When most of us hear about bison and Montana, what comes to mind?

Usually, it is images of Yellowstone and free-roaming mammals of American history. While these animals have an important role in our North American heritage, bison is also becoming a popular item on restaurant menus across the country.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend a winter meeting of the Montana Bison Association. The organization represents the interests of ranchers raising bison commercially across the state and is an affiliate of the larger National Bison Association.

Image via National Bison Association
Image via National Bison Association

On Episode 018 of the Agriculture Proud Podcast, I visit with Jim Matheson, Assistant Director of the National Bison Association. We discussed bison ranching in the United States, how this may differ from wild bison on public lands or even cattle ranching. We also touched on the growth of bison meat markets and how that meat fills demand for certain consumers.

Facts About Bison Ranching

According to the latest U.S. Ag Census data, there are 162,110 commercial bison on private operations and 20,000 bison in public lands herds in the U.S. These bison are located on 2,564 farms and ranches, averaging close to 60 animals per herd. These population numbers are expected to increase as a new Ag Census takes place in 2017.

Bison raised commercially are used primarily for their meat, which is in great demand in growing niche markets. One of the biggest obstacles bison farmers and ranchers face for growth is limited capacity to harvest the animals. One farmer at the meeting this weekend said her processor would need to increase capacity by 25% just to meet demand of orders from current customers. That’s not even counting growth in business.

Uses of Bison Meat

Americans currently consume only 0.08 lbs/person of bison meat annually. Most of this is ground meat, but other forms include whole muscle cuts, jerky and snack foods. To put that in perspective, if everyone ate one 1/4 lb. bison burger today, that’s 3 times average annual consumption. Don’t worry, I did my fair share of increasing consumption of bison meat last weekend!

There is great value in by-products including hides, skulls, variety meats (for pet food) and fiber. A young bull bison can bring $4.70 per pound at market. That is more than double price of beef cattle! But it does take much longer for bison to arrive to market.

Mature cow size of bison is close to 1,100 lbs. A young bison bull will be harvested at 18 to 30 months of age, weighing an average of 1,130 lbs. In 2015, there were 51,790 head of bison harvested in the U.S. Of all the bison harvested for USDA inspection in the U.S., 34% are of Canadian origin.

You can learn more about bison ranching on NBA’s website – BisonCentral.com. The site also shares where you can find bison meat and a few recipes and tips for cooking bison. Be sure to connect with them on Facebook – National Bison Association.

I hope you enjoy this episode of the Agriculture Proud podcast. Check out all my episodes at BeefRunner.com/podcast.

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