Bison Profile

By Ray Hansen, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University,

Updated June 2012 by Malinda Geisler, AgMRC, Iowa State University.

No other mammal has a closer historical tie to the development of North America than its largest land animal, the bison, also commonly known as the buffalo. Once a prominent fixture on the vast plains of the United States and Canada, bison have survived over-harvesting and near extinction. Their numbers dipped as low as 1,000 head by 1900 but have since recovered. The U.S. herd is estimated at 220,000 bison (National Bison Association). Today, they can be found in all 50 states, in every Canadian province and in several countries overseas.
Nearly 95 percent of these bison were raised in private herds. In the United States, bison herds account for nearly 200,000 head on 4,500 farms and ranches (2007 Census of Agriculture). Canadian producers add an additional 220,000 head to the North American herd. The balance is part of a Native American herd, lives on public lands (for example, Yellowstone National Park with 3,500 wild, free-ranging bison) or resides in zoos and reserves. (For more information about Native American herds, which number close to 15,000 buffalo, see the InterTribal Buffalo Council website.)

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the number of bison raised in 2007 was down nearly 34,000 head from 2002. However, more farms sold bison in 2007 (1,821) than in 2002 (1,734), and the number sold in 2007 (nearly 63,000 head) was higher than the number sold in 2002 (57,000 head). The largest number of farms raising bison were located in Texas (618), Kansas (208), Oklahoma (205), Wisconsin (190) and Colorado and Minnesota (184). The following states raised and sold the largest number of bison: South Dakota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Colorado and Montana.

Along with the growth in numbers came the growth of the commercial bison industry. In fact, this growth has taken the industry past a breeding stock based market into a more traditional meat animal market. USDA statistics indicate that in 2011, 53,700 bison were processed at USDA and state-level inspected plants, down from 63,900 bison in 2010. The reason was producers held back animals in 2011 to build their herds.

A transitional stage from breeding herds to production herds is typical of an industry that has grown to a point where production reaches, meets and sometimes surpasses demand. As the industry reaches this point of growth, a predictable drop in the value of the individual animal will occur. As herd numbers grow and stock values moderate, it will continue to allow more producers to enter the industry, and that in turn, puts additional pressure on supply. However, customer acceptance and appreciation for bison products has also grown steadily during the same time frame.

At this point in the industry, emphasis is being placed on creating a growing demand for the meat and byproducts. Aggressive marketing of all cuts of meat and byproducts will have to outperform production to keep the business profitable.

Growth in this meat niche market can be attributed to numerous social and economic factors, but the driving force behind the growth is a lean, low-cholesterol red meat. According to the National Bison Association, bison meat sales totaled approximately $278 million at the retail and restaurant level in 2011 compared to $241 million in 2010.

Bison meat is marketed as a natural product using no growth hormones; it contains only 2.4 grams of fat, 143 calories and 82 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams of cooked lean meat. Thus the meat is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than beef, pork or skinless chicken.
In addition to the low-fat and low-cholesterol appeal of the meat, producers are cultivating new markets for products made from bison leather, bison fiber and other byproducts such as skulls.

The bison industry has developed an industry-wide USDA Process Verified marketing label that provides consumers with additional assurance regarding the manner in which the animals were raised and where the animals were raised.
American bison are extremely hardy animals that can survive winter blizzards and extreme summer heat, compared to domestic cattle that would perish on ranges where bison can live and thrive. Bison are very low maintenance and a very efficient grazing animal, preferring a total grass diet on which they can gain about two pounds/day. They are long-lived animals with a reproductive cycle that can exceed 20 years. Calving occurs in late spring with easy births, producing calves that are generally very hardy and need little assistance.

Bison producers run operations ranging from small herds to rather large commercial ventures. Most producers run cow-calf operations and sell their weaned calves. Other producers specialize in breeding stock. Buying weaned bull calves and finishing them for processing is yet another segment. Some producers raise bison from birth through processing and then market the meat themselves.

Market prices are rebounding for bison meat. March 2010 prices were near the highest levels since the USDA began tracking them in 2004. Average retail prices of ground bison have increased from about $5.30 per pound in 2006 to $6.20 in 2010. Steaks sell for $15 to $20 per pound (Denver Post 2010). By the end of 2011, prices for ground bison were as high as $9.50 to $10 per pound at the retail level (Denver Post 2012).

Government Regulations
Many nontraditional livestock animals, including bison, are not mentioned in the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA). Bison are therefore exempt from USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) requirements that meat processed for intrastate, interstate, and international trade be inspected. However, FSIS does have a voluntary inspection service; producers who wish to have their bison inspected pay an hourly rate for the service.

Even if federal law does not require bison to be inspected, several states do require bison inspection under their state meat inspection acts. State or local health codes may also prohibit the sale of uninspected bison in restaurants and other markets. To obtain information about state meat inspection, see the list of all state officials in the Cooperative Meat and Poultry Inspection Programs.

In addition, some states, including Colorado, Idaho and Nebraska, have ended their meat inspection programs; consequently, USDA assumed the inspection function. If bison are inspected in these plants, they can be sold through interstate and international markets. The list of states without state inspection programs is available at the FSIS website.

Following a lengthy slump, the bison industry is once again growing and profitable. According to the National Bison Association, the increasing demand for bison meat products is restoring profitability to ranchers. Growth in demand can also be attributed to the newly developed national distribution system that brings bison to foodservice and retail outlets throughout the country.

Bison, Miscellaneous Livestock and Animal Specialties - Inventory and Number Sold: 2007 and 2002, 2007 Census of Agriculture - State Data, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), USDA, 2009.

Bison, Livestock Slaughter Annual Summary, NASS, USDA.

Bison Becoming the Other Red Meat, Denver Post, 2010.

Demand for Bison Meat Spurs Ranchers, Denver Post, 2012.

National Bison Association.

Value of Bison Meat Sold Tops $278 Million, Farm Progress Companies, 2012.