Former cattle ranchers find buffalo are more self-sufficient than cattle.
Bison meat prices soar as the world chooses buffalo for the barbie.
Like other former cattle ranchers, Bill Bouffioux is a bison convert. There’s a lot to love about the majestic creatures, whose brown eyes and dense beards suggest an erudite serenity commensurate with their heft. Mature bulls weigh about 900 kilos, and females peak at around 540. Fur density matches their weight: bison have 13,000 to 14,000 hairs per square inch, double the 7,000 hairs on a square inch of cow.
Buffalo vs. cattle
They’re wild animals, but compared to cattle, raising bison is a breeze, says Bouffioux. The son of a homesteader who established one of the first cattle ranches in Peace River country in 1919, Bouffioux raised cattle at his family’s 1,300-hectare XY Ranch in Fort St. John for 27 years. But long calving seasons, regular infections and messy grounds work took their toll. On the advice of a bison-loving neighbour, Bouffioux bought his first dozen bison heifers in 1989. Two years later, he switched over entirely.
“Once we had them for a while, we realized, Hey, these guys can look after themselves,” he says. They’re smarter, less wasteful and less prone to illness than cattle.
Beyond the pleasure of raising bison, a recent spike in demand has Bouffioux making a profit these days. He recently took home a $1,522 cheque for a bison cow that had borne 16 calves in her 20 years on the ranch. Four years ago, the same bison would have sold for $100 or less. In 2006 Bouffioux took four bison cows to an auction and walked away with just $22.
Bison bulls sold for meat fetch even more. A two-year-old bull will sell today for upwards of $2,000, yielding about 270 kilos of meat, he says. Prices have risen alongside demand: wholesale prices for Grade A bison meat reached $3.45 a pound in October 2010, up from $2.75 in October 2009, according to the Canadian Bison Association. “The meat brokers are phoning us now. We don’t have to phone them,” Bouffioux says.
Bison meat demand
Ranchers have been unable to keep up with soaring demand. As president of the B.C. Bison Association, Bouffioux submits an annual herd inventory to the provincial government, and he says there are about 5,680 bison in B.C., according to the association’s 2009 count, down from 12,000 in 2006. Local ranchers have responded by holding back their breeding stock to ensure herd expansion, but prices are expected to remain high for at least a couple of years while ranchers struggle to catch up with demand.
Former cattle rancher Bob Wilson now owns the 97-hectare Morning Star Bison Ranch near Nanaimo. Citing burgeoning demand for the lean, low-cal alternative to beef, he says he receives weekly phone calls from restaurateurs asking for bison meat at wholesale prices. “I’ve had calls from New York City asking for everything I can produce and then some,” he says. But he regularly turns them down, focusing instead on his loyal local customers, for whom he hasn’t adjusted prices to meet the market upswing.
Wilson plans to capitalize on bison’s rising popularity this year by opening his property for tourists and the film industry. “I see a lot of potential,” he says. “People are fascinated with the bison.”