The United States bison industry is asking for help.
A considerable amount of bison meat is consumed at restaurants but sitting down for a bison steak or bison brisket is not an option now because of restaurant closures caused by COVID-19.
As a result, bison producers are worried about sales and their finances.
“Restaurants and other foodservice customers have served as the primary outlets for valuable bison middle meats, specifically rib-eyes, strips, and tenderloins,” the U.S. National Bison Association said in a document released April 16: Covid 19 Impacts on the U.S. Bison Sector. “Together, these cuts comprise about nine percent of a typical carcass, but account for nearly 25 percent of the value. That demand has evaporated.”
On the positive side, more consumers are buying bison meat at the grocery store.
But almost all of it is ground bison, which sells at a lower price.
If restaurants remained closed or partially open for much of 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions, the bison industry will take a hit.
“If marketers are unable to capture the value of rib-eyes, strips and tenderloins, wholesale carcass prices could fall between US$30 – $50/cwt,” the National Bison Association said.
“That would erase roughly $250 in the value of a dressed bison carcass.”
On top of shuttered restaurants, a weak economy could have a lingering impact on the bison industry for a year or two.
That’s why the National Bison Association is asking the U.S. government for financial aid.
“That package proposes compensation of $210 for bison cows and bulls, $252 for finishing stock weighing between 400–800 lbs., and $294 for finished bison weighing more than 800 lbs,” the Association said.
The situation is different in Canada’s bison trade, but the American market has a massive influence on bison marketing and prices.
Brooks White, who runs a grain farm and raises bison near Pierson, Man., isn’t seeing a significant impact on his business. His main buyer distributes and sells bison meat to grocery stores.
Demand is actually strong.
“When you get down to the U.S. a lot of the big players like Whole Foods and Costco… carry it (bison),” he said. “The people we deal with… we haven’t seen a disruption. They are taking all contracts, as scheduled. Basically, they are taking it as fast as they can get it because the retail grocery world is ramped up.”
The bison marketers who sell to restaurants are trying to shift into retail and having some success, but the loss of the restaurant sales is a problem.
“One of the things I picked up from those guys (marketers), if they were traditionally selling those high-end cuts into restaurants they’re (now) having to store some of that in freezers,” White said. “Which isn’t a good signal.”
Canadian bison producers are somewhat protected by the exchange rate, as its cheaper for American buyers to source live bison or bison meat in Canada.
However, bison is a higher end product and in a time of economic distress, consumers may turn to cheaper protein options.
Ultimately, if U.S. bison market goes through a period of weakness, it will eventually have a ripple effect on Canadian producers, White said.
“It’s going to trickle back onto us,” he said. “The bison (sector), in general, relies on the U.S. market. A lot of our bison are exported into the U.S. Whether it is live or in a box.”
Bison prices in Canada have been “relatively stable,” said Terry Kremeniuk, Canadian Bison Association executive director.
But there is downward pressure on price, he added.
“It’s certainly having an impact on profitability of the industry,” he said. “One of the big challenges for the Canadian industry is their focus was on the food services marketplace. With the restaurants being shuttered… these marketers have had to pivot and direct their (product) to the retail marketplace.”
Direct financial aid to producers is more commonplace in the U.S., as the Canadian government prefers to support farmers with Business Risk Management (BRM) programs and interest free loans.
The Canadian Bison Association has contacted the federal ag minister about financial pressures in the bison sector.
“We’re certainly looking for a measure of support,” Kremeniuk said. “I expect we’ll be talking more about this, once we move a little further down the road…. (But) we’re not the only livestock sector at the table.”