National Bison Association
4701 Marion Street, Suite 100
Denver, CO USA 80216
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.
The advantage of bison is a very broad issue. Are we speaking about the advantages of raising bison over beef, sheep, wheat, tobacco, or watermelons? Are we speaking about the nutritional advantages of bison over other meats?
The bison advantage is dependent upon context and definition of both who is attempting to define the advantage, and to what audience that definition is being given. If you are talking to watermelon growers about how great raising bison is, you will have one set of advantages. If you are talking to a potential meat customer, you will have a different set of advantages.
I am not an expert on raising bison and I am not going to attempt to give you the list of advantages of raising bison over watermelons. I am not an expert on the nutrient composition of bison meat, and therefore am not going to give you that list either. There are many more people in the room here today who can provide those answers.
But I know what those two lists are. Just as I am sure that each of you know them. And I can recite them like a mantra. I do it often in interviews. Bison meat is lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than beef, pork, or skinless chicken. Bison are tough, hardy animals that are easy calvers, have a long production life, require minimal handling...
What I would like to talk about, is the advantage the bison industry has today. And let me provide the scope of what I see as the industry. It starts at the cow/calf operation; moves through the finishing operation; includes the premium breeding stock segment; has a direct connection to the fencing, handling equipment, and transport guys; moves on to the slaughter plant operators; on to the meat wholesalers and retailers; and then to our food service, restaurant, and private consumer customers.
It is a pretty big scope. But it can be even bigger if you want to throw in the close to 40 associations, the research institutions and the contractors, such as Arnold Media Services and GlobalRanch.com.
How in the world can we guide this industry to a strong future? We must utilize one of our strongest advantages - our size. And specifically, our small size as compared to other industries. The bison industry is rapidly growing and we must take advantage of the opportunity we currently have to set it on the path to a strong future. If we wait, our larger size might actually become a disadvantage.
I think it would be extremely interesting to go ask cattle producers, or hog producers, to define when they lost control of their industry. How did big business take over? My guess is that as each segment of their industry grew, the participant in that segment, whether it be the cow/calf operator, the finishing operator, or the meat wholesaler, began concentrating on their one segment.
We must not let that happen. The cow/calf operator must worry about the final consumer of the bull calves he sold 2 years ago. He must invest as much into selling the meat as he does into putting up hay.
We are lucky. We have a group of visionaries who see what the bison industry can be. Many of those are the directors of the national, state or provincial, regional, county and now even city bison producer associations. We have a group of visionaries who are dedicated to keeping strong prices going back to the producers. We have leaders who understand and realize that we must market bison meat to consumers and must market the advantages of raising bison to anyone who has a few acres of land. We must continue to think ahead to what our industry will be in 5, 10, and 50 years, and plan for that structure now - or the producer will lose that advantage and the bison industry will put up fences between the different segments.
Our other advantage in the bison industry is our youth. And I'm not talking about personal youth. Just look at Del Hensel. Not many would consider him a spring calf.
But our industry is young. We are excited about our future, just as we were excited about our personal future while we were in school. I don't see that with other agricultural industries. They are all in the "mature" phase. Those people are crying about cycles, investments into their check-offs, control by big business, and other problems.
We all have plans for this industry. We all want to succeed. We all want to make lots of money. But again, we can learn from others. There is more to life than money. We must build a solid foundation for ourselves to ensure a happy, long life.
I was in North Dakota last week, visiting with a well-known, long-time producer. We were going over all the different things that were going on in the industry - and the discussion turned to human nature. He then said something that was very applicable to the industry. What he said was that he used to tell his kids over and over, that what was popular was not always right.
If you think about that, I think it is pretty applicable to some of what we are seeing today. Making money is very popular, but making a nickel at the expense of your neighbor, is not always right. We must slow down and take a look at what we are doing. We must make certain that our decisions will benefit the entire industry as well as ourselves.
Now - before you think that I am advocating a 3,500 person SuperGlobalBisonCoop, let me assure you that I am not. Competition is a good thing. It keeps everyone on their toes. Market fluctuations will occur, and I am certain that we will see more. Some companies and producers will come and go. That is the nature of any industry.
But I do think we can take advantage of our size and youth. We can learn by looking at other industries. We can learn by applying strong personal and moral values to our businesses. We can invest in our future. We can all strive to ensure that we have visionaries leading our associations. We can all attempt to be visionary with our own businesses and business decisions.
I guess it is strange to think of small size and youth as advantages. I hope some of my philosophical extrapolations will generate some personal reflective thoughts on your part. You may certainly raise a few eyebrows when you try to explain the bison advantage as small size and youth.
But we are at a critical time in our industry. We are beginning to see segments promote themselves over other segments. There is a saying that rocket scientists use to describe a group of people who are each going in their own direction - all thrust and no vector.
Let us use our advantages to their fullest. Let's set the bison industry on a vector toward a common destination - a strong future.