The following article is an excerpt out of an Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development publication called AG-Ventures, Commercial Bison Industry. It was written in 1997 and reflected the bison market at that time. Prices reflect 2001 prices.
Key marketing issues for bison producers are:
- identifying the different markets for bison products
- determining what products to produce and market
- determining which market(s) to sell products in
- determining how to access the particular market(s)
- ensuring that the customer receives a quality product
- staying aware of market trends that affect the demand for bison products
The primary markets for bison are the markets for breeding stock, the market for feeder animals and the market for slaughter animals. The markets for bison products include fresh meat, processed meat products, heads, hides and skulls.
Rapid expansion in commercial bison production has created a strong demand for heifer calves, bred heifers, bred cows. As a result, most available females are being used to increase breeding herds.
Recent (1997) prices for breeding stock in Alberta are estimated as follows:
|Breeding bulls||$3,500 to $5,000|
|Bred cows||$6,000 to $7,000|
|Heifer calves||$4,000 to $5,000|
(editor's note: Prices in the spring of 2001 are about:)
Individuals selling breeding stock may focus on producing and selling specific genetics. All producers of breeding stock need to focus on establishing a good reputation as a supplier of quality stock and having accurate performance records and health records readily available.
To date, little scientific study of genetic selection in bison has been done. Generally, buyers will focus on the following factors when purchasing breeding stock:
- general health and body condition
- calving performance. One recommendation is for buyers to purchase cows from herds with a calving rate of 90 to 95 percent.
Currently, the demand for bison meat is greater than the available supply. However, the supply of bison meat is growing and the future balance between supply and demand is unknown.
The demand for fresh bison meat and processed meat products will influence the following markets for bison bulls:
- backgrounding operations, that buy young bulls at a weaning weight of about 450 pounds and raise them on grass to 850 pounds
- finishing feedlots that purchase yearlings (less than 18 months of age) weighing around 850 pounds
- processors who purchase bulls for slaughter weighing 1,050 to 1,100 pounds at less than 24 months of age. The meat from older animals is generally tougher with more gristle.
Bison meat is a lean, dark-colored red meat with a beef-like flavor. Bison meat appeals to consumers who are seeking a low fat, low cholesterol, low calorie alternative to beef or pork. Bison meat has shorter muscle fibers (denser) than beef and is produced naturally.
Bison meat commands a premium over beef and pork due to its nutritional benefits and its appeal to individuals who are attracted to products with a natural image.
The nutrient composition of bison meat, compared to other meats, is given in Table No. 3.
Table No. 3 Nutrient Composition of Various Animal Products
|Three Ounce Serving||Calories||Fat||Cholesterol|
|Bison||93||1.8 g||43 mg|
|Turkey||125||3.0 g||59 mg|
|Beef||183||8.7 g||55 mg|
|Chicken||140||3.0 g||77 mg|
Bison Production, Economic and Production Information for Saskatchewan Producers; Sustainable Production Branch, Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food; February 1995; p.2.
Bison meat is generally sold in the following forms:
- Carcasses sold to wholesalers and retailers. Carcasses allow the producer to market large quantities in a shorter period of time.
- Primal-Cuts are produced by breaking the carcass into round, sirloin, shortloin, rib, plate, flank, chuck and shanks.
- Primal-cuts are marketed to retailers and restaurants who break them into individual cuts to meet their customers needs.
- Custom cutting to produce individual steaks, roasts and burger for marketing directly to consumers in local and regional markets.
- Producers selling bison meat can access these markets through:
- developing local customers and selling the meat (individual cuts) directly to these consumers
- selling primal cuts to specialty meat shops, to restaurants and through custom orders
- selling carcasses to distributors and brokers who in turn seek and develop markets for the product
Producers marketing their own bison meat will need to ensure their consumers receive a quality product. Factors such as type of animal (conformation), feeding program, handling practices, processing practices, as well as packaging and marketing will all influence the quality of their product.
Bison sold directly to consumers must be processed in provincially licensed plants. Producers choosing to market their own bison meat will need to arrange for the slaughter and processing of their animals. The following details will need to be established when dealing with a processor:
- specifications for boning, boxing, cuts, cooling temperatures and aging
- which of the by-products or body parts will go to the producer
- specifications (such as fat content) for the burger
- how the cuts will be wrapped
Producers who are marketing bison meat directly to consumers should:
- be familiar with their product
- know and understand the requirements of the market they are selling to
- have a thorough knowledge of the cuts and how to prepare them for eating.
- have a thorough knowledge of the regulations for meat processing and inspection.
Currently, domestic consumption of bison meat tends to be strongest in gourmet or specialty markets, but these markets are limited in size. Increased consumption of bison meat will require developing new and larger markets.
Developing domestic markets for Canadian bison meat will require an industry-wide initiative that includes the following:
- determining who potential customers are by defining consumers according to characteristics such as geography, income, age and attitudes
- developing an advertising and promotion campaign that delivers a specific message to the potential customers
- developing markets for secondary cuts to complement the strong markets for hamburger and the prime cuts
- providing a consistent and reliable supply of bison meat for consumers
The product and service needs of larger markets are being met through producer run marketing organizations. They co-ordinate production, processing, distribution and marketing activities in order to provide a consistent and reliable supply of slaughter animals to processors. They also ensure that a consistent and reliable supply of bison meat is available to consumers.
The Statistics Canada (1991) figures presented in Table No. 4, measure Canadian consumption of various meat products.
Table No. 4 Canadian Consumption of Meat Products
|Meat Products||Total Consumption (‘000 lbs.)||Per Capita Consumption (lb)|
Bison Production, economic and Production information for Saskatchewan Producers; Sustainable Production Branch, Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food; February 1995; p.3.
European countries are providing strong export markets for bison meat. As well, European countries, with large populations, high levels of purchasing power and a history of consuming exotic meats, are felt to have significant potential demand for bison meat.
The following estimates of future demand for bison meat were derived from in-person interviews.
Table No. 5 Current and Projected Demand for Bison Meat
|Country||1994 Demand (tonnes)||Projected Demand for the Year 2000|
|Number of slaughtered bison required||440||4,720*|
|% of Canadian slaughter||23.2||66.2|
|% of US slaughter||5.0||16.0|
|% of North American slaughter||4.1||12.9|
|*Based on 30 per cent of Carcass exported|
European Opportunities for Alberta Bison meat Products; Farming For the Future Research Project 93-0323; Agrinomics Inc.
Calgary AB; September 1994; p. 31
Canadian producers, especially those in Alberta, have several advantages for accessing European markets. They are:
- the exchange rate for the Canadian dollar
- several slaughter and processing facilities in Alberta that are approved for shipping product to the European Union
- the Canadian bison meat grading system that facilitates the exporting of high valued meat
- an abundant supply of low cost feed and grassland to support breeding herds
The development of European markets for bison is limited by the low number of bison currently available for slaughter. In order to access and develop the European markets for bison meat, the Canadian bison industry needs to:
- gain the ability to provide a year-round supply of high value carcass cuts
- develop a willingness to provide different carcass cut and different carcass specifications to different markets
- develop the ability to consistently meet high product and service expectations
- develop access to European markets through specialty meat importers and distributors in order to access the high end restaurant and hotel markets
- commit the time and resources to introduce and promote bison meat at food trade shows, in trade publications and
- directly to importers and distributors
- provide education, support and information to importers, distributors, processors and consumers
The hindquarters of bison carcasses, typically cut into steaks and roasts, are the preferred product in the European markets. The Canadian bison industry needs to develop domestic markets for forequarters cuts that don't meet the needs of European consumers.
Other bison meat products include hamburger for restaurants, canned bison meat, bison jerky and processed bison foods that utilize the less valued cuts. These products are marketed as snack foods that are high in protein and low in fat. Developing markets for these products requires dealing with product development, packaging, processing and market servicing issues.
A small market for bison trophy heads exists. The value of a bison head is determined by the process used to remove the head, the hide and the taxidermy work.
Bison skulls are a popular decorating and art item. The value of skulls is determined by the condition and quality of the individual skull. Marketing efforts should be directed at western art or native art interests.
Bison heads and bison skulls with horns intact have significantly greater value than those without horns. Managers need to weigh the production advantages of removing the horns versus selling horned skulls.
Most bison hides are processed for leather. However, hides harvested when the winter wool is in its prime can be used to produce bison robes. Proper skinning, processing and handling are all necessary to produce high quality, marketable products. Bison hides are used in both the fashion industry and where heavy duty leather is required. Bison robes can be marketed as wall hangings, furniture throws and rugs.
Green hides are currently worth $70, but individual managers may be able to increase this amount by developing business relationships in the hide market.
The markets for bison products are not fully developed. As a result, the full market potential for Canadian bison products is uncertain. New entrants to bison production must be prepared to:
- carefully assess the balance between the supply and the demand for bison products and the prices available for bison products
- determine the costs of producing the bison products and gaining access to export and domestic markets
- determine the processing requirements of bison and the ability of existing processing plants to process bison for meat markets and bison product markets
- assess the ability of the industry to continue to develop new and wider markets for bison meat.
- deal with high start up costs, uncertain prices and having to wait several years before realizing a return on investment.