Recent bison boom keeps Colorado ranchers, retailers busy
April 18, 2011
David Hayes has been raising bison and selling bison products since 1976.
But he can’t remember when the industry has been quite as crazy as it’s been in the past couple of years. For example, Hayes, who owns and operates the Spomer Ranch and Red Barn Bison Co. between Greeley and Milliken, Colo., said bison burger meat is demanding $10 a pound in some locations.
“It’s crazy,” Hayes said. “When I started, 20 years ago or more, I charged $3.60 a pound, then I went to $4.50. And at the start of this year, I upped it to $6 a pound, which I consider cheaper than most, and I still can’t meet the demand.”
It’s so crazy, he added, that he no longer supplies bison meat to two restaurants he used to because he can’t meet the demand, and he quit selling meat on the Internet for the same reason.
“I’m doing everything out of the store right now,” he said. Everything means meat, bison leather products, bison rugs made from hides, mounted heads and skulls, and a variety of other products.
“This industry changes all the time,” Hayes said. “People get into it because they think they can make a quick buck, then find out it’s a lot more work than they thought it was going to be. So over the years, the supply has been greater than the demand, then the demand is greater than the supply. That’s where we’re at right now, and who knows how long it might last,” Hayes said.
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Most of the customers who buy bison products at the store come from the Greeley-Fort Collins-Loveland area, he said.
Dave Carter is the executive director of the National Bison Association, which has headquarters in Westminster.
He, too, said the industry “has gotten crazy,” in the past two years, adding his focus has shifted drastically over that time period.
“I used to spend most of my time trying to get people interested in tasting bison meat. Now I’m spending most of my time trying to get people to raise bison,” he said.
Bison is leaner than beef, and for the health-conscious public, it’s become very desirable in the past few years. In addition, consumers have changed buying habits and not only want to know where their meat, in this case, is coming from, but also support those local producers.
Carter said the price for bison meat continues to escalate. By late last year, the average price marketers were paying for a young, 2-year-old bull carcass was $3.17 a pound, which was 58 percent higher than the price paid for the same carcass three years earlier.
“Now that price is $3.50 a pound, so a 636 pound carcass, which is about average, would be worth $2,000,” Carter said.
But the supply is not there, he added, and with breeders now trying to expand herds, the supply of bison meat will remain limited until those herds can be enlarged.
“Marketers might place an order for 1,000 pounds, and they might be lucky to get 800 pounds right now,” Carter said.
Carter said G & C Packing Co. of Colorado Springs, Colo., where Hayes has his bison processed, and Double J Meat Packing of Pierce, Colo., are two of the largest processors of bison not only in Colorado but the nation. The majority of the meat coming from those facilities goes to privately owned restaurants and other retail outlets.
Jay Hasbrouck and his family operate Double J Meat Packing. He said the supply of bison and cattle, which is also processed at the Pierce plant, is at its lowest in a long time.
“But this bison deal is keeping us going, even though the numbers are short,” he said. Double J started processing bison from western ranches shortly after the family bought and remodeled the packing plant on the west side of Pierce. They planned to build a bison feedlot east of Pierce – to go along with the cattle and lamb feedlots they operate – but the recession put a halt to those plans and it was never built.
Hasbrouck said there are no plans to continue on that lot at the present time, mainly because of the low numbers of bison, so he has it listed for sale.
“With the numbers as low as they are, there aren’t any banks willing to finance a feedlot,” Hasbrouck said.
He said interest in the feedlot location has picked up since the first of the year, mainly from dairy operators who are thinking about moving to the area to be close to the new Leprino Foods cheese plant under construction in Greeley. Some of that interest has come from as far away as Michigan.
“I may try and take advantage of the dairy deal. We’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.
Toy Archer is the plant manager for Double J. He said the plant has been processing about 400 head a week. The animals, he said, come from ranches in Canada, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, Kansas and Colorado.
“About half the ones we get from Canada are Turner Industries animals,”
Archer said. Ted Turner is the largest bison rancher in North America, and much of the meat from his animals goes to restaurants he owns.
But Double J, Archer said, is also a supplier of bison meat products for Whole Foods and Sprouts outlets.
Hayes said he gets his animals from bison ranches or buys them at sales, although those sales are also getting pricey. Earlier this year at a sale in Denver, bulls were bringing $8,000 to $10,000 each, he said.
Hayes said he’s limited by space to keeping 50-60 head of bison at any one time and gets the majority of them from regional ranchers.
“Many of them just want to raise bison, they don’t want to deal with processing meat or with the public,” he said. The bison on his ranch are grain or grass fed, but he admits most consumers “can’t tell the difference.”
Raising bison can be a dangerous proposition.
Hayes has spent time in the hospital after tangling with animals in the past.
“Most people think they are mean, but that’s not the case. They are ornery and they are wild animals, even though they might be in a fenced pasture or corral,” he said.