the NBA Board of Directors identified that aggressive efforts to expand the market for bison meat and price products is a top priority for 2021. This is the perfect time to accelerate those efforts.

The COVID pandemic has accelerated consumer interest in eating nutritious, delicious foods that are produced in harmony with nature. Those consumers are rapidly discovering bison meat as the perfect protein.  That’s one reason that we’ve trademarked the term, Bison: Regenerative by Nature.

Yes, 2020 was a stormy year. Chances are that the choppy waters will continue into 2021. But the NBA enters this new year with the capacity to expand efforts to connect the public with deliciously healthy bison, while continuing its leadership in the public policy arena.

The 2021 Winter Conference and Gold Trophy Show and Sale, relocated to Rapid City because of the postponement of this year’s National Western Stock Show, will have a much different look and feel from the normal gathering of NBA members. Whether you come in person or participate virtually, there is still a lot to celebrate as we move into the new year.

 


The Little Industry That Could

Guest Blog

By Ken Klemm

 

I think I can, I think I can.  I think I can, I think I can.  I know I can, I know I can!  So goes the signature lines from the classic children’s storybook, The Little Engine That Could.

We in the bison industry are a LOT like that Little Engine.  We are ridiculously small compared to our ginormous peers.  For instance, each business day in the U.S. about 125,000 cattle are processed under USDA inspection, whereas the bison industry processes only about 220 head per day.  That’s .00176% as much as the beef business!

Our little industry, unlike the beef industry, has no mandatory check-off program that brings in tens of millions of dollars for marketing, yet has somehow managed to get our product into virtually every major grocery chain and thousands of small chains and independent stores in every State in the Union, including the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Yet, in the face of an economy-crushing pandemic that has decimated the restaurant industry, where the lions share of our high-end steak cuts were marketed, we have somehow managed to still process and market about the same number of animals on a monthly basis.  Sure, prices are much lower than pre-pandemic, but we are making it happen. Somehow, this Little Engine just keeps chugging along and making progress, whereas other industries of much, much larger size have pulled off to the side-tracks and are in need of major repairs.

Somehow our coalition of wildly disparate types of people, in starkly different climates and communities, have been able to make the Bison Industry into “The Little Industry That Could”.

Just like any motorhead would wonder what that Little Engine in the storybook had for a motor, so one might rightly wonder about what makes our bison industry the “Little Industry That Could”?

When you pop the hood on our industry, you’ll notice that, just like the bison we raise, we’re chockfull of determined, creative, tenacious, brave, fair-minded, cooperative, yet fiercely independent and just all-around generous people.  We want this industry to work and we are not afraid to go out, put the sweat into it, and make it happen.

So, when the hill gets a little steep, and the load is big, don’t underestimate “The Little Industry That Could”.  There are too many smart, hard-working folks under her hood to think that only the big, flashy, shiny industries are the only ones that will succeed.


Reading the COVID Assistance Tea Leaves

It’s been a little over a week since producers and organizations that were excluded from the initial round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program were able to file comments with USDA requesting that they be covered in the second round of assistance.

NBA Assistant Director Jim Matheson and I have fielded numerous emails and phone calls since then from members wondering if bison are going to be included.

The short answer: We don’t have a clue.

In federal policymaking, though, public comments often provide some “tea leaves” that indicate how the final rule will be issued. In this case there are 1,749 tea leaves, because that is the number of comments filed. So, I put on my reading glasses, poured a big cup of coffee, and began sorting through the on-line record of comments.

I didn’t read all 1,749 comments. Most comments listed on regulations.gov include a headline, summary, and the name of the person submitting. Others commenters simply uploaded a file without any indication of the contents. I skipped over those.

I was looking primarily for answers to two specific questions:

  1. What commodities weighed in with requests; and
  2. How do we stack up in the process?

The answer to question No. 1, is a lot. I counted requests covering at least 45 commodities. Some represented major sectors, including potatoes, poultry, eggs, cotton and hard red winter wheat. But there were also requests for assistance for microgreens, maple syrup and Brussels sprouts. There was one request for beefalo assistance and two for aid to snapping turtle producers. And, what the heck is mamey? I don’t have a clue, but a grower in Florida insists that it needs to be included.

If the USDA decides to assist each sector based on the comments received, mink farmers will get about 90% of the aid. Nearly everyone who’s even vaguely acquainted with a mink producer seems to have weighed in. One comment opened with “My granddad is a third generation mink rancher.” Another began with “Our neighbors are established mink farmers.”

Hemp growers came in a distant second with the number of comments.

Aquaculture and nursery interests filed a large batch of comments. USDA had specifically requested input from those two sectors, so both are likely to be covered in the next round.

Several cattle producers and organizations weighed in with comments saying, “The assistance provided in May wasn’t enough…we need more.”  

I located 16 comments from bison producers, and suspect that the total number was probably about 20-25. Several of the comments provided excellent financial detail to support the NBA’s formal request. Thanks to all of NBA members who took the time to submit your thoughts.

I also looked at a handful of comments filed by organizations representing producers. Mainstream commodity associations provided detailed information using USDA statistics, marketing order data, and other established market information. Organizations representing the “minor commodities” generally submitted requests without a lot of supporting data. The NBA’s comments contained significantly more detailed information and supporting documentation to support our request than did most others.

So, when I read the tea leaves, I saw….well…tea leaves.

The plethora of comments filed underscore the importance for NBA members to urge their Senators and Representatives to continue pushing Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to include bison in the next round of assistance. We issued an e-blast earlier this week with information on how to contact your elected officials. Please pull that up right now and help us to keep fighting.

Otherwise, the mink ranchers will get it all.

 

 


Turning on a Dime

One aspect of bison that never ceases to amaze me is their ability to turn on a dime.

A bison running full speed will plant a front hoof in the ground, spin, and run full speed in another direction. Mother Nature perfected that ability to equip them to escape threats when able, and to face danger head-on when necessary.

Mother Nature instilled some of that same ability into bison ranchers and marketers.  

At least, that’s what occurred to me on Monday as I listened to the opening day of our Week of Virtual Learning, the on-line webinars scheduled as a replacement for our cancelled Summer Conference.

We’ve been severely rattled by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic during the past three months. As noted in the comments that the National Bison Association submitted to USDA urging that bison producers be provided with access to federal support on par with our neighbors in the cattle business, bison ranchers, finishers and marketers alike have been hit hard since March. Live bison prices have dropped, scheduling animals for processing is a nightmare, the farmers’ markets opening this season are doing so on a limited basis, and agritourism…let’s not even get into that one.  

On Monday, though, six NBA member-marketers shared how they have pivoted during the past 90 days to face the market disruption head-on. Three commercial marketer panelists shared how they transitioned business to focus more on retail or direct-to-consumer markets when restaurants shut down in March. One — Western Buffalo Co.– even processed hogs for a brief time to weather the storm.

The three farm-direct marketers have initiated call-ahead ordering with curbside pickup to offset the loss of their farmers’ market business, and are expanding their on-line stores.  And all noted that customers are becoming more interested in knowing where food comes from, and how it was produced.

Growing interest in transparency and accountability is not an isolated phenomenon.

Carlotta Mast of New Hope Network and Nick McCoy of Whipstitch Capital unveiled results of new consumer research they conducted for the National Bison Association. That research indicates that the interwoven story of bison’s role in regenerating healthy ecosystems may resonate with our potential customers more than our longstanding emphasis on low-fat/high-iron meat content. 

I ended Monday’s session with a big smile on my face. Once again, unforeseen forces threaten our business and our ability to restore herds across North America. Yet, once again, we demonstrate the ability to firmly plant that hoof, pivot, and charge toward a sustainable future.


USDA Yardstick Can’t Measure Weight of COVID Impact on Bison

Suppose you wanted to buy a pen of calves but needed to know the weights.

“No problem,” the owner replies. “In fact, why don’t you weigh them yourself right now? Use this,” he adds, as he hands you a yardstick.

Ludicrous, right?

That’s not too far removed from the situation bison producers are facing as they attempt to use USDA’s rigid yardstick of mid-April prices vs. Mid-January prices to document the weight of COVID-19’s economic impact on our business.

In case you haven’t heard, USDA’s $16 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) unveiled last month solely directed benefits to producers of commodities in which sufficient market data existed to prove at least a five percent decline in prices between mid-January and mid-April.

Now, USDA is offering an additional $637 million in assistance to producers who weren’t covered in the original announcement, but only if those producers can demonstrate at least a five percent drop in the price they received for their “commodities” between mid-January and mid-April.

Bison are not a commodity. Most ranchers sell their calves once each year, in the period from November to March. The price being offered for calves right now is much lower than in January, but individual producers will not be able to document the impact until they sell the next crop of calves this fall. Can they qualify? Nope.

Bison finishers may be slightly better positioned to document the impact, but many don’t sell animals on a monthly basis either. If they don’t have mid-April sales to compare with mid-January, will they qualify? Nope.

Farm direct marketers comprise a significant percentage of overall bison producers. How the heck can a marketer document the impact from January vs. April if their primary outlet is a farmers’ market that is normally closed in January and unable to open this April? Or, if they have an agritourism operation that operates primarily from spring through fall? Will USDA accept the loss in value of inventory, or the lack of paying visitors? Nope.

We’re not alone. Producers of many other agricultural products have been locked out because USDA’s three-month yardstick can’t measure the impact they are experiencing.

This week, House Agriculture Committee Chair U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) and three subcommittee chairs sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue expressing serious concern over the methodology USDA has utilized to establish eligibility for CFAP assistance.

The committee chairs wrote, “It remains unclear how producers of products that are not sold in cash markets with publicly reported prices (e.g., commodities that sell primarily to retail, farmers’ markets, fast food, and restaurant markets) and suffered significant market losses will meet the price data requirements of the CFAP Notice of Funding Availability. Impacted sectors include domestic aquaculture, bison, poultry, cut flowers, nursery products, and potatoes.” (Emphasis added.)

The letter notes that even for those commodities deemed eligible for assistance, many producers’ marketing programs do not fit neatly into the January-April requirement.

“USDA chose to cover livestock sales between January 15th and April 15th when COVID-19-related livestock market declines did not begin until February 2020 and some of the lowest market prices persisted well beyond April 15th, effectively arbitrarily picking winners and losers based solely on when livestock was sold without regard to actual market conditions,” they wrote.

The National Bison Association is working diligently to document COVID’s impact on our business using the USDA’s rigid yardstick. But until the agency decides to provide us with something closer to a scale, that yardstick will seem only like a rap on the knuckles.


What’s In Your Burger?

Plant-based protein.

It’s all the rage in the world of food these days.

 News media business pages are filled with stories of plant-based protein startups gaining shelf space in grocery stores. Old-line meat companies are rolling out new lines of “plant-based” protein. A legion of exhibitors at the Natural Products Expo West show in Anaheim, CA in March touted their “plant-based protein” offerings with claims of better nutrition and environmental benefits.     

So, just what is “plant-based protein?”

The basic definition is a high-protein food made exclusively from plants. That is a very accurate definition of bison meat. In fact, if we could list an “ingredient panel” on a package of bison meat, it would probably read, “grass, grain, minerals.”

Let’s compare that to one of the new upstarts: Impossible Burger. I don’t have enough space here to go through all 21 ingredients on their list, 14 of which are patented as intellectual property. So, I focused in on a few:

  • Soy leghemoglobin – This ingredient has been genetically engineered by inserting the DNA of GMO soy leghemoglobin into yeast and fermenting it into something that resembles the blood in real meat.  
  • Zinc gluconate – This is “the zinc salt of gluconic acid, and is an ionic compound consisting of two anions of gluconate for each zinc cation.” Yeah, I don’t understand that one either, but it sure doesn’t sound like plants are involved. In all fairness, it’s commonly used in dietary supplements, usually with the warning, “consult physician before use.”

Here’s my favorite:

  • Methylcellulose– The first description that popped up when I Googled this one describes it as “a bulk-forming laxative that increases the amount of water in your stools to help make them softer and easier to pass.”

Okay, so these plant-based proteins aren’t quite as simple as touted, but they certainly have nutritional benefit…right? 

Not exactly.  A 100-gram serving of Impossible Burger provides 212 calories, 13 grams of fat and 17 grams of protein, while a similar serving of Beyond Meat delivers 239 calories, 15 grams of fat and 24 grams of protein. Meanwhile, the nutritional panel on a leading ground bison brand lists 190 calories, 11 grams of fat and 23 grams of protein. When it comes to sodium, Impossible Burger has 327 milligrams, Beyond Meat has 513 milligrams, and bison has 60 milligrams. That makes sense. Salt always makes bland food more palatable, even as it clogs arteries.

Then, there’s the claim of environmental benefits. Seriously?  Nearly 40 percent of North America’s ecosystem—the grasslands—evolved under continuous interaction with bison and other grazing animals. Bison sculpted the landscape, creating an ecosystem with healthy soils that sequester carbon and are lush with a diversity of plant and animal life.

The University of California at Davis last year published a study entitled Grasslands More Resilient Carbon Sink than Forests. The study concluded, “(G)rasslands store more carbon than forests because they are impacted less by droughts and wildfires. This doesn’t even include the potential benefits of good land management to help boost soil health and increase carbon stocks in rangelands.”

I doubt that soy leghemoglobin, zinc gluconate, or methylcellulose can effectively manage those grasslands as effectively as bison and other grazers. 

Finally, there’s the claim of taste. Really? Not even close. Just click on the recipes found elsewhere on this website. Deliciously healthy bison remains unmatched in flavor, nutrition and environmental benefits.

That’s why bison can rightfully claim to be Nature’s Original Plant-Based Protein.