Jerky maker bets on bison
Rancher says resilient animal requires little care
By JOHN O'CONNELL
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho -- Brett Ball began raising bison about three years ago, concerned about the increasing difficulty of sourcing the native meat for his jerky products business.
"It really became a scary situation. We needed to act quickly and find a supply so we wouldn't run out," said Ball, owner of Golden Valley Natural in Idaho Falls.
Since then, bison has only grown harder to come by, and more expensive. And Ball has found tending to bison herds is easier than most in the cattle industry would believe.
Starting in January 2006, when the value of a finished bison bull carcass was $1.73 per pound, prices of the commodity climbed steadily until peaking at $3.98 in December 2011, according to USDA. Since then, prices have held within a dime of the high point, most recently listed in November by USDA at $3.89 per pound, roughly double returns for cattle.
Ball now keeps 1,200 cow-calf pairs on his four ranches, located in South Dakota and throughout Idaho in Swan Valley, Lemhi County and Roberts.
"There have been quite a few people who have gone from raising cattle to raising bison, and we are a prime example of that," Ball said.
Bison production remains infinitesimal relative to the cattle industry, which slaughters far more livestock in a single day than the entire yearly bison harvest.
"There is a stigma to most people that bison are hard to handle. In order to raise them, you're going to have to invest more in fencing and several things that you don't invest in cattle," Ball said.
Though he started bison ranching with 6-foot, electric fences, he's learned if they have adequate space and care, they can be contained by a typical cattle fence with an extra wire.
Though bison take a year longer to reach calving age than cattle and have lower pregnancy rates, they can often bear young until they're 20 years old. Bison also eat less than cattle and can consume weeds that cattle can't tolerate.
Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, said bison calve without assistance and need no special accommodations for cold weather.
"I always like to tell people when it comes to sustainable agriculture, what could be more sustainable than an animal that has been here for tens of thousands of years and has evolved with the ecosystem?" Carter said.
The association has released a handbook and a DVD on bison rearing to recruit new producers. Carter has targeted young producers as they start in ranching, and encouraged his veterans to offer mentorship.
"It's a slow growth. We're seeing some folks expand herds. We're seeing some new producers come in," Carter said.
For the past decade, Carter's group has also worked to increase bison demand, promoting that the meat is high in protein and iron and low in fat and cholesterol. No growth hormones are approved for bison production, popular within the growing natural foods industry, and he said bison has become a staple at farmers' markets.