The Salt
6:57 am
Wed December 21, 2011

South Dakota Buffalo Farmers Relish Bison Meat Boom

2011 wasn't a banner year for the stock market, and anyone heavily invested in the Euro zone might be biting their nails right now. But if your business is buffalo, you may be looking at some very happy holidays.

The buffalo market is booming. Look no further than the buffalo ambling across the wide open South Dakota prairie munching on grass as they go. Bison raised on grass don't require corn or grains to fatten up. That's part of why they're seen by many as better for the environment.

Dan O'Brien is the founder of the Wild Idea Buffalo Company. He raises free range, grass-fed bison near the South Dakota Badlands. O'Brien says the market for buffalo is exploding. "We've put 10 people to work during this recession — this horrible recession we're going through — and that makes me feel like we're moving the ball a little bit up the field here," says O'Brien.

This year O'Brien opened a new processing plant to package and ship buffalo meat. His company hopes to hit the $1 million mark, double last year's revenue.

One of the buyers of O'Brien's buffalo meat is Tally's restaurant in downtown Rapid City — where Kevin Weiland chowed down on a buffalo burger. Besides being a lover of buffalo meat, Weiland is a medical doctor who wrote the book Dakota Diet. It touts the health benefits of buffalo.

"Everyone talks about salmon and how healthy salmon is and how much omega-3 fatty acids are in the salmon," says Weiland. "I call [the grass-fed buffalo] the salmon of the prairie."

But the spike in demand for buffalo has lead to a shortage in supply. To make up for the shortage, bison industry officials are lobbying traditional cattle ranchers to switch to buffalo. But it's not an easy sell.

The cattle market is so strong right now that investing in the new fences and equipment can be unappealing. In addition, Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, says that buffalo prices have a boom and bust history.

"The buffalo market has been very volatile," says Christen. "It's really strong right now; it's been strong in the past and there were some years where you couldn't give them away. While it has its ups and downs in the market, beef tends to be more steady."

Buffalo are still a tiny market. There are about 105 million cattle on the continent compared to about 400,000 bison. South Dakota is the country's largest buffalo producer. The biggest bison rancher is media mogul Ted Turner; he owns more than 50,000 head. (See a bison recipe from his ranch here.)

Back at the Wild Idea Buffalo Company, workers are counting and packaging ground buffalo meat; some is bound for holiday gift boxes. The company is riding the tide of Internet sales this season and filling more orders than ever. Dan's wife, Jill O'Brien, manages the company. She says her free range, grass-fed bison are the fastest-growing part of the industry.

"The more that people become educated and aware that what they put in their mouth has a direct impact [on] their health and the health of the land — I don't see it slowing down at all," she says.

Ray is a reporter for South Dakota Public Radio.

Copyright 2011 South Dakota Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.sdpb.org/radio/.