Let’s Keep the Romance in the Pasture

Time for a pop quiz, folks.

There are roughly nine million Holstein dairy cattle in the United States.

The bison population in the U.S. stands at about 200,000 animals, having rebounded from the time about 130 years ago when only about 700 were left alive.

Here’s the question: Which species has more genetic diversity?

Need a minute? … Okay, time’s up.

The answer: Bison have Holsteins beat in terms of genetic diversity. By…a…lot. Not even close.

NBA International Director Robert Johnson sent me an article a couple of weeks ago from Scientific American that discusses how the use of artificial insemination in the dairy industry has led to the collapse of genetic diversity in Holsteins. As a handful of bulls in the 1960’s demonstrated their ability to sire dams that would produce high volumes of milk with less feed, dairy producers everywhere began chasing the straws of semen from those bulls to increase the profitability of their herds.

In 1965, before AI was widely utilized on dairy farms, the average milk cow produced 8,305 lbs. of milk (about 965 gallons) every year. Last year, the average dairy cow in the United States pumped out 22,293 lbs., or about 2,600 gallons, of milk. That’s roughly a 270% increase over the past half century. Impressive indeed.

But look at today’s dairy cow, and you’ll hardly see a picture of robust health. Nature never intended a dairy cow to produce 22,293 lbs. of milk every year, or to carry that weight around in a bag under her belly.

When I cut my teeth in agriculture in the late 1970’s, a good dairy cow could be expected to live a little more than a decade, with 9 or more years of milk production. Today, dairy cows are typically considered spent after about three years of milk production. The downer cow scandal at a slaughter plant a few years ago was caused by spent dairy cows so worn out that they simply could not stand up.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania began to examine the bloodlines of the nation’s dairy herd a few years ago. Incredibly, they found that more than 99 percent of the males in the national herd can be traced back to two bulls. In other words, there are only two distinct Y chromosomes in the vast majority of cattle in the dairy industry.

AI isn’t the sole cause of this problem. Better nutrition in feed rations and animal management practices have certainly played a role in increased milk production as well. But the widespread use of AI to create more food production is also contributing to a troubling reduction in the genetic diversity in dairy animals, and many other livestock species.

I’m not dwelling on this because I want to denigrate our neighbors in the dairy business. I want to make sure we protect the genetic diversity of our herds.

We’re now in the middle of the rut throughout most of the bison business. It’s the time of year when a lot of people tend to ask me, “Wouldn’t it be easier and more efficient to use AI in bison?”

If we want to turn our herds into commoditized meat wagons, the answer is “yes”. If we want to maintain all of the elements of this magnificent animal that we call The Bison Advantage, the answer is a resounding “No”.

The track record of the dairy industry should redouble our commitment as bison producers to allow romance to happen in the pastures. After all, Mother Nature usually does know best.


Let’s Process This for a Minute

Perhaps you saw this in the news a couple of weeks ago: New evidence links ultra-processed foods with a range of health risks.

When I saw variations of this headline spill in through my news feeds, I immediately did my 1980’s best Valley Girl imitation…”Like, duh.” I assume that the lead researcher in this study was none other than Dr. Obvious.

What made me really scratch my head, though, was that most of these articles were accompanied by a photo of a cheeseburger deluxe with French fries.

Cheeseburger and French fries ultra-processed? Let’s break this down.

The cheeseburger consisted of one patty made from 100 percent meat (preferably bison) which consists of ground trimmings. Period.

The cheese goes through a bit more processing, but likely consists of milk, whey, yeast and salt. Then, there’s the lettuce, tomatoes, pickle and onion which are…well…lettuce tomatoes, pickle and onion.

The French fries? Sliced, fried potatoes. Agreed; they aren’t the epitome of health food, but deep frying doesn’t qualify as ultra-processed.

The bun may be considered highly processed, but I generally eat my bison burgers without a bun.

The authors apparently had difficulties identifying a specific product that would qualify as highly processed, so I am happy to help them out.

The best place to determine ultra-processed is to look at the ingredient panel for various types of food. Here’s one ingredient panel that caught my eye:

Water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, natural flavors, 2% or less of: leghemoglobin (heme protein), yeast extract, salt, soy protein isolate, konjac gum, xanthan Gum, thiamin (vitamin B1), zinc, niacin, vitamin B6, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12.

Wait: That’s the ingredient panel for Impossible Burger®, the lab-created concoction being touted as the healthy, environmentally friendly alternative to meat. Not only is it ultra-processed, but the lab-created heme protein certainly qualifies as genetically modified, and the soy protein isolate is sourced from GMO soybeans.

How about this ingredient panel?

Pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavors, gum arabic, sunflower oil, salt, succinic acid, acetic acid, non-GMO modified food starch, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, beet juice extract (for color), ascorbic acid (to maintain color), annatto extract (for color), citrus fruit extract (to maintain quality), vegetable glycerin.

That’s the ingredient panel for the Beyond Burger®, another lab-created meat alternative. Making any food from cellulose from bamboo, refined coconut oil, and methylcellulose certainly qualifies that product as ultra-processed.

Perhaps the graphic accompanying the article wasn’t in error. Perhaps the authors just forgot to explain that the ultra-processed item in the picture was one of those laboratory-created burger “alternatives.”


A Head Above the Capitol Herd

Almost every day is fun when you have the privilege of representing bison ranchers from across the United States.

Yesterday was one that I’ll remember for a long, long time.

I was joined by NBA members Mortz Espy of South Dakota and Donnis Baggett of Texas, along with South Dakota taxidermist Gary English as we stood with U.S. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota to celebrate the installation of a bison head mount in the Senator’s Majority Whip office in the U.S. Capitol.

This isn’t the only bison head mount on Capitol Hill, mind you.

 Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) has had a head mount in his office since he first came to Washington, D.C.  Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) has one in his office, as does U.S. Rep. Carol Miller (R-WV) (an NBA member and bison producer, by the way). A few years back, the members of the Kansas Buffalo Association loaned U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) a head mount to put in his office on Capitol Hill. Sen. Moran was quick to point out to his colleagues that his bison head mount was the biggest of the Capitol “herd.”

Those head mounts are all in offices in buildings surrounding the U.S. Capitol.

Earlier this year, I visited with a member of Sen. Thune’s staff with whom I’ve worked for many years. We discussed that, now that the Senator is the Majority Whip in the U.S.  Senate, he has an office just off of the Senate floor in the U.S. Capitol. What would be more appropriate in that office than a head mount of our National Mammal?

 Congressional rules strictly prohibit anyone from providing anything of this stature as a gift to a Senator. So, we put the word out to see if any of our members would be willing to loan a head mount to the Senator to display in his Capitol Office.

 And, as often happens, Sandy and Jacki Limpert of Slim Buttes Buffalo Ranch in South Dakota generously stepped forward. Jacki said that they were having a large old bull mounted, and would be happy to loan it to the Senator to display in his Capitol Office.

Large is an understatement. Gary English of Golden Hills Taxidermy told me, “I have probably created about 2,000 bison mounts throughout my career, and this one is as big as it gets.”

English put his best skills to work. Last week, he shipped the mount to the home of one of Senator Thune’s staff members, who then hauled it to the Capitol in the back of her large SUV. Earlier this morning, English worked with the Capitol construction staff to make sure that the mount was appropriately—and securely—mounted on the wall in the Senator’s outer office. A few hours later, we celebrated the installation with a brief ceremony.

 The Senator even good naturedly donned a pair of Bison Hump Day glasses to commemorate the event (it was Wednesday, after all).

Oh, and we had to break the news to Sen. Moran’s office that there was a new, larger herd bull on Capitol Hill.

During a time of serious debates and contentious arguments in Washington, D.C., this was a day of smiles and celebrations…a day I’ll remember for a long, long time.


Let’s ‘Unpack’ The Carcass Price Story

This is the best time of year to be in bison business.

Northern state ranchers are finally feeling the warming rays of spring sun after a long, cold winter. Across most of the country new red calves are dotting greening pastures.

It’s a season of anticipation and expectation.

This spring, though, there’s a bit of angst that’s been unfamiliar in our business for the past decade. For the first time in the past 15 years, the finished bison market took a sharp drop since December. While our prices are still the envy of any other livestock sector, any drop tends to make ranchers a bit nervous.

And, like all other sectors of agriculture, ranchers are looking for reasons for the drop.

I recently received a letter from one new member who had transitioned into bison from a long career in the cattle business. He noted with concern that the fed bison market had dropped but that retail prices don’t seem to be budging. He wondered if this was a sign that—like the cattle industry– the “big packers” were somehow responsible for the drop, and were busy pocketing some extra cash.

In a sense, he’s right. The “big packers” are playing a role. But, not in the way he suspects.

As bison meat grew in popularity through the years, we successfully expanded demand for all parts of the carcass. Restaurants across the country now feature bison short ribs, fajitas, and brisket. People are cooking more bison burgers, and chili for their families. Carcass utilization has thankfully extended to the products that families feed their companion animals as we

An expanding number of pet food brands have started to include bison as a key ingredient in their premium products. And, with a relatively small number of bison processed each year, the availability of those ingredients is limited.

A few years ago, one company that specializes in buying bison byproducts from the packers, and then processing that material into ingredients for the pet food industry made a major move to corner the market on those byproducts. In short, that company offered our processors an extremely high—and unexpected—price for those ingredients.

Our “big packers” could have pocketed much of those pet food premiums. Instead, they passed that money back to the producers in the form of higher carcass prices. According to some processors, those premiums have added as much as $300 to the carcass value.

Here’s where it gets sticky.

The same company that locked up bison pet food ingredients is also a major importer of water buffalo ingredients being sold and labeled simply as “buffalo.” After the National Bison Association mounted a challenge to improperly labeled water buffalo, that company has decided to significantly lower the money it pays for bison byproducts.

Some have said that we should have turned our head and ignored the issue of mislabeled water buffalo as long as that company was willing to pay strong premiums for bison ingredients.

After spending years of building a relationship with our customers based upon honesty, transparency and integrity, is it in the best interest of our business to be a party to mislabeling in the marketplace?

Fortunately, many pet food brands are committed to honestly labeling their products. And, there are other companies that supply ingredients into the pet food business. Many bison processors are already working with those other companies.

The National Bison Association has launched a new on-line page entitled “Sniffing Out the Best Brands for Bison-Loving Pets” That page—which identifies the best brands, along with some to avoid—is being promoted heavily through social media, traditional media, and other avenues that reach “pet parents” across the country.

 The fundamental demand for all parts of the bison carcass remain strong. The he NBA is working with our commercial marketers to develop new areas of consumer outreach to continue to build our market demand in retail stores, restaurants, and the pet products sector.

We face an unanticipated challenge as we move into the months ahead, but there’s ample reason to smile as we welcome the new crop of calves this spring.


Amazing…But Not Exotic

I’ve pounded the drum continuously over the past few months to call out the need for  truth in labeling when it comes to companies using the term “buffalo” to deceive customers into believing that water buffalo meat and pet food ingredients are actually bison.

But that’s only one example of how our business must deal with misused and convoluted terminology.

Take, for example, the term exotic species.

Encyclopedia.com defines exotic species as “alien species, invasive species, non-indigenous species, and bioinvaders, are species of plants or animals that are growing in a nonnative environment. Alien species have been moved by humans to areas outside of their native ranges. Once transported, they become removed from the predators, parasites, and diseases that kept them in balance in their native environments. As a result of the loss of these controls, they often become pests in the areas into which they are introduced.”

Based on this definition, it should be easy to make a list of exotic species of livestock in North America. Hmm…let’s see; cattle, pigs, chickens…that would make a good start.

That’s not the way it works. Regulations within USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) classify bison as an exotic species. Non-exotic: cattle, pigs and chickens. At least the FDA has the courtesy of defining bison as a “minor species” when it comes to regulations regarding veterinary materials.

The exotic species classification generally arises as a point of discussion when it comes to the issue of having to pay for USDA inspection. But it also creates barriers on how USDA  approaches product label approval, use of meat curing products and other issues.

I’m not suggesting that we petition USDA to re-classify bison as a non-exotic (amenable) species. It’s not in our best interest to fall under all of the regulations that govern beef, pork and the other commodity livestock sectors.

But perhaps we ought to visit with our friends in the elk and deer associations about steps needed within the regulatory system to support—rather than stymie—the producers and marketers who raise these indigenous animals.


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.


Bison Build Bridges with Urban Students


The agricultural community has long been concerned about the lack of understanding or concern from their city cousins. A common refrain among agricultural producers and others in Rural America is that “city people just don’t care about us.”

The National Bison Association’s recent Junior Judging competition at the National Western Stock Show provided some refreshing evidence that perhaps—just perhaps—this stereotype isn’t accurate.

Junior Judging is a competition in which students compete to determine which animals have the best body conformation that will result in top quality meat production. These types of judging events have long been a staple for FFA and 4-H students honing their skills in preparation for a career in livestock production. Selecting the right animals is the cornerstone of building a successful ranching enterprise.

A few years back, the National Bison Association launched a junior judging competition during its Gold Trophy Show at the National Western Stock Show to provide those students with better skills if they were considering a future in bison production.  

Since its founding, FFA students from largely rural areas competed for prizes and scholarship money provided by the National Buffalo Foundation, the Rocky Mountain Buffalo Association, and Rocky Mountain Natural Meats.

This year, those rural students were joined by a contingent from the Jefferson County, Colorado 4-H program. Jefferson County is a suburban area on the fringes of Denver, where housing developments and office parks are gobbling up most of the remaining agricultural acreage.  Perhaps the most notable herd of bison in Jefferson County is one owned by the City and County of Denver along Interstate 70.

Yet, here were students from these suburban schools walking alongside their rural counterparts, clutching notebooks, and peering into the pens to assess the qualities of the bison selected for judging.  They took detailed notes at the pens, and then stood before a panel of bison professionals to state their reasons on how they scored the animals. These students were as serious about their efforts as were those youth who have spent their entire lives around livestock.

And, one of the Jefferson County Teams even captured an award at the competition.

The experience was captured by a videographer with the Jefferson County School District, wand has been posted on YouTube here:  

Watching these young people from Jefferson County relate their inaugural experience in bison judging illustrates that the chasm between youth in rural and urban America isn’t nearly as vast as some would have us believe.

 


Hybrid Vigor? Look Somewhere Else, Please

Ever have one on those moments when you read an article that makes you think: “What the ******* are they talking about????”

Yeah, I had one of those moments this week.

The article, published in a national political news website, was entitled FDA Doubles Down on Failed Biotech Regulation.

There were a number of items I took exception to in the article, but what made me choke on my coffee was the following statement extolling one of the “proven” benefits of genetic modification:

“A relatively recent (20th century) new food animal, the “beefalo,” a cow–bison (buffalo) hybrid, combines the superior hardiness, foraging ability, calving ease, and low-fat meat of the bison with the fertility, milking ability, and convenient handling of the cow.”

Superior hardiness? Foraging ability? Fertility? Convenient handling? What the ******* are they talking about????

Those of us in the bison business have been dealing with the controversy surrounding cattle genetics in our animals for a long time. Yes, the handful of ranchers who helped save bison from extinction more than a century ago were looking for a way to improve the hardiness of the European beef cattle they were introducing into the native grasslands of North America.

Then, they noticed that the bison stragglers that they had gathered up survived the Great Blizzard of 1888 that decimated their cattle herds. They began to selectively crossbreed their cattle with some of those bison to create a winter-hardy cattalo.

That’s what they wanted. What they got instead was a hybrid with first-generation sterile bulls, cows with high calf losses, and overall general health problems. Hardly a testimony to hybrid vigor.

The beefalo movement is a more modern attempt at that crossbreeding. Beefalo is a specific cross of 3/8 bison and 5/8 beef cow.

I’ll let the beefalo folks defend the “superior” traits of their animals. But, in terms of consumer acceptance, I’ll just ask: Have the authors of this article looked for beefalo meat in a local supermarket lately?

Prompted by the cattle gene introgression controversy, many modern ranchers are conducting DNA testing on their herds and culling animals with any significant cattle gene introgression. They aren’t doing it just for PR purposes. They’ve found that bison without cattle genes are more efficient grazers and perform better on the variety of grasses and forbs across the North American ecosystem.

The authors of the article are correct in asserting that mankind has been manipulating genetics in plants and animals for centuries to create new varieties with higher yields and greater vigor. I’ll accept that fact.

But the authors also need to accept the fact that sometimes Mother Nature does such a good job in perfecting a species of animal that the best thing we can do as managers is to leave well enough alone.