Commercial Bison Production in the Northern Plains

Vern Anderson, Steve Metzger, and Dennis Sexhus

Carrington Research Extension Center, North Dakota State University,

Carrington Farm Business Management Program,

and North American Bison Cooperative


This paper describes the development, current state, and future considerations of the bison industry in the Northern Plains states and provinces. Bison numbers have increased from the low point of less than 1,000 in North America prior to the turn of the century to a population estimated at up to 250,000 in 1996. Bison ranchers in some cases operate as individual producers and marketers of meat but many have organized to achieve economies of scale for efficient slaughtering, processing, and marketing. Demand for bison meat in the United States, Canada, Europe, and other regions of the world encourages producers to increase production as rapidly as possible. Bison herds are currently showing substantial profits with sale of breeding stock providing greater income than bulls fed for meat. Future bison production must become more efficient in both cow/calf and feedlot segments as the industry grows. Research is needed to support efficient economical production while continuing to propagate the unique features of bison. Conducting research on bison raised for meat is difficult as bison are wild animals and have strong social ties in addition to seasonal variations in feed intake and gain. Bison meat will remain a niche market product as animal numbers increase slowly to meet consumer demand. The bison industry appears to be healthy and growing with a bright future.

Key words: Bison, Production Practices, Consumer Demand.


The American Buffalo (bison bison) has played a significant role in the development of the American West. The species is native to and well adapted to the Northern Plains states. Recent interest in and development of niche markets has stimulated the growth and organization of the bison industry. Bison stimulates a sense of romanticism and identity with the western heritage. That sense along with taste and the perceived health aspects associated with bison meat contribute to the increasing demand for bison. The bison industry has developed from the grassroots with producers using conservative production practices and information interpreted from beef production in the absence of applied scientific bison research (Rutley and Church, 1995). Currently, demand for bison meat is greater than supply and improved production efficiencies are needed. This paper attempts to briefly describe recent developments in commercial bison production and processing in the states and provinces of the Northern Plains and explore future needs of the industry.

Bison Numbers

In the mid 1800's, it is estimated that there were as many as 60 million bison roaming the North American continent. Bison numbers decreased to fewer than 1,000 animals due to the actions of "buffalo hunters" (Dary, 1993). The efforts of a few, such as Charles Goodnight, who preserved small numbers of bison on their private ranches are credited for saving the species from extinction. Since the early 1900's, bison have been maintained in private herds, state and national parks, preserves, and grasslands , and on Native American reservations. Numbers increased gradually due to local marketing efforts of individual growers. Herds under government control continue to be sources of females for increasing numbers of privately owned animals.

In 1972, four bison ranchers produced the bulk of the commercial bison meat in the United States but many smaller hobbyist herds existed. Bison numbers were then estimated at just over 30,000 head (Dary, 1989). With increased demand, more ranchers became interested in raising bison and existing herds expanded.

The National Bison Association has over 2,500 active members with 767 survey respondents reporting ownership of 71,019 head in 1995 (Bison World , 1995). North Dakota producers surveyed in the winter of 1995-96 expressed their intent to double their current herd size within the next 5 years from an estimated at 21,700 head (David Lautt, President, North Dakota Buffalo Assoc. personal communication). Total number of bison in the North American continent was estimated at 98,000 in 1989 (Dary, 1989) , and 250,000 head in 1996. (Sam Albrecht, Executive Director, National Bison Assoc., personal communication). Bison in public herds are currently estimated at 11,000 head.

Bison Producers Organize

As small scale, hobbyist, bison operations grew in number and existing operators expanded their herds, marketing of bison meat received increased attention. Many bison ranchers made local arrangements with small scale processors to slaughter animals and fabricate retail cuts. Inspection standards varied from state to state. Some processors operated according to federal standards but virtually none were approved for European Union standards. Meat sales were made at fairs and shows, through local advertising, and even door to door. Some more aggressive processors participated in the production and marketing of bison in order to further develop consumer demand and participate in the profits from the as yet small scale, niche market meat. Native American herds participate in many of the established marketing programs and in some cases have established their own.

One example of successful organization of bison producers occurred in the Northern Plains states and provinces. In the late 1980's, bison ranchers led by Dr. Ken Throlson began to realize that a central processing/marketing organization with strict quality standards would facilitate development of the industry. A cooperative organization could grow and service markets with adequate amounts of high quality meat. New market outlets at both coasts, other urban centers, and in Europe have developed. Achieving certain levels of supply would allow access to customers demanding minimum volumes of product. In 1993, 147 bison producers organized the North American Bison Cooperative (NABC), a true participation cooperative with shares sold on a 1 share equals the privilege and responsibility to process one head annually. Five thousand shares were sold to capitalize a slaughter facility designed and constructed to meet European Union specifications. A new plant was constructed at New Rockford, ND by the cooperative with an eventual share offering and capacity of 10,000 head per year. The number of fed bison bulls available for slaughter is not expected to meet capacity until 1999 or 2000. In 1996, approximately 4,500 bulls were slaughtered at the NABC with retail sales exceeding $8 million. Animals were shipped in from as far away as 1,500 miles. This organization developed carcass evaluation criteria to maintain quality and portion control. Primal cuts from carcasses not meeting minimum criteria for intact muscle sales are used in processed products such as bratwurst, jerky, and sausages. The Cooperative now has 239 producer members from 14 states and 4 provinces who collectively own and manage over 100,000 bison.

Bison Meat

Bison producers have identified a niche market for meat, and processed meat products. Meat is currently marketed at the wholesale and retail levels at substantially higher prices than domesticated meat producing species. Bison meat is marketed worldwide to white tablecloth and other restaurants, retail groceries, organizations, and private individuals.

In most bison marketing organizations, carcasses are evaluated to provide a uniform product which meets customer specifications. Bison bulls are encouraged to be fed grain from 700-800 pounds until ready for slaughter in order to provide the eating quality desired from primal cuts (National Bison Association, 1995). The NABC carcass evaluation program includes criteria for age (teeth and bone ossification), carcass weight, fat color, lean color, and fat thickness over the loin. Nutrient composition of different cuts from fed bison has been well defined in relation to other meats (Marchello et al., 1996). Bison ribeye cholesterol levels are less than beef and similar to chicken. Fat content was less than choice beef but similar to a standard beef ribeye.

Bison products other than meat are marketed as artifacts and display items including tanned hides , skulls, and leather goods.


Bison Production Practices

Most bison ranchers developed their programs using beef production practices as a guide with adaptation as required based on experience. Bison require specially designed facilities due to their strength, speed, and behavioral considerations. Bison are wild animals and respond accordingly when confined. Bison develop strong social bonds within their herd making research with small numbers or single animals difficult as behavioral patterns change. Bison are known to alter their circadian rhythm when moved, mixed, sorted, weighed or transported.

Beef and bison are considered generalist grazers (Dodd and Plumb. 1993) although bison are less selective (Peden et al., 1974). Bison producers generally graze their animals longer in the season. Bison require less protein as they are more efficient in recycling nitrogen (DeLiberto, 1995). Cows are often supplemented with 1 to 4 pounds of "range cake" during the winter, prior to, and during breeding. The extra expense of supplemental nutrition for the breeding herd is justified in the minds of producers to insure a higher percentage of the females cycle, are settled and calve on time each year. Comparative studies have not been conducted. Calves are born during the early summer on into fall. Breeding starts in late July. Bison cows generally have their first calves at 3 years of age.

Bison cows are generally dewormed at least once per year as they are thought to be more susceptible to internal parasites. Health challenges other than parasites include physical injury from goring or handling, malignant catarrhal fever, pink eye, flies, and respiratory diseases. Other typical ailments may occur on an infrequent basis . There are currently no anthelmentics or medications cleared for use on bison.

Calves are weaned in the fall and feeder bulls placed on feed until ready for market. Feeding programs for meat production vary from placing weaned bull calves in the feedyard until ready for market (478 days on feed) to wintering weaned bulls on grass hay possibly with limited grain supplementation, followed by summer grazing and a second winter on grass hay before feedyard finishing. Feed intake and gains are less than beef (Koch et al. 1995). Winter feedlot performance is significantly less than other seasons of the year (Anderson and Miller, 1996), probably due to natural winter survival mechanisms that reduce physical activity, respiration, heart rate and subsequently feed intake (Christopherson et al., 1979).

Bison feeders are strongly discouraged from using growth stimulants or antibiotics in the feed, or using hormone growth implants (National Bison Association, 1995).

Bison are grown in every state, on large and small ranches and farms, in herds of a few to several thousand. Producers continue to organize in many states and regions of the country in an effort to promote bison, exchange production information, address other concerns, and socialize. The National Bison Association serves the industry similar in mission to beef breed organizations.

A supporting infrastructure has grown up to service bison producers with specialized handling equipment, feeds, and promotional/marketing organizations.

Economics of Bison Production

Financial and production records were collected over multiple years from several bison herds involved with the North Dakota Farm Business Management Program. Records included only the cow/calf production cycle terminating at weaning. Annual feed costs per cow averaged $208.84 with all direct expenses totaling $410.85. Indirect or overhead expenses added $232.06 per head. Gross returns per cow were $1049.90 producing a return to labor and management of 406.99 per head. The average weaning weight per cow exposed was 251 pounds with actual weaning weights recorded at 371 pounds. Production records indicate that only 71% of cows exposed actually calved and 67% weaned a calf. Some of the herds contributing data were in the first few years of production. New or assembled herds often experience reduced conception rates as co-mingled animals establish the herds social structure. Health management was not addressed in this database but weaning rates improved from 72.6 to 89.5% when herds were regularly dewormed (Hussey, 1995). Improved conception, calving and weaning rates could dramatically enhance returns per cow.

Agricultural lenders generally view bison as a specialty enterprise and are predictably wary. Some institutions have chosen to support the industry but require a more manageable debt load than conventional livestock enterprises. Bison loans can be guaranteed through conventional methods.

Future of the Bison Industry

As bison production increases and producers search for more efficient and cost effective production methods, it becomes apparent that there is little scientific information available on bison production. Many studies have been conducted on the ecological and social aspects of bison, however, bison producers have relied on mostly trial and error, anecdotal information, and a few field studies to improve their animals productivity. No formal bison nutrition research programs currently exist. Basic and applied studies are needed to determine nutrient requirements, define optimum feedlot practices, and compare management strategies. Recent studies have been modestly supported by several different grants from producer organizations to federal programs but additional research is needed in many areas of production.

The future is bright for the bison industry. Consumers are willing to purchase bison meat for the taste, nutrient content, and identity with the American west. At some point, increasing production may meet current demand. The challenge for the bison industry is to continue to develop demand, and to investigate and adopt more efficient production strategies.

Literature Cited

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Anderson V. L. and Bryan Miller. 1996. Effects of season and diet on feedlot performance of bison. Prof. An. Sci. (in press).

Anderson V. L. and Dennis Sexhus. 1996. Practices and priorities of bison feeders in the Northern Plains. Beef and Bison Field Day Proceedings, Carrington Research Extension Center, North Dakota State University. p25-29.

Bison World. 1995. Questionnaire results, Vol 24: No. 122 p 27-28.

Christopherson, R. J., R. H. Hudson, and M. K. Christopherson. 1979. Seasonal energy expenditures and thermoregulatory response of bison and cattle. Can. J. Anim. Sci. 59:611-617.

Dowling, Kim (Editor) 1990. Bison produces guide to management and marketing. National Bison Association, Denver CO.
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Rutley, Bruce D. and John S. Church. 1995. Effect of time of year on average daily gain of feedlot finished bison (Bison bison). Report to the Peace Country Bison Association. Northern Lights College, Dawson Creek, B. C. V1G 4V6.

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Anderson is Animal Scientist at the Carrington Research Extension Center, North Dakota State University, Box 219, Carrington, ND 58421, Metzger is Instructor/Coordinator, Carrington Public School Farm Business Management Program, Carrington, ND 58421, and Sexhus is General Manager of the North American Bison Cooperative, Box 162B, New Rockford, ND 58356.

1997 Beef and Bison Contents