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Colorado: Bison becoming the other red meat

Steve Raabe
The Denver Post,Staff
Bison prices recently reached record highs as consumer demand for the meat picks up. David Carter, Executive Director of the National Bison Association, co-owns a small bison ranching operation south of Castle Rock, often traveling from Denver and visiting the Endless Frontier Ranch, Carter brings the herd small hay cubes that the animals seem to really enjoy. Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post
ALL | THE DENVER POST

Bison ranchers are enjoying a rebound in market prices prompted by growing consumer awareness of the alternative red meat. Still tiny in comparison with the beef industry, bison shows signs of a sustainable-growth curve after surviving a market free fall that left producers near extinction over the past decade.

March prices for slaughtered bison were near the highest levels since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking the market in 2004.

“In the last five years, consumer demand has really taken off,” said Dave Carter, a Colorado bison rancher and executive director of the National Bison Association.



Denver-based Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, one of the nation’s largest bison processors, has seen sales soar from 2 million pounds in 2003 to 8 million pounds last year.

“A lot of producers had gone through some brutal years when consumers hadn’t yet embraced the product,” said Bob Dineen, president of the meat company. “But demand is stronger now, and the concern these days is supply. The plan now is to get more producers on board so we can build a sustainable industry.”



Colorado has about 185 bison ranchers with about 15,475 animals, ranking the state fourth in production, behind South Dakota, Nebraska and North Dakota. While the USDA does not track retail sales, Colorado is believed to rank at or near the top of the nation in per- capita consumption because of the high penetration of bison products in grocery stores and restaurants.

Bison advocates say consumers are attracted by the meat’s taste and nutritional profile – leaner than comparable cuts of beef and other red meats.

Increases in consumer demand have enabled ranchers to realize price hikes on slaughtered animals of about 36 percent over the past four years.



At the retail level, average prices for a pound of ground bison, also known as buffalo, have risen from about $5.30 in 2006 to $6.20 today. Steaks sell for $15 to $20 a pound.

The bison market boomed in the late 1990s when processors of bison meat offered producers artificially high prices in an effort to encourage herd growth in what appeared to be a fast-growing industry.

But consumer demand didn’t develop as fast as analysts predicted. The result was too many bison and not enough customers. Prices plunged for meat and breeding stock.

Champion bulls that sold for as much as $100,000 each at the 1998 National Western Stock Show became a distant memory of market exuberance. At everyday bison livestock auctions, animals that commanded $1,000 or more in 2000 had fallen to $500 or less by 2004.

Compounding the problem was years of drought that forced ranchers to buy supplemental feed after their normally self-sufficient bison exhausted prairie-grass forage.

Now, the outlook is better.

“We’re seeing strength all the way through the industry,” said rancher Boyd Meyer, who runs 800 bison cows on 27,000 acres in northern Colorado.

Strength is relative. About 100 million beef cattle exist in the U.S., compared with 200,000 bison.

“If we doubled that number, that would be great,” Meyer said. “But we would still be a very small industry.”

Steve Raabe: 303-954-1948 or sraabe@denverpost.com


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