Bison producers cater to consumers’ roaming-the-range image

QUEBEC CITY — The public perception is that bison live out their days from birth to death grazing in pastures. However, bison in North America are often finished for about 90 days with some type of grain ration, often in a feedlot.

Lee and Mary Graese of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, match reality with public perception.

Animals on their 1,200 acre Northstar Bison ranch are raised entirely on grass and usually killed where they stand in the pasture to reduce stress and maximize meat quality.

Lee, a former power lifter, and Mary, a dietician, spoke about their operation at the International Bison Conference in Quebec City July 25.

“There’s a lot of image of the bison having a happy life in the pastures, and I believe that’s a big part of why this animal and their meat is so appealing,” Mary said.

The couple and their four children, who each have their own bison herd, sell 60 percent of their production direct to consumers and the rest through the wholesale sector.

“We have never met demand,” Lee told those at the meeting.

To get closer to meeting demand, the Graeses pay 14 ranchers to raise grass-fed bison according to specified standards. Their vertically integrated operation includes a processing plant and they are now building a fabrication facility.

Mark Silzer, president of the Canadian Bison Association, said in a post-convention interview that there is a definite market for bison that is entirely grass-fed.

However, many bison producers choose to finish their animals on grain to achieve consistency desired by wholesale and retail customers.

“Also, from its appearance on the shelf, a grain-finished product produces more white fat and so it had maybe a little bit more appeal that way to some consumers.”

He said most grass-fed operations tend to be more local in nature. Those, combined with larger grain-finished operations, help meet different customer needs.

He said bison are still on grass for most of their life and are put on grass at the end to access other markets.

“In fact, the European market demands it.”

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