MARSHALL - The magnificent beast that was nearly eradicated from the Great Plains to the point of extinction before the 1900s has steadily increased in numbers, and with it has been the growth of the commercial bison industry.
United States Department of Agriculture statistics reveal that the bison population - which most Americans refer to as the buffalo - that was once estimated to be more than 60 million was cut down to barely 300 by 1893.
The National Bison Association (NBA) reports that after a four-year decline in the bison industry beginning in 1999, the business began a resurgence in late 2003. In the past five years, consumer demand for bison meat has seen double-digit increases.
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Bison farmer Wayne Erbes feeds some of his herd on his farm Monday.
"The bison market is certainly on the rise financially, significantly in fact," said Gail Griffin, executive director of the Minnesota Buffalo Association (MnBA) and a past president of the NBA. "The demand for bison meat and the volume of meat sold is also growing. In the last two months nationally, we haven't been able to meet the demand (of the consumers)."
According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the U.S. bison herds have grown to nearly 200,000 head on 4,500 farms and ranches. Along with Colorado, Minnesota has the fifth-largest number of bison ranches (184). Texas leads the nation with 618. Minnesota is reported to have more than 13,000 bison.
After purchasing two cows and a bull eight years ago, Wayne Erbes of Marshall currently has 19 bison at his Double Cross Ranch. He became a member of the MnBA shortly after his start-up.
"I got into it at the right time, when it was a buyer's market," Erbes said. "It wasn't 10 years before that when calves were $800-$1,000. They were big-money. Now it's back up. There wasn't much under $1,000 this year at the sale (at Blue Mound State Park in Luverne). It's just the way it goes."
Raising the largest land animal had always been a dream for Erbes.
"They're neat animals," Erbes said. "Years ago, my grandpa lived about two miles from Kenny Kass' place and he had bison. I thought maybe someday I'd raise them. I like doing it. I probably don't make much money because I put everything back into the animals You do it for the love."
This year, Erbes had five calves born and he estimates that he'll butcher five bison that are between 24 to 30 months old - the prime age.
"I just butchered two last week," Erbes said. "When we get done, we get about 400 pounds of meat from an average heifer."
Carlson's Meat (locker) in Grove City processes Erbes' bison. Then Erbes sells his product to businesses and individuals.
"Every Saturday through October, I take some meat to the Farmers Market in Marshall," Erbes said. "The Landmark Bistro also purchases some for their Double Cross bison burgers on their menu. They'll buy steak for Monday steak nights, too."
Erbes often receives special requests from customers.
"I've sold a couple of skulls and even hearts and kidneys," Erbes said. "A Native American from Flandreau (S.D.) will buy hides. I also sell a lot of meat to the Upper Sioux in Granite Falls. This year, I bet I've sold an animal-and-a-half to them. It's been really good."
More and more consumers, including schools, are starting to realize the nutritional benefits of eating bison meat, so many bison producers are finding it hard to keep up with consumer demand.
"Health-wise, if bison are grass-fed, their meat is supposed to be higher than Omega-3," Erbes said. "It's something that is good for you. It's a really lean meat."
The NBA estimates that nearly 54,000 bison were processed under USDA inspection in 2009, which is 10 percent higher than in 2008 and double the number from 2002.
"People are having a hard time finding animals," Erbes said. "There's guys getting into the business and guys getting out of it. It's kind of a niche market. People that are looking for it, are looking for it for a reason."
While Erbes could easily sell more of his stock to the butcher, he is trying to build his herd.
"Two years ago, I bought five heifers from a guy and hopefully they'll come back and have babies this spring now," he said. "I want to keep that other bull because he's got a Custer Park background. The bull I'm using now, I'll probably trade to another guy to swap some genetics, or we'll make hamburger out of him and keep his head."
Raising bison has its challenges. In addition to being difficult to handle, ranchers need tall, strong fencing and a large area for the bison to roam. While bison typically feed on grass, there is also the cost of hay in the winter months and when pastures become depleted. This year, hay costs will likely skyrocket due to a wet summer/fall season.
"I usually get a couple of cuttings, but I only got one this year," Erbes said. "I like to have about 60 to 70 (1,000-pound) hay bales a year, but right now I only have 30 to 40. I do feed some corns stalks, too."