Bison producers on firm footing, despite lower prices

CAMROSE, Alta. — Despite softening prices, the bison industry is still a great industry, said producers during the Alberta Bison Producers convention and sale.

“We’re coming down off historically high prices. It has affected prices all the way down to the calves,” said Steven Lunty, chair of the bison association.

“Frankly, we priced ourselves out of the market when it comes to hot, hanging weight. We have seen a slowdown of product in some of the market,” said Lunty, of Bentley, Alta.

In February, bison bulls brought $425 to $525 per hundredweight, down from $530 to $560 per cwt. in 2019. Similar bulls brought $550 to $600 per cwt. in 2018 and $600 to $650 per cwt. in 2017.

Bison producer Ivan Smith said a combination of things caused bison prices to drop, including meat prices that were too high, larger carcasses, and beef displacing bison in slaughter plants.

“I have been in it quite a while and seen some ups and downs. I still think our rail price, even if it dropped a little more, is still a lot more profitable than the beef industry,” said Smith.

As a bison producer and feeder, Smith has seen the reduced weaned calf prices at this farm. Two years ago, he bought weaned calves for $2,200 to $2,300 a calf. Last year he paid $1,400 to $1,600 for animals in the same class and this year he is paying $800 to $1,000.

“It is substantially less.”

Despite low calf prices, Smith said there is still good margin between the calf price and finished price.

“The industry is good. The cow calf guy had it really good for a few years and now the cow-calf guy has to retain their animals longer or accept the price of the down market.”

Lunty said while prices have softened, bison have started to make inroads into restaurants and grocery stores.

Noble Premium Bison has fresh meat products in Safeway, Sobeys, IGA and Thrifty’s. Canadian Rangeland Bison partnered with a burger maker and supplied bison burgers for A&W.

“That is fantastic to get that much meat out in so many people’s hands. As much as it sucks that the prices have come down, it was inevitable and I think this is where the price will settle,” said Lunty.

“To see these companies get out there and pound the pavement and get the product out there is a very good thing.”

A shortage of slaughter capacity across North America has slowed sales of bison from the farm. While the backlog of fat bison is getting smaller, bison producers need to work with the slaughter plants weeks in advance to ensure a space on the rail, said Smith.

Terry Kremeniuk, chair of the Canadian Bison Association said communication is key to sales.

“People who have been working with their marketer for years have been able to sell their product, maybe not when they want to, but the prices have been relatively stable for folks shipping to the U.S.”

About 20,000 bison are exported annually to the U.S. A portion of those are feeder animals.

Lunty said they will watch closely what happens if trade to the U.S. slows because of COVID-19.

“If the U.S. market closes, our industry and association is in big trouble. We rely heavily on the states in particular, not only for moving meat there, but live animals. There is lots of trade that goes across the border. The U.S. is our biggest trading partner and we are leaning heavily on it. So if that border does shut down, that would be cause for concern.”

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