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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.


2019 NBA Summer Conference – Bismarck, ND

Going Forth in the North is the theme of the North Dakota Buffalo Association-hosted conference, and we hope NBA members head north, and south, to attend. We say head south, as we hope our friends to the North in Canada will join us! The agenda, which is currently being finalized, is action packed and includes something for every bison enthusiast to take home with them. The conference begins on Sunday, July 7th with a riverboat cruse on the Missouri River with hors d’ourves and a cash bar that is limited to 100 tickets. Monday will be spent at two local historical bison sites; Fort Abraham Lincoln in Mandan, and the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck. Tuesday will be spent at the hotel conference center where we’ll hear from an array of expert speakers discussing the bison’s place in regenerative agriculture, a history of the bison market from industry pioneers, a discussion of importing and exporting bison to and from Canada, the launch of the NBA’s all-new Bison Producer’s App, and more. See all the details and register online at https://bisoncentral.com/nba-summer-conference/.


Western and Montana Bison Associations’ Summer Rendezvous

June 6 – 9 in Kamas, UT! Learn more at http://westernbison.org/.


Bison Cooking QR Cards

Bison Cooking QR Cards – Qty 50. These handy business cards feature a QR code that takes users to NBA’s online bison cooking videos. Great for handing out at Farmer’s Markets, etc. for an easy bison cooking 101 class to go. NBA Members Only: [$10 shipping included-U.S. Only]


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.


Tag Store

Tag Store

Purchases from the Tag Store below help support the NBA though a revenue sharing program and give producers the opportunity to participate in the NBA’s BlockChain transparency and traceability program. There are no additional fees to participate and doing so will help maintain the value of bison products as consumers seek more transparency in where their food comes from.


Minnesota Bison Association’s 23rd Annual Legends of the Fall Auction

23rd Annual Legends of the Fall Auction – Saturday, November 30, 2019 in Albany, MN.

Learn more at https://mnbison.org/events/.


Minnesota Bison Association’s Bison Fundamentals Class

The MnBA will host its annual Bison Fundamentals Class on Friday, November 29, 2019 in Albany, MN.

Please visit https://mnbison.org/events/ for details.


Dakota Territory Buffalo Association Winter Conference and Sale

February 6 – 8, 2020 in Rapid City, SD.

Learn more at https://www.dakotabuffalo.com/


2019 NBA Summer Conference Exhibitor Booth