Dr. Bob Church
Lochend Luing Ranch
RR 1, Airdrie AB Canada
The following article was originally presented at the International Bison Conference in Edmonton, Alberta in August 2000. The conference covered a wide array of bison topics including production, marketing, genetics, history and much more. This article has been reprinted with the permission of the IBC2000 Chairman.
Of the many meetings and conferences I have attended around the world, the program for this IBC 2000 conference is simply the best I have ever seen. It included everything from philosophy to First Nation's involvement, to bison production and management to archeological evidence to genetics of bison. I want to congratulate the Program Committee for doing a phenomenal job. The wealth of information here has been absolutely staggering. You are right, the bison are back!!
Our First Nation speakers set a striking tone at the opening ceremonies with Tom Jackson, the MC, and later the First Nations Program. Their historical and present involvement with the bison helps us understand the heartbeat of the Bison Nation of which we are all part.
All of the topics were absorbing but I have never been to a conference that looked at were we come from. We heard about the fascinating archeological history of the bison right up to today's reintroduction of the short horned bison into Siberia where the long horned bison once ranged. We heard about genetics, reproduction, diseases and some of the hazards of raising bison.
In the herd health part of the program I found it especially interesting to hear people talk about tuberculosis and bangs as cattle diseases that will threaten us. That is interesting because we should realize that as soon as we start raising wild animals in large numbers in a domestic environment the barriers between game animals versus domestic animals will quickly disappear. We are there now.
We heard in "spades" that bison are not furry cattle. We have to differentiate them from cattle. The flavor of bison is unique. We heard that care must be taken in the processing of bison to preserve that uniqueness or we risk losing that one quality that separates us from everything else on the red meat counter. We are looking for "hooks", those special things that our industry has that differentiate us from our competitors. That will be our success.
We heard about bison facilities and handling. Anyone that has handled or worked with bison knows that it is a big challenge. A simple rule guides us. We can do anything we like with bison, as long they want to do it. I will never forget talking to Matt Boake from Bonanza Bison about his crummy fences and asking how he kept his bison in. He said, "no problem, they like it here and always come home." Ever since then I tell new producers that if they start with calves at home they do not need big fences. You may have to train your neighbors to understand that the bison will come home even if their cows do not when they get out. There are different attitudes between cattle and bison people. We also face different challenges than beef producers.
Some of the myths surrounding bison were discussed. Some people say the bison are environmentally friendly. Well think about 50 million bison running across a river in a drought area turning it into summer fallow and perhaps that perception changes. We should not get carried away with these claims. We have to use common sense. Concentrated bison herds can present problems.
Bison are not furry cattle and there was much discussion concerning finishing bison like cattle versus grass feeding. We heard about finishing of the bison bulls to have a consistent product. We cannot have it both ways. We have to walk the talk. Perceptions of bison vary even amongst ourselves. When our grandparents went to the local market they brought butter, eggs, maybe some bacon or beef to sell. They had to provide a consistent quality product because every week they had to look their buyers in the eye. They were told yes, we will buy it again or no, I do not like it. We too are in that position.
We heard about some innovative successful models for processing and products. We talked about marketing "us" and the bison. The people here are just as important to that marketing message as the product that we have. If we stand behind our product the markets will look after themselves. Our meat product is not competitive on the protein counter in terms of price. Whether it be Prairie Dogs or other processed products do not get caught up in the commodity business.
A dream catcher is the heartbeat of the Bison Nation. It's where you want to be but if you do not have that mission in your heart you will not succeed in your day to day aspects.
What are our challenges? First of all, we are not in the beef business. I maintain that if we follow the cattle industry we are in a risky situation. Risky, risky, risky. Our market image is fragmented but that can be a strength as well as a weakness. We need to remember that there are a lot of horses for different courses and there are a lot of markets out there that require slightly different images. We can provide them.
We have not put enough attention on image because we are not big enough in what I call unique products and meal solutions. A meal solution is, when I pick up the phone or use the internet to order dinner for myself, or my guests, and then I pick it up or have it delivered - a gourmet meal that is perfect. It is quick, no work, tasty and maybe expensive but worth it.
People in urban centers can do this easily. The fastest growing portion of our disposable dollars is spent on food. Meal solutions include the package of junk food or chocolate bars people pick up all the time. Products and opportunities are available in this area.
We are in the entertainment food business. Look in any place that conveys food and you will see food that we think we have to eat food that has nothing to do with keeping us alive or meeting our nutritional requirements. Like popcorn at a movie. I will wager that most of us will pay $5.00 for a big bag of popcorn that contains $0.02 of popping corn. We just paid $4.98 for entertainment. We are talking about meal solutions and entertainment food. That is our business.
Demography is changing dramatically. There is an increasing proportion of our North American population that has different roots and tastes than ourselves. Their image of a bison is not the same as ours. We may have to introduce them to bison and educate them. We have an integrated food chain that we are putting together but it lacks market pull.
We need a deep pocket that will support us through this next period while we go from cottage industry, through the pains of market development and into a sustainable market. Our job is to change the challenges into opportunities. The opportunities are there. We must produce what sells not sell what we produce. We have different aspects of that within our alliances, fortunately those alliances end up in some direct relationship with the consumer. We are ideally positioned.
Unlike our grandparents who had to bring their products to market, the last thirty years of marketing and processing has divorced us from the masses that believe milk comes from a carton at Safeway. That is our advantage. We in this industry are committed, still involved with product development and still in involved with telling the consumer what a great product we have, we stand behind it and our heart is there.
I say be proactive. We live in an era where perceptions are made real in 30-second media clips. Facts are negotiable. Let us put that into context. A question was asked some years ago. Where will the media business be in fifteen years? Well unbelievably, with camcorders everyone is now a potential reporter and with satellite communications anyone can talk with anyone at any time. News has become immediate and in your face. The Gulf War was brought to us minute by minute. Even the participants of both sides watched TV to have the most up to date information on the progress of the war. For the first time in history there is no filtering of the news. All of a sudden it is a different world completely. We need to be there.
What business are we in?
Twenty five years ago I used to think it was the cow business or the bison business but someone told me that I was really in the grass business. It turned my whole thinking around. Now I say we are in the water, sunlight, and soil nutrient business. In short, yes, the grass business. This conference has brought this home to us emphatically. We are in the forage business and we market through a four legged, self-reproducing, bioreactor that we call a bison.
There is a behavioral trait of that particular vehicle that we market. The bison goes into the storm and through the storm. Everyone else goes the other way. This was a survival tactic and that is why they survived. The "Bison Predation" film we saw has an important lesson for us. See our competitors as the wolves. They know we have a good product, it is the best one around and they will take a cut out of it if we do not run together and protect the calves, the new entrepreneurs in our business, we will lose them and there will be some casualties. It is a good lesson and a wonderful marketing tool to have this competitive world represented by the wolves and the herd running together protecting the calves.
The film raised an interesting question. If those bison had stood their ground and not started to run they probably would not have had many problems with the wolves. But they let the wolves put them on the run. Will we allow our competitors to put us on the run so we expose our flanks and run into a problem in the future?
Can you imagine what your ancestors must have thought 100 years ago when every book they picked up said the bison are gone? Let me tell you ladies and gentlemen, your enthusiasm and dedication, your feel for the environment and the uniqueness of the bison say "bison are back", they are here to stay. They were here to stay a hundred years ago when the wolves were chasing the last few wood bison that were left and they are still here this winter with the wolves chasing them again.
The difference is, there are now literally thousands of producers that believe the bison are back. That heartfelt feeling and belief along with your actions whether it be handling bison on your ranch or developing new products or selling our product to our urban neighbors clearly say the bison are back. The actual delivery of these products that bring satisfaction to the consumer will ensure that the bison are here to stay. The challenge is yours. You cannot distinguish the people from the product. The bison run into the storm. You, in the bison industry are running into the storm. Remember, the wolves will cut you out and put you at risk if you turn and run the other way.