Numbers shrink as ranchers hold back breeding stock
By DAN WHEAT
CLE ELUM, Wash. -- Motorists who travel on State Route 970 between Cle Elum and Blewett Pass often see bison on Swauk Prairie just east of the scenic Teanaway Valley.
Knee deep in snow this time of year, the bison don't get much in their attempts at grazing but they have their timing down when it comes to being near the ranch house for feeding.
Ranchers Jim and Sue Hanson have raised bison for 20 years but depend on firefighting and school district jobs for their main income. They live on the land his great-grandparents, John and Sarah Hanson, homesteaded in 1887.
As of the 2007 Agricultural Census there were 100 ranches with bison in Washington, 168 in California, 88 in Idaho and 76 in Oregon. That's all relatively small compared with large producing states like Colorado, South and North Dakota, Montana and Nebraska.
But the Hansons and bison ranchers throughout the West face interesting dynamics brought on by their own success, said Debbie Brown, who raises bison with her husband, Tim, in Nyssa, Ore. The Browns were instrumental in rejuvenating the Northwest Bison Association in September. Their son, Garrett, is president.
Marketed as the most healthful red meat with less cholesterol than chicken or fish, bison has finally caught on with higher-income, health-conscious consumers, Debbie Brown said. Prices have soared to $8 per pound for ground bison and toward $20 per pound for some cuts.
Bison breeders slaughtered fewer heifers this year and kept them to breed more bison to provide greater supply. It's accentuating the meat shortage and fueling the high prices.
Brown isn't as concerned about an eventual oversupply as she is about prices getting so high that demand falls.
"It's hard to know what the limit is. We don't want to lose our customers," she said.
The Browns butcher about 150 bison a year and have more than 200 on their ranch at present. They've been in the business 39 years.
Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association in Westminster, Colo., said supply is tight nationwide and that he is also concerned about bison meat prices hitting a ceiling and falling.
"We've worked hard to build markets with retailers and chefs. They would be hard to rebuild, but we have to build our herds now because we think demand will grow," Carter said.
At Swauk Prairie, Hanson slaughters 18 to 20 bison annually, producing 8,000 to 9,000 pounds of meat he sells to customers from Chelan to Yakima and Seattle to Olympia.
He once bred his own bison but in recent years has found it more economical to buy calves and raise them for two years.
But now he can't find calves to buy. His herd is down to 20 when normally it would be 35 to 40. If he doesn't find calves he will only have about eight to harvest next summer and winter.
"It will be a struggle for a while," he said speaking of his own situation and the broader industry. "It looks to me like we will lose some market because we can't keep up with it, but I think it will come back."
Western harvests thin
Idaho slaughtered 395 bison and Oregon 68 in 2009, according to the
2009 Livestock Slaughter Summary of the National Agricultural Statistics
Service. Each of those states had three bison slaughterhouses.
No numbers were available for California and Washington. That's
probably because those states didn't have at least three
slaughterhouses, which is the minimum requirement to keep reporting
confidential, said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison
Colorado led the 2009 report with 11 facilities and 25,601 bison
slaughtered. Minnesota was next with nine facilities and 4,643 harvests.
Texas was third with four and 2,789.
-- Dan Wheat