Water Buffalo in Bison Clothing is Deceptive by any Measure

Some three decades ago, the small cluster of bison ranchers—or “buffalo ranchers” as many called themselves—sprinkled around the United States and Canada were privy to one of the best-kept secrets in the American food marketplace. That secret: The animals under their care produced an absolutely delicious, healthy meat.

They were convinced that, once this secret was revealed, shoppers would rush to their doorsteps clamoring for bison meat. They expanded their herds, bought more land, and built new meat processing plants to prepare for that demand.

Then, they waited. And waited.

They waited right until the bison market melted down because unsold bison meat filled the freezers. The public doesn’t magically discover something as great as deliciously healthy bison meat. Introducing the great qualities of bison to the public was going to involve a lot of hard work.

The National Bison Association, bison meat marketers, regional associations, and individual ranchers rolled up their shirtsleeves and got to work. 

The National Bison Association began promoting the flavor, nutritional and environmentally friendly advantages of bison meat. Commercial bison marketers began courting natural food retail chains and restaurants to add bison meat to their offerings. Media mogul-turned bison rancher Ted Turner teamed up with famed restaurateur George McKerrow to launch Ted’s Montana Grill, a new dining concept featuring a selection of quality bison offerings.  Small gate-to-plate ranchers enticed customers with bison meat samples on toothpicks handed out at farmers’ markets and craft fairs across the country.

 Slowly, their perseverance began to pay off as a growing segment of the American public embraced bison.

Since 2011, bison ranchers and marketers of all sizes have enjoyed profitability and stability. That success is built upon a commitment to provide our customers with high quality meat from responsibly raised herds.

Now, that trust is being threatened by a sneak attack from imported water buffalo.

You read that right: water buffalo.

In recent weeks, some retail outlets have started featuring packages of ground meat labeled simply as “Wild Buffalo – Free Range.” The U.S. based distributor of this product is a subsidiary of an Australian meat company.

No doubt about it, these products are being packaged and marketed to mislead customers into believing they are buying North American-raised bison meat.

After all, Americans have been calling our animals buffalo for well over 300 years. Buffalo Soldiers, the Buffalo Nickel, and Buffalo Bill Cody are all examples of the deeply embedded association Americans have with that word used to describe bison.

Water buffalo importers are trying to sneak their products into the market by exploiting that image. It has to be stopped, NOW.

The National Bison Association has launched an on-line petition to gather support from ranchers and shoppers alike to push the USDA and FDA to change the food labeling rules to require that any water buffalo products or ingredients sold in the food marketplace be required to be listed as “water buffalo,” and not just as “buffalo.” To sign that petition, simply go to this link, and add your name.

Three years ago, the National Bison Association asked the USDA Food Safety and Inspections Service and the FDA to update the food labeling policy rules to require that language. To date nothing has been done, so a delegation of bison ranchers is headed to Washington, D.C. in September to meet with top officials of both agencies.

This isn’t the first time that water buffalo has come into our marketplace dressed in bison clothing. Over the past couple of years, some pet food products have been using water buffalo, simply labeled as “buffalo,” in products that are labeled “High Prairie Formula,” or “Backwoods Recipe.” Fortunately, the officials that regulate pet food are hard at work coming up with an approach to require more accurate labeling.

It’s time that our federal agencies require the same for human food products. Please sign our petition today. And, for more information on this issue, click here for the NBA report on water buffalo in the U.S. marketplace.


Help Us Stop Deceptive Labeling in Pet Products

The National Bison Association needs your help in correcting the existing pet food labeling loopholes that allows companies to deceive their customers into believing that the water buffalo in their products is actually North American bison.

The growing demand for bison ingredients in pet products is adding important value to the carcass price paid to producers and is vital in helping us “market the whole animal.” However, several companies are using water buffalo, and are simply labeling the ingredient as buffalo. One company uses water buffalo as their primary ingredient, then adds three percent bison and markets their product as “Made with Roasted Bison.” 

The Ingredients Definition Committee of the American Association of Feed Control Officials will be discussing this issue at the AAFCO annual meeting July 30 – Aug. 1. The model regulations established by AAFCO serve as the basis for state and federal regulators in enforcing pet food products. 

Listed below is the contact information for all of the members of the AAFCO Ingredients Definition Committee. If one or more of those officials are from your state, please contact them immediately. 

Here’s what to include:

  • One sentence introducing yourself and your leadership position in the bison business.
  • A short statement noting that the pet food industry is increasingly seeking bison ingredients for their treats and food products.
  • Because of the tight supply of bison ingredients, some companies are using water buffalo, and simply listing it as “buffalo.”
  • In the United States, the overwhelming majority of citizens interpret the word “buffalo” to mean bison.
  • Pet food ingredient definitions should assure that the pet food customer is not subject to labeling terms that are deceptive or misleading.

Here is the full list of Committee members:

CALIFORNIA

Kent Kitade
PO Box 22101
Sacramento, CA 95822-0101
United States
916-207-0928 (Phone)
kentkitade@gmail.com

 

IDAHO

Nathan Price
Ag. Progrm Specialist
Idaho State Department of Agriculture
PO Box 790
Boise, ID 83701
United States
(208) 332-8624 (Phone)
Nathan.Price@ISDA.idaho.gov

 

INDIANA

Brett Groves
Chief Inspector/Auditor
Office of Indiana State Chemist
175 S University St
Purdue University
West Lafayette, IN 47907-2063
United States
(765) 494-1552 (Phone)
(765) 494-4331 (FAX)
grovesb@purdue.edu
www.isco.purdue.edu

 

KANSAS

Ken Bowers
Public Service Ad II
Kansas Department of Agricultural
Dairy and Seed Safety
1320 Research Park Dr.
Manhattan, KS 66502
United States
(785) 564-6685 (Phone)
(785) 862-2460 (FAX)
ken.bowers@ks.gov
www.ksda.gov

 

KENTUCKY

Alan Harrison
Director, Feed and Milk Programs
University of Kentucky
Division of Regulatory Services
Room 103, Regulatory Services Building
Lexington, KY 40546-0275
United States
(859) 257-5887 (Phone)
alan.harrison@uky.edu

 

LOUISIANNA

Mark LeBlanc
Director, Ag Chemistry
LSU AgCenter/LDAF
Department of Ag. Chemistry
Room 102 Ag. Chemistry Building
LSU Highland Road
Baton Rouge, LA 70803-0001
United States
(225) 342-5812 (Phone)
(225) 237-5559 (FAX)
mark_l@ldaf.state.la.us
www.ldaf.state.la.us

 

 

MINNESOTA

Brett Boswell**
Minnesota Department of Agriculture
Dairy and Food Inspection Division
625 Robert Street North
Saint Paul, MN 55155-2538
United States
(651) 201-6212 (Phone)
brett.boswell@state.mn.us

 

** Brett is chairing the discussion group on this issue. Any communication to him should thank him for his work to bring this to the attention of AAFCO.

 

Dan King
Compliance Officer
Minnesota Department of Agriculture
Dairy and Food Inspection Division
625 Robert Street North
Saint Paul, MN 55155-2538
United States
(651) 201-6003 (Phone)
(651) 201-6119 (FAX)
Daniel.King@state.mn.us

 

MISSOURI

Stan Cook
Program Administrator
Missouri Department of Agriculture
Bureau of Feed, Seed, & Treated Timber 
Plant Industries Division
115 Constitution Dr.
Jefferson City, MO 65102-0630
United States
(573) 751-5501 (Phone)
(573) 751-5500 (FAX)
stan.cook@mda.mo.gov
http://mda.mo.gov

 

Jacob Fleig
Program Coordinator
Missouri Department of Agriculture
Bureau of Feed and Seed
Plant Industries Division
P.O. Box 630
Jefferson City, MO 65102-0630
United States
573-526-4677 (Phone)
jacob.fleig@mda.mo.gov

 

MONTANA

Bob Church
Field Operations Manager
Montana Department of Agriculture
PO Box 200201
Helena, MT 59620-0201
United States
(406) 444-5410 (Phone)
(406) 444-9466 (FAX)
bchurch@mt.gov

 

NEBRASKA

Steve Gramlich
Program Manager
Nebraska Department of Agriculture
Po Box 94787
Lincoln, NE 68509-4787
United States
(402) 471-6845 (Phone)
(402) 471-6892 (FAX)
steve.gramlich@nebraska.gov

 

NORTH CAROLINA

George Ferguson
Feed Administrator
North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services
Food & Drug Protection Division
NC Animal Feed Program
1070 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-1070
United States
(919) 733-7366 (Phone)
george.ferguson@ncagr.gov

 

NORTH DAKOTA

Dave Phillips
Feed Specialist
North Dakota Department of Agriculture
600 E Boulevard Ave Dept 602
Livestock Development Division
Bismarck, ND 58505-0020
United States
(701) 328-1501 (Phone)
(701) 328-4567 (FAX)
davephillips@nd.gov
www.nd.gov/ndda

 

 

OREGON

Richard Ten Eyck**
Feed Safety Specialist
Oregon Department of Agriculture
635 Capitol St NE Ste 100
Feed Program
Salem, OR 97301-2568
United States
503-986-4691 (Phone)
330-247-2872 (FAX)
rteneyck@oda.state.or.us
http://www.oregon.gov/oda/ahid/index.shtml

 

** Richard is chair of the Ingredients Definitions Committee.

 

PENNSYLVANIA

Erin Bubb
Chief, Division of Agronomic & Regional Services
Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
Division of Agronomic and Regional Svc
Bureau of Plant Industry
2301 N Cameron St
Harrisburg, PA 17110-9408
United States
(717) 772-5215 (Phone)
(717) 783-3275 (FAX)
ebubb@pa.gov
www.agriculture.state.pa.us

 

David Dressler
Agronomic Program Specialist
Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
Division of Agronomic and Regional Svc
Bureau of Plant Industry
2301 N. Cameron Street
Harrisburg, PA 17110-9408
United States
(717) 772-5216 (Phone)
davdressle@pa.govDavid Dressler 
Harrisburg, PA

 

TEXAS

James Embry
Office of the Texas State Chemist
PO Box 3160
Texas A&M University System
College Station, TX 77841-3160
United States
(936) 245-9949 (Phone)
jae@otsc.tamu.edu

 

 

 

WASHINGTON

 

Ali Kashani
Program Manager
Washington State Department of Agriculture
Food Safety and Consumer Svcs. Division
P.O. Box 42560
Olympia, WA 98504-2589
United States
(360) 902-2028 (Phone)
(360) 902-2078 (FAX)
akashani@agr.wa.gov
www.agr.wa.gov

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canadian Members

Jennifer Kormos
Canadian Food Inspection Agency
59 Camelot Drive
Ottawa, ON Canada
(613) 773-7535 (Phone)
(613) 773-7565 (FAX)
Jennifer.Kormos@inspection.gc.ca

 

Laura Scott
Coordinator, Regulatory Development for Animal Feed Division
Canadian Food Inspection Agency
Policy and Programs Branch 
59 Camelot Drive
Ottawa, ON K1A 0Y9
Canada
613-773-7527 (Phone)
laura.scott@inspection.gc.ca

 

 FDA Committee Members

Mika Alewynse
Team Leader
FDA/Office of Foods (OF)/Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM)
7519 Standish Place, HFV-228
Nutrition and Labeling Team
CVM/OSC/DAF
Rockville, MD 20855-2792
United States
240 402 5843 (Phone)
(240) 453-6882 (FAX)
mika.alewynse@fda.hhs.gov

 

Charlotte Conway
Animal Scientist
FDA
7519 Standish Place, HFV 228
Derwood, MD 20855-7707
United States
(240) 402-6768 (Phone)
(240) 453-6882 (FAX)
charlotte.conway@fda.hhs.gov

 

Shannon Jordre
Consumer Safety Officer
FDA/Office of Foods (OF)/Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM)
7519 Standish Pl
Cvm/Osc/Dc, Hfv-232
Rockville, MD 20855-2792
United States
240-402-5607 (Phone)
(240) 276-9241 (FAX)
shannon.jordre@fda.hhs.gov

 

Becky Muir
FDA/Office of Foods (OF)/Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM)
7519 Standish Pl
Rockville, MD 20855-2792
United States
240-276-8693 (Phone)
becky.muir@fda.hhs.gov

 

 


Bison Producers Care: From Start to Finish

In today’s hyper-polarized world, complex issues often get lumped into simple, black-and-white perspectives. It’s either good, or it’s bad, with nothing in-between.

So it is with the finishing protocols used for bison. In recent years, intense debate has emerged over livestock finishing methods. Most of that debate has centered on cattle, but it’s starting to spill over into the world of bison as well.

Unfortunately, the debate has devolved into two simple, stark descriptions. Many in the public today have the impression that livestock are either crammed into feedlots and stuffed with grain or are produced exclusively on wide-open pastures. The phrases “grain-fed” versus “grass-fed” have become shorthand for those viewpoints.

It’s not that simple. 

Animals can be fed a grass-fed diet while in corrals or finishing facilities. Corn is a member of the grass family, so a grass-fed animal can graze in a field of green corn plants. The assumption that “grain-fed” includes a diet solely of corn is misleading because nearly all feed rations include a mixture of grains, including barley, oats, or wheat, along with alfalfa and other roughage.

The equation is more complicated with bison because we are still learning about this animal under our care.

For a start, the biology and undomesticated nature of bison make feeding and finishing bison more difficult than for most other ruminants. We also know that Mother Nature did a great job in perfecting this animal over thousands of years, so we need to be very careful in how we intervene.

When our business sprouted a few decades ago, producers largely applied cattle industry feeding practices to finish their animals. Through the years, we learned that bison are unique, and that—while there are some similarities to cattle—there are many important differences.

Today, finishing practices utilized by bison producers are as varied as the producers who utilize them.  Decisions on finishing protocols are driven by a myriad of factors, including animal health, biological rhythms, consumer expectations, available land mass, species of available grasses and forage, climate, and more. Many ranchers throughout our industry are experimenting with new practices, and then sharing their knowledge with fellow bison producers.

The National Bison Association released a report this week entitled “Different Methods, Many Reasons”. That white paper delves into the complexity of this issue, and attempts to answer the questions that journalists, policymakers and others are asking regarding why ranchers finish bison under differing methods. It’s available for download at: https://bisoncentral.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/DifferentMethodsManyReasons_5_2018.pdf

Nearly a century ago, the famed journalist H.L. Menken wrote, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

The world has gotten much more complex in the years since Menken penned those words. Yet, the desire for clear, simple (and wrong) answers perseveres.

Building healthy herds, maintaining vibrant pastures, and producing a delicious, nutritious product is a complex process. Responsible bison ranchers know there is no clear, simple answer. The best answer will always be a work in progress. 

That work continues.


It’s the Holiday Season in Bison Country

If red and green are the traditional colors of Christmastime, it certainly looks like the holiday season across much of bison country this month.

At the ranch where our herd grazes in eastern Colorado, and on farms and ranches across the country, brand new red-calves are bounding across rapidly greening grasslands.

It’s a season of celebration and optimism.

In Colorado, the wet snows forgot to come around last winter, but several days of spring rain have provided an explosion of grasses that supply the mothers with rich nutrition needed for their suckling calves. The herd came through winter in good shape. The new life among the herd, and in the soil, can’t help but warm the outlook for the coming months.

There is always a sense of the reality of the business of ranching as well.

Come late fall, ranchers will bring in the herd for annual roundup. At that time, some of the calves will be held back to build herds, while others will be destined to end up in the retail meat case or on a restaurant menu.

It’s a reality of the ranching business. Not the most pleasant reality, but a reality nonetheless.

Part of that reality is basic economics. Without the demand from customers, there’s no business reason to raise the animals.  We can’t afford to keep 200 pets.

But there is another reason. With apologies to the Lion King, it’s the circle of life.

Bison and other grazers are prey animals. Their role in the evolution of the ecosystem is based largely on their ability to “farm” the native grasslands around the world. Their natural grazing habits, their hoof action on the soil, and the nutrients from their manure and urine keep the grasslands healthy, and help those grasslands serve as a giant carbon trap. The digestive systems of those grazing animals have the capability to convert the cellulose in grass—which is nutritionally worthless to us—into nutritionally-rich protein that is valuable to us.

The basic social behavior of these ruminant animals is based around their role as a prey species. And humans have long been the keystone predator.

In today’s ranching world, we know that–without the harvest–there’s little reason for the new crop of calves each year.

But that part of the equation will come soon enough. For now, I’ll think about the red calves, green grass, and the new life of spring.


Plant-Based Protein is Nothing New

(Photo by Jim Beauprez)

 

The newest trend in the food marketplace these days is “plant-based protein”. Among the thousands of exhibitors at the recent Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, CA were a crowded number of booths touting plant based proteins, and—in many cases—“plant-based meat.” Even traditional meat companies like Tyson are investing heavily in companies that are developing these plant-based “meats.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against companies trying to artificially create some products out of textured wheat protein, leghemoglobin and konjac gum. Just don’t call it plant-based meat.

Meat already owns that title.

Labeling meat alternatives as plant-based meat seems to imply that meat—real meat—is based on something less than plants. That assumption is false, and the logic involved leads to an ecologically dangerous dead-end. Not only is meat plant-based, but most of the plants critical to the health of the soil, water and air are meat-based.

No one understands that better than bison producers working to maximize the symbiotic relationship of their herds and the grasslands.

The father of organic agriculture, Albert Howard, noted in 1945, “Never does Nature separate the animal and vegetable worlds. This is a mistake she cannot endure, and of all the errors which modern agriculture has committed this abandonment of mixed husbandry has been the most fatal.”

Responsible ranchers today live by this credo. Many ranchers refer to themselves as “grass-farmers.” One of the must-read periodicals in the grassfed livestock movement is the Stockman Grass Farmer.

Bison producers and other livestock ranchers use their animals to manage grass and other plants that grow in their pastures and rangelands. The manure that serves as fertilizer for the plants is only one aspect of grass-farming. Proper grazing stimulates healthy root systems that hold soil and sequester carbon. Hoof action stirs the soil and buries the seed. And—in the case of bison—wallowing creates depressions that help capture and retain valuable rainfall.

Pastures unbroken by a plow provide fertile habitat for prairie dogs, burrowing owls, rabbits, coyotes, and other animals. It all works together.

Cutting back on meat consumption may help reduce some of the environmentally damaging practices in agriculture. But removing meat animals from the food equation would result in an environmental disaster.

So, let’s get back to the basic concept behind “natural” food. In that sense, meat is the natural plant-based protein. Let’s come up with a different name for that meaty-tasting product manufactured in a processing plant from soybeans and leghemoglobin…whatever the heck that is.

P.S. The National Bison Association now owns the trademark to the term “Nature’s Original Plant-Based Protein®.” Any ideas on how we can put that to use? Email me at david@bisoncentral.com.

 


Our Underground Connection with the Natural Food Shopper

If you want to learn about emerging trends in the world of food, Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim is the place to be each March.

Expo West, as it is known, began 37 years ago, when a handful of natural food growers, manufacturers and stores decided to hold an annual trade show for their emerging industry. In the early days, some exhibitors slept in their booths to avoid the cost of a hotel room, and handed out samples from picnic coolers. it resembled a farmers’ market inside a convention hall.
That was then.

This week, roughly 85,000 retailers, manufacturers, distributors and—oh yes—a few ranchers and farmers, are weaving their way through the maze of booths and exhibits that pack the massive convention center next door to Disneyland. The fancy booths—some costing as much as a modest home—offer samples of everything from seaweed salad to all-natural bone broth. As one friend observed a couple of years ago, “It’s a lot of big companies trying to look like little companies.”

In addition to the trade show, Expo West features a wealth of seminars and workshops on topics relating to marketing, policy, and sourcing. Yesterday, I headed over to a session entitled “Regenerative Earth Interactive Workshop.”

I was surprised and pleased to find a long line of people waiting to get into the session. So many, in fact, that I was one of the last allowed in the room before they cut off the line. The workshop consisted of small, facilitator-led discussions on topics ranging from “How do companies help farmers transition to regenerative?,” to “How do we make this scalable?” (translation: “big and marketable”).

The good news from the workshop: There is growing recognition that the health of the soil is the foundation of a healthy food system, and—ultimately—a healthy environment. Attendees participated with a real passion for buying food that came from producers working to restore healthy soil.

The bad news: In the two groups that I sat in on, there was virtually no conversation on the role of grazing ruminants as a cornerstone of soil health.

Perhaps that’s not all bad news. Perhaps it’s an opportunity disguised as bad news.

The packed room for this session reflects a growing recognition among consumers and retailers regarding the importance of soil health. Those folks want healthy soil. But they don’t live on the land, so their understanding of the complexities of soil health is slight.

As bison producers we have an opportunity to connect with those consumers with a message that eating bison meat is helping to restore herds that are a key component in maintaining healthy grasslands and building healthy soil.

As I headed back into the exhibition hall and wandered by the booths promoting “clean meat” (fake meat made from plants and additives), I realized that it’s not too soon to make that message a priority.


Fido’s Getting Buffaloed…and It’s not Good

I hate getting buffaloed.

But many consumers today are getting buffaloed into thinking that something they assume is bison, really isn’t.

It’s a problem becoming more prevalent, particularly in pet food. More and more pet food companies are discovering that bison in their products adds special appeal for discerning consumers.   Several national brands are actively pursuing bison hearts, livers and byproducts to add to their formulas. That’s been a great development for bison ranchers.

With only 60,000 bison harvested each year, though, the supply of those ingredients is limited. That hasn’t deterred some companies. They’ve simply started using buffalo in their products…water buffalo…and passing it off as bison.

One national brand, for example, markets a dog formula prominently labeled “with roasted bison.” The front label is beautiful, by the way, with an image of wolves closing in on a herd of grazing bison.

Flip the bag over and look at the ingredients. Yup, there’s roasted bison all right: the ninth ingredient listed in the recipe. Right after canola oil and egg product. The first ingredient listed: Buffalo.

Why isn’t roasted bison listed first? Pet food labeling regulations require that ingredients be listed in descending order, based on their prominence by weight in the product.  Those regulations also allow products to be labeled as “Made with xxxx,” as long as they contain at least 3% of xxxx.

And why isn’t buffalo listed as bison? Because it’s not bison.

In other words, about 20% of this product is likely water buffalo, and a tad over 3% is roasted bison. Yet, the average customer believes that they are feeding their companion animal dinner with North American bison as the main ingredient.

Pet food isn’t alone in this shell game. A few meat products being marketed to humans are simply labeled buffalo. Only a close inspection of the back label or the company website will reveal that this is water buffalo.

In late 2016, the NBA formally petitioned the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration to change their food labeling rules to require that any product containing water buffalo be clearly labeled as “water buffalo,” and not just buffalo.

We are now launching a companion effort to enact the same requirements for pet food labeling.

But changing requirements in pet food labeling is often more difficult than in human food. The process is largely governed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, an organization comprised largely of feed officers from individual state departments of agriculture. AAFCO doesn’t set rules, but it establishes “model regulations” that are largely adopted by each individual state.

 We have started to contact those feed officials with a formal request to address this issue. After all, consumers are getting short-changed when they get buffaloed by misleading labels. So, too, are bison ranchers and the family pet.

Learn more about proper pet nutrition from our friends at pupsnpaws.com.

************  

 

BTW, that’s my companion, Thea, chewing on her stuffed bison. It’s about as genuine as some pet food brands containing “buffalo.”

 

 


It’s Groundhog Day for Yellowstone Bison

News broke late last week that a federal judge had ordered U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to reconsider its 2015 decision not to grant endangered species status to the bison herds in Yellowstone National Park.

It’s fitting that I heard this news on Groundhog Day. After all, this story seems to be on a continuous loop…replaying like the movie of that title in one version or another every so often.

Fish & Wildlife received its first petition to declare Yellowstone bison as endangered in 1999. After eight years, the agency completed its “90 Day Review” (seriously) and determined that the petition lacked substantial information to warrant an endangered species listing.

Proponents of listing came back in 2009 with a revised petition; this time requesting that all wild plains bison be listed as endangered. The agency’s 90 Day Review took two years, resulting in another finding, stating, “(w)e conclude that the petition does not present substantial scientific or commercial information to indicate that listing the wild plains bison, or any of four proposed DPSs (Distinct Population Segments), under the Act as threatened or endangered may be warranted at this time.”

Undeterred, the proponents bounced back with yet another petition in 2014 asking again that the Yellowstone herds to be declared endangered. Fish & Wildlife dispatched that petition in 2015, citing insufficient new evidence. That’s the petition that the court has now ordered the agency to revisit.

Much of the news coverage on this issue is based on the petitioners’ assertion that the Yellowstone herd of more than 4,000 is “the largest and one of the last free-roaming, genetically pure groups” of bison in the world.
First of all, bison herds are increasing on public lands, as well as private ranches across North America. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s latest report on bison indicates that approximately 31,000 bison roam within 68 herds managed by government agencies and conservation organizations.

It’s the phrase “genetically pure” that really drives private bison producers crazy.

Genetics are an evolving field of science, with new technology regularly emerging. Geneticists avoid using the term “purity,” because new developments are always arising.

Even based on the current understanding of genetic integrity, Yellowstone bison are not alone in showing the lack of cattle genetic introgression. The bison herd at Wind Cave National Park has been tested and shown to be free of cattle genetic introgressions. Enter “genetically pure bison” into Google, and you’ll quickly come up with listings for six herds within the first twenty links that are referenced.

Don’t get me wrong: The National Bison Association cares about the genetic integrity of bison. But the cattle genetics in bison today are predominantly the remnants of some failed crossbreeding experiments conducted 130 years ago by the ranchers who helped save bison from extinction, and not because producers are now crossing our animals with cattle.
Our Code of Ethics prohibits crossbreeding bison with any other species, and many of our members are actively testing their herds to cull animals that show significant degrees of cattle introgression.

There are many issues facing the National Park Service as it strives to manage its bison herds. Saving the animals from extinction is not one of them.


The Perils Of Becoming A Cog

I’ve been thinking about cogs lately.

There’s a reason.

Cogs are important in many machines. They help make things run smoothly. And, when cogs break, the machine grinds to a stop. Cogs are generally hidden. And, in many cases, they are easily interchangeable. In a sense, they have come to epitomize the faceless, nameless elements in a large machine. After all, the iconic scene in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times featured cogs to represent the modern industrialized world.

Bison should never be just a cog.

We’ve built our business because our customers appreciate the special qualities of the meat our animals produce: flavorful, healthy, and sustainably raised. Our customers have demonstrated that they are willing to pay a reasonable premium for those qualities.

And, as the popularity of bison meat has grown, more packaged food companies are searching out bison as an ingredient in their products. After all, bison adds a certain cache that distinguishes products from their competitors.

Many of the companies are actively developing partnerships with ranchers and helping to tell the story of how the animals were raised. That’s a good thing.

But packaged food companies—like bison ranchers—must be profitable to succeed. As the management of each company works to build their market share, they closely examine every facet of their product, including the cost of goods…COGs. Every new ingredient added to a product sparks a question around the board table: “How does that impact our COGs?”

Our challenge is to never become just a COG. We’ve worked hard to build the reputation, and to tell the story, of bison as a wholesome, premium product. Packaged food companies are adding bison to their products because of that reputation.

We have to make sure that we never let that reputation tarnish. And, make sure that our partners in the food industry know that bison is not just a cost of goods, but a benefit to the final product.


There’s Strength in the Herd

Bison are herd animals,

So too, I’m beginning to think, are their owners.

Conventional wisdom holds that bison producers are a fiercely independent bunch.  I don’t deny that. Getting into the bison business—particularly in the early days…only a few years back—was the equivalent of venturing into the agricultural wilderness. Being the topic of discussion at the local coffee shop was the least of the hurdles. Extension agents, ag lenders, insurance providers and others looked a little more than askance at anyone putting up fencing and stocking their pastures with buffalo. Outright hostility from some neighbors wasn’t uncommon.

In a sense, it was kind of like being surrounded by predators.

Bison producers, like their animals, learned that survival meant staying together. Just as a lone bison will seek out a herd, producers sought out each other. They developed networks, formed associations, gathered to exchange information, and offered moral support. Working together, they became stronger.

I thought about that a few days ago, as bison producers from across North America gathered in Denver for the annual National Bison Association Winter Conference.  More than 500 ranchers, marketers and enthusiasts came together for three days of information and education. We acknowledge that we are still learning from the animals under our stewardship. But the willingness to share those learnings is evident each time that the herd gathers.

It was encouraging to see that newcomers comprised roughly 20 percent of the participants in the winter conference. Just as encouraging, was to see longtime veterans of our business sharing their experiences…mistakes as well as successes.

Our business has grown and thrived because fiercely independent people recognized early on that there was strength in the herd. Because of their commitment, the herd survived financial disasters, disease threats and misguided public policies.

Being a bison producer is still a bit like being a renegade. But fortunately, the herd is stronger than ever, and equipped to help each new renegade succeed.