Pandemic fallout hits bison industry

Bison meat exports to the United States and Europe took a hit in the first three months of 2020.

Canada exported about $1.77 million worth of ground bison, ribeye, tenderloin and other products from Jan. 1 to March 31.

In 2019, during the same three months, Canada exported $6.1 million worth of bison meat.

The slowdown is directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown of restaurants across the U.S. and throughout the European Union.

Bison meat sales within Canada have also slowed, as the industry relies heavily on customers eating bison burgers and steaks at restaurants. With declining sales to Europe, the U.S. and within Canada, packing plants that slaughter bison have been killing fewer animals this spring.

That’s pulled prices down.

A few months ago, the price of a bison carcass was close to $5 per pound in Western Canada, said Dean Andres, who raises bison near Windthorst, in eastern Saskatchewan.

Now, prices on the rail have dropped to $3.50 per lb.

But that number isn’t precise.

“There’s no liquidity right now,” Andres said. “Any Canadian (bison) producers that are reliant on a Canadian plant or somebody to buy their calves, that market has, I don’t want to say collapsed, but that’s probably the most accurate word.”

Statistics Canada data illustrates the size of the export drop.

From Jan. 1 to March 31:

  • Bison exports to the U.S. were C$1.38 million. That’s down from $3.8 million in the first three months of 2019.
  • Sales to France were $81,000, compared to $479,000 in January to March of 2019.
  • Exports to Switzerland were $113,00, down from $532,000 in January to March of 2019.

“The (meat) inventories in Canada are scary right now,” Andres said. “It was destined for Europe or restaurants and then when things shut down… a lot of marketers were stuck.”

There are three federally inspected bison processing plants in Western Canada: Bouvry Exports in Fort Macleod, Alta., Canadian Premium Meats in Lacombe, Alta., and True North Foods in Carman, Man.

High-end cuts of bison from those plants, like sirloins, tenderloins and ribeyes, would normally be exported to Europe. But the price of air freight has become a massive barrier.

“We’re paying $15 a (kilogram) to ship in there…. Freight is usually around $3 per kilo,” Andres said, explaining that European customers pay a price for bison meat that include a specific price for shipping. Canadian exporters cover the cost of the extra freight.

“We’re all crossing our fingers…. Airlines flying would definitely help the Canadian bison market. Because most of the bison that are slaughtered, part of the carcass does go to Europe.”

Within Canada, the bison trade sells the majority of meat to restaurants and food service companies. A small percentage is sold at grocery stores.

Bison marketers are trying to reverse those percentages to satisfy the realities of the pandemic.

“They’re pivoting to serve the retail marketplace. (But) that doesn’t happen in two weeks,” said Terry Kremeniuk, Canadian Bison Association executive director.

Exports may be down but the industry is not collapsing, said Robert Johnson, who raises bison in Fairlight, Sask.

Several companies are seeing a “surge in orders” for bison meat in major Canadian markets, Johnson said in an email.

“The producers that choose to direct market their finished bison to consumers have seen an incredible increase in orders,” he said. “They are beginning to reach out to other producers who have had loads cancelled by the major commercial marketers to try and procure extra animals to try and fill their own orders.”

While bison meat exports to the U.S. have slowed, live bison exports are similar to 2019. From January to March live animal exports were worth $17.7 million, nearly a carbon copy of the $17.6 million in the first three months of 2019.

The American bison trade continues to slaughter and sell a significant number of animals, despite the closure of thousands of restaurants.

Bison is available at most grocery stores in the U.S., including major players like Costco, so the U.S. bison trade is better positioned to shift additional sales to retail.

Ranchers who export live bison to American buyers are faring better than other Canadian producers, Andres said.

“They have their loads booked for the year. So those guys are doing pretty well, even though the price has dropped quite a bit in the U.S.”

Something that could help bison producers is the federal Surplus Food Purchase Program, a $50 million initiative announced in early May. If the federal government would buy some of the bison meat in storage, more animals could be slaughtered and it might prop up bison prices and reduce the number of animals on feed.

“That offers some potential for the bison industry,” Kremeniuk said.

That’s one possibility but there’s no silver bullet solution, he added.

This may require direct aid to help with feeding costs, more sales to Canadian grocery stores and more air traffic, which would reduce the freight cost to Europe.

“We definitely need to get some retail (sales) going (in Canada). It seems like restaurants are going to be very, very slow coming back,” Andres said. “I think what’s most important right now is that we get back to killing bison, so we don’t clog up the supply chain.”

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