Growing bison industry recruits ranchers

MONUMENT, Colo. --- Susan Popp was a manager at Hewlett-Packard and her husband, Peter, was a pilot at the Air Force Academy when they decided to become bison ranchers.


The U.S. bison industry is trying to encourage more people -- whether they are veteran cattle ranchers or newcomers like the Popps -- to start raising the animals to help meet growing demand nationwide.

"People understand the health benefits of bison. More people are trying it," said Mrs. Popp, 42. "It's not quite so exotic."

Since they began more than a decade ago, their Black Forest Bison ranch boasts a herd of about 60 buffalo, and their store in Colorado Springs is looking for more bison suppliers.

"If things keep going with the demand growing the way it is, we need to get some more people out there raising buffalo," said Dave Carter, the executive director of the Denver-based National Bison Association.

The industry, which touts the meat as a more healthful, leaner alternative to beef, is offering an online Bison 101 course, evangelizing the benefits to lenders and expanding mentoring opportunities for new ranchers.

It might be a tough sell right now: Factors that are affecting other meat producers, such as the cost of land and rising fuel and feed prices, can be obstacles to starting a ranch.

In the past few years, the bison association has built demand among customers looking for locally supplied, lower-fat alternatives to beef, and more top chefs are starting to serve bison.

Largely wild, bison can calve on their own and aren't regularly injected with antibiotics or hormones. They also do well in extreme climates.

Today, there are bison producers in all 50 states, with about 4,000 private ranches raising roughly 232,000 animals. The 46,195 bison processed through USDA-inspected facilities last year were dwarfed by the estimated 128,000 animals processed daily in the beef industry.

"It's a tiny part of American agriculture, but bison has been a part of people's diets on this continent for thousands of years, and there's a good reason for that," said Bob Dineen, who founded Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, based in Denver.

The trade group estimates that up to 70 million bison might have roamed North America centuries ago, but that figure dwindled to about 1,000 in 1900. The industry claims credit for helping the population rebound.

Annual sales at Mr. Dineen's company have increased from 700,000 pounds to more than 2 million pounds during the past five years. Revenues, expected to reach $30 million this year, have grown 10 to 20 percent in the past 10 years, said Mr. Dineen, who started his company in 1986.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported average wholesale prices for prime slaughter bulls at $220.94 in March, up 22 percent from a year earlier, even as slaughter numbers in federally inspected plants rose at about the same rate.

"There's no guarantees in this world, but we've seen this growth steadily and slowly," Mr. Dineen said. "As we enter new marketplaces and get a toehold, it's staying and continues to grow."

This isn't the nation's first bison boom, though. The industry thrived on high animal prices during a down market for cattle in the late 1990s, but it got too big before ranchers had enough customers for buffalo. That led to a slump, worsened by years of drought.

The Popps had only three animals they kept on a friend's ranch during the boom. They survived the downturn by staying small and buying a herd only after prices plummeted.

"We were still in the growing phase. We just didn't grow as fast," Mr. Popp said.