Bison market returns to glory days

Bison prices are reminiscent of the sky-high prices of the 1990s, but without the speculation.

“We’re back in the day when bison were fetching big prices for breeding stock,” said Ivan Smith, who farms near Penhold, Alta.

“But this is a true meat market.”

Smith believes bison prices will remain high for several years be-cause of the strong meat market.

A dozen Wood bison heifer calves fetched $7.25 a pound at a Feb. 10 bison sale in North Battleford, Sask.

The 438 lb. average for the calves from the Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch in Fort McMurray, Alta., were the top sellers.

“It was a crazy market. Those were the ones everyone was after,” said Smith.

Paying more than $3,000 for bison heifer calves harkens back to the halcyon days when producers were diversifying into emu, ostrich, deer, elk and bison. It wasn’t uncommon for buyers to pay $10,000 to $15,000 for breeding bison.

Brendan Kramer, sales manger with Kramer Auction in North Battleford, said the super high prices at the recent auction were specifically for breeding animals from the Beaver Creek herd.

“These were premium, replacement quality genetics that don’t get offered more than once a year,” said Kramer.

“This herd is very documented and detailed in its history. It is one of the last pure Wood herds.”

Wood bison are larger than Plains bison, and pure Woods are sought after for crossbreeding with the smaller Plains species.

The 530 bison sold at the auction attracted buyers from across Western Canada and the United States.

“It’s exciting times,” said Kramer.

Three three-year-old bred heifers from the same herd sold for $8,000 each, and two two-year old heifers sold for $5,600 each.

A pen of two-year bulls from Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch, which averaged 923 pounds, sold for $5.70 per lb., or slightly more than $5,200 each.

A group of yearling bulls from Hanging Maple Ranch in Lloyd-minster sold for more than $3,300.

The strong prices are encouraging bison producers to expand their herds and attracting new buyers into the industry, said Smith, who also bought bison heifers from the sale.

Roger Van Haren of Lacombe, Alta., said the weaker Canadian dollar, a strong demand for meat from the U.S. and Europe, and a shortage of bison has created the strong prices.

“There is great meat demand, and it is driving the prices,” said Van Haren. “We’ve had four good years in a row, and things are only getting better.”

Armin Mueller of Canadian Rangeland Bison and Elk said bison have turned into the “Cadillac or Rolls Royce” of the meat industry.

“I think the good times are here for the bison industry for years to come,” he said.

Unlike Canadian beef, which competes against Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil and other beef-producing countries, bison are raised only in Canada and the U.S., and international buyers can’t get enough of the meat.

“There is no competition, and we have a unique product,” said Mueller, whose company exports bison meat around the world.

Even the high prices aren’t deterring buyers.

“We’re still moving meat, even at those high prices.”

Mueller worries that Canadian bison producers take the European market for granted. Instead of raising a calf, selling it through an auction market, fattening it in a feedlot and then shipping it to slaughter, Mueller believes bison should be finished on the farm where they were raised to maintain the pure bison image.

“Having 5,000 head in a feedlot is not the image we want to create,.”

Instead, bison producers need to promote the bison image of being raised on the range with no antibiotics and added hormones and having a gentle life.

“There’s so much more we can market.”

Bison are natural animals for the Prairies, and with an insatiable demand for the meat, Mueller can see two to three million bison back on the land.

“They’re an awesome animal. It’s the most natural meat.”

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