A perfect storm of challenging conditions has created significant challenges for U.S. bison ranchers over the past two years, but the long-term outlook continues to be bright.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 hit the bison business with significant economic losses as the shuttering of restaurants all but eliminated the marketplace for the highest value cuts of bison meat: tenderloins, strips and ribeyes. The prices ranchers received for their market-ready animals fell significantly.
While the pandemic increased consumers’ desire for buying directly from ranchers, bottlenecks in the meat processing sector left many producers without the ability to connect with those potential customers.
The National Bison Association worked diligently with USDA leaders—and with its allies in the U.S. Senate—to successfully bring some relief to ranchers by making bison eligible for coverage under the second round of the Coronavirus Food and Agriculture Protection Act (CFAP-2). But COVID wasn’t the only issue creating significant economic headwinds for bison producers.
Sustained drought continued to wither grasses in pastures across much of bison country throughout 2020 and 2021. In fact, the footprint of the most serious drought conditions covered parts of the country accounting for roughly half of commercial bison production.
Compounding the difficulties was a strong surge in herd losses from Mycoplasma bovis, a respiratory disease that currently has no efficacious vaccine.
So, why the bright outlook?
Consumer demand for bison meat—the foundation of our business—has not flagged during the past two years. In fact, many people tried their first taste of bison when pandemic buying left retail meat shelves bare of beef, pork and chicken. According to one consumer survey conducted in mid-2020, more than 60% of the people trying bison for the first time during the pandemic said they were likely to eat it at least monthly.
More recent data continues to bear that out. Nearly 90% of the bison marketers participating in the NBA’s twice yearly survey last November reported that customer demand continued to grow over the past year, with half of those marketers’ reporting growth in demand exceeding 10%.
Bison marketers also worked throughout the pandemic to expand their presence in the retail meat case. During the past two years, several retailers have started to bring a wider variety of bison meat cuts—including the high value steaks—into their stores.
A slate of recent marketplace surveys agree that many changes in consumer behavior during the past two years will outlive the pandemic. Distrust of the centralized, industrialized food system is at an all-time high. And, shoppers are increasingly aware of the direct impact that their food choices have on their personal health and the health of our planet.
Bison is uniquely positioned to meet those changing attitudes. Our herds are produced with respect to nature, and processed in smaller, more dispersed meat facilities. That’s one reason we’ve trademarked the term, “Bison: Regenerative by Nature®.”
Meanwhile, the National Bison Association is committed to improving the health of our herds, and to building partnerships with everyone who has a love of bison.
The Center of Excellence for Bison Studies, founded in late 2020 through a collaborative effort of the NBA, South Dakota State University, and the National Buffalo Foundation, is now engaged in 16 different research projects covering animal health, ecological restoration, meat quality, cultural impacts and other topics.
Through our work with USDA’s Farm Service Agency, bison producers impacted by Mycoplasma bovis can now apply to receive compensation through that agency’s Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP). The Center of Excellence has also convened a special Mycoplasma Task Force to bring together experts to help sharpen new tools in the fight against this disease.
While we cannot change the weather, the NBA is working to promote ways that bison can play an important role in new Climate-Smart Agricultural initiatives.
We are also working with bison stewards on Tribal and public lands. The NBA and InterTribal Buffalo Council have operated under a formal Memorandum of Understanding since 2014.
If you are interested in bison, now is the time to investigate getting a start in the bison business.
The National Bison Association can help you.
The National Bison Association offers a trove of resources to assist producers in developing a viable, sustainable and profitable bison business. Our 2nd edition Bison Producers’ Handbook is packed with information from 25 different experts on all facets of bison ranching and marketing. Our Producers’ App, developed through the assistance of USDA’s Risk Management Agency, provides a new tool for measuring and monitoring all aspects of your herd.
The first step is to join the National Bison Association.
Membership in the NBA will give you access to a wealth of additional resources that can help you get started. Most importantly, membership in the association will connect you with producers across the country who are willing to help you begin a successful career in the bison business.
The future is bright for the bison business. Producers, marketers, customers, chefs, nutritionists and environmentalists all agree: America’s original red meat is good for our health, good for our environment, and absolutely delicious.
If you are interested in becoming part of the emerging, exciting bison community, please contact the NBA at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (303) 292-2833. We’re here to help.
To take a peek at the outlook for our business, click here.